Ukrainian refugees Anastasiia Shevelova and Fawzi Abualhuda, with Riyaz Rabbani, Recreation Receptionist at Saanich Commonwealth Place, who set the couple up with the LIFE recreation program. The program makes fitness and recreation accessible for families with a low income.

Ukrainian refugees Anastasiia Shevelova and Fawzi Abualhuda, with Riyaz Rabbani, Recreation Receptionist at Saanich Commonwealth Place, who set the couple up with the LIFE recreation program. The program makes fitness and recreation accessible for families with a low income.

Ukraine refugees reclaim wellness, discover community with Saanich Recreation

LIFE program makes recreation possible for all

Saanich Commonwealth Place is about as far from war-torn Ukraine as you can get, but for one couple who recently fled the embattled city of Kharkiv, the recreation centre has helped them as they adjust to a new life in Canada.

From their home about 20 minutes from the Russian border, Fawzi Abualhuda and Anastasiia Shevelova spent 27 hours on a standing-room-only train to the Slovakia border, before continuing on first to Poland, then Germany. The couple arrived in Vancouver April 28, where a volunteer met them and brought them to their new home with a family in Saanich.

“When the war started, we didn’t believe it would happen – Russians and Ukrainians are married to each other. We thought, ‘They are family, from the same blood and they would never invade Ukraine,’” Fawzi recalls.

Then at 5 a.m. on Feb. 24, from their 16th-floor apartment, the bombing and shooting began. They saw hundreds of cars on the road, fleeing the city, and within days, they were living with no electricity or plumbing and were told to seek shelter.

Anastasiia was a pharmacist in Ukraine, and Fawzi a manager with an investment company; because he already spoke English, they looked for hosts in Canada, and were fortunate to be connected with local couple Martin Bache and Susan Phillips.

“We had an empty suite in our house, fully furnished, and when we learned of the war in the Ukraine and the stories unfolding for people, we couldn’t just sit there, so we offered it to the Ukrainian Culture Centre, and they connected us,” Martin says.

Susan Phillips and Martin Bache, left, with Fawzi Abualhuda and Anastasiia Shevelova, right, who fled Ukraine when the invasion began. Riyaz Rabbani, centre, Recreation Receptionist at Saanich Commonwealth Place, connected the young couple with the LIFE program, which provides for 52 free visits at any Greater Victoria recreation centre.

Susan Phillips and Martin Bache, left, with Fawzi Abualhuda and Anastasiia Shevelova, right, who fled Ukraine when the invasion began. Riyaz Rabbani, centre, Recreation Receptionist at Saanich Commonwealth Place, connected the young couple with the LIFE program, which provides for 52 free visits at any Greater Victoria recreation centre.

Receiving work permits at the airport, the two settled in to their new life in Canada, grateful for the support of community members and of volunteer organizations like the Ukrainian Cultural Association. But the months of stress and disruption were also starting to take their toll.

Fawzi knew what would help — exercise.

“I love sports and in Ukraine I would go to the gym every day, so I asked Martin and Susan about going to the gym here,” Fawzi says.

Concerned about the cost, given their limited funds, applying for the Leisure Involvement for Everyone (LIFE) program through Saanich Recreation was the perfect solution. Riyaz Rabbani, Recreation Receptionist at Saanich Commonwealth Place quickly and easily set them up with the program, providing them with 52 free visits at any Greater Victoria recreation centre.

Beyond just physical health, being active is also about boosting mental health and easing stress. “It’s good for me to come here,” Fawzi says, commending the friendly, helpful staff. “And it’s not only for the gym, we can use it for the swimming pool … you are free to do everything in this building.”

How to apply for the LIFE program

The LIFE program is available to individuals and families on a low income, providing three participation options:

  • 52 free visits that can be used at any of the 13 Greater Victoria Recreation Centres
  • 50 per cent off of an annual Saanich Access Pass, which includes access to the four Saanich Recreation Centres
  • 50 per cent off of an annual regional pass – for drop-in fitness activities at all 13 regional recreation centres from the Saanich Peninsula to Sooke, including Saanich Recreation

People can apply in person at any one of Saanich’s four recreation centres. If the application is straightforward, their LIFE pass will be issued during the same visit. Application requirements include proof of income through a Notice of Assessment for all applicants over 18 years of age, and proof of residency, with a utility bill issued within the past three months.

However for individuals and families new to Canada, such as those recently arrived as refugees or landed immigrants, exceptions are made. To support new families, landing papers are accepted as proof of recent arrival and therefore lack of official Canadian income documentation and proof of local residency which may include a utility bill from their host family within the past three months. Exceptions are made during a one-year grace period from the day of their arrival.

Why does Saanich make it so easy to access the LIFE program?

“We know people’s mental and physical health is affected if they aren’t active, so if they need support to do so, it makes sense to provide it,” Riyaz says.

“The beauty of the LIFE program for participants is that once you’re on it, no one knows, so there’s no stigma. I honestly feel the hardest part for people is getting here and approaching the desk,” he adds, noting that building tours and various orientations are available to ensure people feel fully comfortable in their community recreation centres.

Click here to learn more about the LIFE program in Saanich, or stop by your Saanich Recreation Centre for more information.

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