Newmarket, Ontario has changed a lot in the last year, and if you ask most people in town, they will likely point to one man in particular as the epicentre of that change.
“They call this place Ukraine Central Station,” says Kevin Clare of his 5-bedroom home, from which he speaks with Celtic Life International over the phone. He adds that he gets comments like, “you’re the catalyst that started this whole thing,” and has even been called “The Oracle” by some of the town’s many new Ukrainian residents.
If that name, Clare (of Irish origin), sounds familiar, it should – Kevin Clare is the brother of Celtic Life International Executive Editor Stephen Patrick Clare. And it is obvious when talking to him; he shares his sibling’s charmingly brusque way with words, which he used to tell the story of how he was among the first people in Canada to welcome Ukrainian refugees into his home back in March of last year.
“I’m sitting on a five-bedroom house that is empty,” Clare says, explaining why he chose to open his home up to strangers from halfway around the world. “Why does a frog sit on a lily-pad? It’s one of those things you do for other people.”
Not that he was without trepidation in the beginning. He felt the Canadian government opened its doors too early, well-meaning though that gesture was, and it left people like him holding the bag. Getting three college-age refugees set up for success in Canada was no small feat.
“It was a pain in the neck, I’ll tell you that,” says Clare, recounting long lines at Service Ontario and Service Canada. “A bureaucratic nightmare! Nobody knew what was going on.”
He recalls one frustrating exchange in trying to get the trio Ontario health cards.
“One guy asked me, he said, ‘I need a copy of your rental agreement with them.’ There is no rental agreement! They’re refugees; we have a handshake agreement.”
Not to mention, there were language and cultural barriers between Clare and his house guests (Andrew, Julia, and Tymor), with only Andrew speaking English fluently. Communication between everyone quickly became multi-disciplinary.
“It’s basically hand gestures, talking slow, and explaining things,” says Clare. “That worked out well.”
It took about two weeks for him and his houseguests to sort everything out, which accounted for half of their stay with Clare. That included his friends Gail Bevilacqua, Tom Pearson, and others in his Newmarket social circle setting them up with an apartment to rent, helping arrange work for them, helping move donated furniture, and ferry services to and from appointments and events. He even got the town’s mayor on task, who set them and other Ukraine refugees up with free city transit and gym memberships.
“Meanwhile,” adds Clare, “people are coming to see me, and are going, ‘Kevin, we would like to do the same thing – how do we do it?’”
Going through the rigamarole personally, and so early, Clare turned out to be a repository for people in the community who came to want to help the refugees as well.
“People are calling me as word spreads,” says Clare, who has gotten much better at navigating everything, getting done what took him two weeks at first much quicker now. “I took that knowledge and turned it into two days.”
Clare had more opportunities to put that knowledge to work, as he wound up taking in more guests over the year. After all, the need hasn’t subsided.
“When I started in early March, the number of approved applications were around six to seven thousand. When the first group were moving on, the applications approved were 148,000.”
Between his own guests and supporting other Newmarket residents wanting to do their part, Clare figures he has helped – directly or indirectly – about 1,000 Ukrainian refugees.
But despite the early confusion, he doesn’t regret letting his once-quiet house become a home for so many.
“I’ve done right,” says Clare, who runs into people he’s made a difference for almost everywhere he goes. “I’ve opened my house to strangers that became good friends. There are more international numbers on my WhatsApp than Canadian ones. The house turned into a youth hostel. I didn’t watch TV for, like, three weeks. The house did come alive.”
Clare’s work isn’t over, as his fifth rotation of refugees are set to arrive soon. He, Pearson, and another collaborator, Bruce Williamson, are also working on a stage play inspired by his experiences for the Newmarket International Festival of One Act Plays – one therapeutic night, where he and his houseguests sat around a fire and played guitars and other handy instruments – called The Plight.
“I couldn’t do this without everybody around me,” Clare says, adding with a chuckle, “And I certainly couldn’t have done it without social media, I’ll tell ya’ that!”