Sophie’s Closet closing doors as federal program bringing Ukrainian newcomers to Prince Albert winds down

Sonya Jahn (left) and Ulrike Graner (right) pose for a photo inside Sophie’s Closet. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

It started with a small plan to help a few Ukrainian families escape war with Russia and start a new life in Canada, and blossomed into helping 125 families arrive over the last two years.

On March 31st, those efforts to bring Ukrainian newcomers to Prince Albert will come to an end when volunteer organizer Sonja Jahn steps down, and Sophie’s Closet, the thrift store created to help newly arrived Ukrainian families, closes its doors.

“It’s with mixed emotion that I do this because I know the war is not concluding,” a tearful Jahn said during an interview on Thursday. “But, I’m hopeful that Ukraine will win this war and that the people in Ukraine who are staying back will resume a safe life and a life of democracy.”

Jahn has been the driving force in helping Ukrainian newcomers settle in Prince Albert after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Her original plan was to help Ukrainians who’d moved to Saskatchewan in the last 10 to 15 years provide a safe landing place for any of their families seeking a way out.

As the war progressed, however, the need grew, and Jahn became instrumental in helping new families, whether it was helping fill out forms, find a job, or settle into a new home.

With Sophie’s Closet set to close and settlement efforts winding down, Jahn wanted to thank the many Prince Albert residents who donated time and money to help Prince Albert’s 125 new Ukrainian families.

The list included businessman Herman Lewis, who offered the first three families free rent for a year while they found their footing. It also includes Wendy Hoffman and Calvary United, who helped coordinate donations, and Christina Fonstad and Karen Malec, who did a lot of the work organizing Sophie’s Closet.

“We live in a very amazing community,” Jahn said. “There are so many wonderful people in Prince Albert and the surrounding community, and I’m just so grateful for all of the kindness and the compassion and the donations of household items, furniture, monetary donations. It has just been phenomenal, and if it wasn’t for all of the people who have stepped forward and stepped up to the plate to do this, this would never have happened as successfully as it has.”

There are two primary reasons these efforts are coming to an end. First, the federal government’s CUAET program, which allowed Ukrainians emergency travel to Canada, will end on March 31 and the government has shown no signs they will extend it as they did a year ago.

Ukrainian newcomers had until July 15, 2023 to submit a CUAET application, and have until March 31 to obtain a work or study permit at a port of entry.

Even if the program gets extended, however, Jahn said it’s time to step down for personal reasons.

“It’s been more than full-time volunteering seven days a week, and now my family have actually given me an ultimatum,” she said. “They want me back in their lives.”

Despite the unexpected workload, Jahn said the experience has been amazing.

“There’s been tears shed. Laughter and tears. My heart is extremely full and I am so grateful that these people have come to a place where they’re welcomed in our community, and thanks to our beautiful community of Prince Albert and surrounding area,” she said.

Sophie’s Closet is named after Jahn’s mother, who immigrated to Canada as a three year old with her family. On Wednesday, volunteers were organizing the last batch of donations for a final sale on March 31, when newcomer Ukrainian families are welcome to visit the store one last time before it closes.

Sophie’s Closet is named after Sonja Jahn’s mother, who is pictured here at three-years-old with her sisters Suzie and Mary with Sonja’s grandmother shortly before leaving Ukraine for Canada. — Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Ulrike Graner has been the store’s team lead recently. She said Jahn’s efforts will be missed.

“She is just amazing. She does not rest and she has that ability to sort of not freak out,” Graner said with a laugh.

Graner became involved with Sophie’s Closet out of a desire to help immigrants like herself. She arrived in Canada from Germany in 1995, and eventually moved to Prince Albert in 1998. She said moving in Canada in a peaceful, orderly manner was stressful enough, and sympathized with the Ukrainian people who had to leave everything behind.

She’s sad the store will close down, but has appreciated the opportunity to be a part of it.

“It would be nice to have the … federal support program not stop, but since it is stopping on the 31st, we figured there probably are less people coming, so this doesn’t make sense anymore,” Graner said. “On a nicer note though, a lot of the Ukrainians are established nicely, so I hope that the community itself, they will help each other.”

Graner said Jahn deserves a long rest after her work helping Ukrainian families, but said it will be a loss not having her around to help out.

She said it’s been a pleasure to work at the store, and see the generosity of Prince Albert residents up close.

“It’s been interesting,” she said. “You could not calculate what you could get. I learned that fall is house-cleaning time for everyone in Prince Albert, so everyone went through what they could spare and we ended up with a lot of donations (and) then it dwindled down. Then Christmas was another highlight. This room in the back was filled with Christmas ornaments and trees and decorations.”

With fewer Ukrainian newcomers expected to arrive in Canada, Graner and others have turned their sights on making sure the new families continue to be successful.

When she moved to Canada, Graner had trouble getting her work credentials recognized. She never worked in her chosen field of physiotherapy, and although she has no regrets about becoming a stay-at-home mom, she said it’s frustrating to see Ukrainian newcomers with impressive academic credentials working low income jobs.

“A lot of highly trained professionals who are actually needed in our country, they drive cabs,” she said. “That’s what I would love to see being changed.”

As for Jahn, she’s looking forward to some much needed rest, but grateful for a chance to help so many families.

“I only wish them the very best and wish them good health and happiness and prosperity as they make their lives here, just as my grandfather and my grandmother and my family did,” she said.

The final day of operation for Sophie’s Closet is March 31 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.