The following is an interview Allison Abra, Warden/Vice-Chancellor at St John’s College, and Matthew Bowman, Dean of Residence at St John’s College.
Can you speak briefly about what St John’s is and the work that the college does?
Allison: St John’s is the educational institution for the Diocese of Rupert’s Land. We were founded in 1866 and then became a constituent founding college of the University of Manitoba in 1877. Our relationship with both U of M and the diocese has evolved over time, but we maintain close ties with both institutions. Our current student and faculty base are generally all U of M students from a range of different disciplines across the university, but we retain control of our Theology program. We also maintain independent food service and catering operations and a student residence.
Over the last year, St John’s has been involved in housing numerous Ukrainian refugees; can you say a bit about how this came to be?
Allison: St John’s hosts a lot of events both for U of M and for the community, and we held one at the college in June. A friend of mine happened to be present and I was chatting with her about the fact that someone she knew had been put in charge of finding housing for newly arrived Ukrainians and the challenge it had been because so many hotels were booked. We happened to be standing in the part of the college that has a big glass wall that looks out onto our quad towards our residence, and I pointed to it and suggested it as an option. Since U of M was mostly remote from March of 2020 until the summer of 2022, there weren’t a lot of students on campus, and our residence was not full. Within a few days, I got a call from the province, and we started conversations with them. We signed a contract in mid-July and by late July/early August we had our first folks moving in.
How does the program work?
Matthew: Canada set up the Canada- Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel, which essentially allows refugees to live for up to 3 years in Canada on a visitor’s visa, with the ability to work. People stayed with us soon after arriving in the country while they looked for permanent housing. We have hosted around 200 people in total, for varying lengths of time. Some were with us for several months.
Are there any moments that stand out in your memory from the last year of involvement in this program?
Allison: I have three that speak to the ways that the Ukrainians really became part of our community, but also to how meaningful this was for some of them and for us as well.
At the start of the academic year our student council hosts an event called Jumpstart . It usually involves a BBQ meal and has the goal of engaging the student community at the college, including students in residence. The Ukrainians were invited to this, and we all ate together in our Cross Common Room. The student council had planned games for afterwards and several Ukrainians stayed for them. I have a memory of sitting at tables with students and a few of our Ukrainian newcomers playing bingo. It was just really cool to see. It was the first real big interaction I had seen between the students and the Ukrainians..
Then, in December the college hosted a Christmas jazz concert that was a fundraiser for chaplaincy and for the Emmanuel Mission Learning Centre downtown at Holy Trinity Anglican Church. We knew that we hadn’t oversold the chapel, so Matthew sent all the Ukrainians an email inviting them to come to the Christmas concert if they wanted, for free. When the concert started, I went to the front of the Chapel to welcome people to the college, and there was one Ukrainian that was in the audience, which was great. But then after the concert was over, I turned around to see that two full pews of Ukrainians had shown up after intermission. It just made me happy, because it’s this festive, lovely event and I was glad that they had chosen to experience it. And some of them told Matthew how much they had enjoyed it.
But probably the most special memory was back in October. We have banquets for our residents that are planned by the Residence Council that tend to be tied to some holiday or season. We were sitting at the Halloween banquet and one of the Ukrainians, Denys
Gerashchenko came up to say that he was leaving the College the next day, but he wanted to thank us for the opportunity to stay with us. He then told us he is an artist, but that since the war began, he hadn’t been able to produce any art. He was just feeling so down about everything that it stifled his creativity. But since coming to St John’s, he had felt that creativity return. And he made a piece of art for us. It was really moving, because I think, like everyone, all of us here have been so horrified at what’s been happening in Ukraine. To feel like we can do something to support people that have been displaced, it’s just been really gratifying.
Matthew: You had Ivan Safarov at Jumpstart as well, right?
Allison: Yes, that’s right. One of our very first folks to stay in the residence, Ivan Safarov, ended up getting hired to join our food service staff. We have two Ukrainians now working for the college, one of whom lived here briefly with us and one of whom did not. Ivan is also a musician who appeared on X-Factor in Ukraine, so the student council hired him to do some numbers at Jumpstart, which was great.
Matthew: For myself, I had the same experiences as Allison at banquets, et cetera. In general, though, my interactions were largely administrative. I’ve had people come in with their phone and press the button to get Siri or Google to listen and translate and then they just hold the phone in my face, like “Now it’s your turn to talk back.” Other times I’ve sort of turned my computer monitor and typed while they’ve typed on their phone—all to sort of make it work.
What have the benefits been for St. John’s of having Ukrainian refugees stay with you?
Allison: I think that all of us just felt grateful that we could as individuals, but also as the college, contribute to supporting people that are suffering as a result of this terrible war. I think it’s also been a good educational experience for our students, the ones in residence especially, living side-by-side with folks as they passed through. When I started at the college in July of 2021, we were down to about 25% occupancy in the residence. Those students were really wonderful to have here because it reminded us every day why we do what we do. But I think having the Ukrainians come in and suddenly have the residence be almost full for the first time since Matthew and I had worked here was a good reminder to everyone about what the college is. It helped us as an institution revive and renew after a long, hard period of the pandemic.
Matthew: Also, I think this made the social life of the residents livelier. Having 30 people at a banquet versus 60 or 70—it would have been sort of sad.
I understand that the contract with the provincial government for this program will be ending soon. Are there ways in which you think this work will live on?
Allison: It’s not on this scale, but the college does have a history of supporting refugees. There was a program amidst the war in Syria where the college housed several Syrian students in the residence. We also have had a long relationship with a student from South Sudan who came here as an international student. Our former chaplain and current chaplain worked closely with him to help him apply for refugee status and ultimately permanent residency in Canada, which has been achieved in the last few months. So, it’s always been part of our mission, but I think that the experience with the Ukrainians has opened our eyes to the possibilities.
We have a faculty fellow who is affiliated with the college; she’s a sociologist named Lori Wilkinson who’s also a Canada Research Chair in Migration Futures. We’ve been talking with her about potential roles that the college could take on in this way in the future to continue supporting refugees, but also in ways that would carry out our educational mission. We’re exploring potentially providing housing to refugees that are also pursuing studies at U of M.
Matthew: We’ve also made partnership relationships with MANSO, which is the Manitoba Newcomer Settlement Organization and New Journey Housing, both of which help new Canadians find permanent housing. There’s the need for housing in Winnipeg, in Manitoba, in Canada for refugees. We have made clear to MANSO and New Journey Housing that our doors are still open. As long as we have rooms available, we’re happy to have people move in.
Do you have any thoughts on how other Anglican churches or institutions might make use of their resources to support refugees?
Matthew: I’ve written down “Don’t be afraid to take risks and to think outside the box,” but also to “not reinvent the wheel.” Parishes don’t exist on their own in isolation. Neighbourhoods are up to interesting things. Anglicans are great at striking committees and considering things and having meetings and discussions, but we’re not so good at saying: Maybe there’s already people with expertise in this, in the neighbourhood, or down the street, or in the city. And maybe we should be asking where we can help as opposed to starting to try something from scratch all on our own.
It’s also about trying to focus not on future possible scarcity, but on our existing blessings.
Allison: I would say we were trying to just think creatively coming out of a tough period. The pandemic has had a significant financial impact on the college, as it did for a lot of parishes. Our in-person community had really struggled to find ways to come together because of the pandemic and the closure of campus. We had this more-than-half-empty residence and had been looking for solutions. We were more open to it because we had been trying to think creatively about the resources that we had and what they could be used for in non-traditional times. And I think now that we’ve learned a lot of great things from the challenges of the past few years about who we want to be moving forward.