Growing up in Ukraine, Liza Kravchenko says, she always dreamed of coming to Canada, “a free country with kind people,” to build a different life than the one she would’ve had in the small city of Chernivtsi.
But Kravchenko says her introduction to Canada became a three-week nightmare.
Kravchenko, 19, alleges that Mary Ann Babiera and Juan Varela of London, Ont., proposed erotic webcam “modelling” to her as a way to earn income after she arrived in Canada, while hosting her in their home. The Star has also spoken to a volunteer who facilitates host families for Ukrainians who shared messages proposing webcam work from the couple to other women.
When the Star reached out to Varela and Babiera, they said in an email statement that there are “a lot of fabricated allegations” and they “do not want to talk more about this topic,” pointing to a “significant (loss) of business opportunities due to the whole thing.”
The couple did not specify which of the allegations are inaccurate and refused further questions from the Star.
“The police came and spoke to us and told us the case is now closed,” their statement said. “We are not a monster family.”
London police Const. Sandasha Bough confirmed with the Star in early April that there was an active investigation looking into multiple complaints about the man and woman without providing further details. On April 13, Bough said the investigation was complete and there were no grounds for criminal charges.
Experts say there is a spectrum of exploitation that can happen to people in vulnerable positions, not all of which crosses the line into criminality.
On the severe end of the spectrum is human trafficking. Displaced populations such as Ukrainian refugees are a known cause for spikes in human trafficking cases, said a global report published in January by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Experts say there are also subtler, less coercive kinds of exploitation of which refugees and other vulnerable populations should also be wary.
Carly Kalish is the executive director of Victim Services Toronto and has been working with trafficking survivors since 2009. When she was told of the details of this case she said, “It follows a very typical script of sexual exploitation and how people are groomed and lured. It’s textbook.”
Kalish said police tend to, understandably, have a strict threshold for proof of criminality.
In December, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kravchenko posted on a Facebook group, with more than 195,000 members, dedicated to connecting Ukrainians to Canadian host families. Within a couple of hours, she said, she received a message from Babiera, who was living in London, with her partner, Varela, both in their 40s.
“I thought I (should) connect with her more times and then I will decide if it’s right or not,” Kravchenko said.
Over three months of WhatsApp calls and Facebook messages — Kravchenko said the couple promised to help her get a driver’s licence, take English classes, apply to post-secondary schools as well as see the city and country once Kravchenko arrived in Canada on a work permit in March. “‘All (that) you want, you will have,’” she recalled the couple saying.
On the plane to Toronto she met a young Ukrainian man, who was also headed to London. But Babiera and Varela refused to take him in, though he eventually found another host family through the help of a local priest. Kravchenko said the couple told her multiple times he was “a bad, irresponsible kid” and she “didn’t need to have friends or a boyfriend.”
One week into living with the family, Kravchenko said something felt wrong.
Kravchenko said she was first approached by Varela, who proposed a way for her to make extra money by “modelling on webcam” — part of the allegations the couple deny.
Despite stating she wanted a “normal job,” Varela and Babiera continued to pitch the webcam work and proposition Kravchenko daily, including “(Babiera) showing me her toys for this job,” she said. Babiera would later offer to do the modelling with her after sharing explicit images of herself and sex videos with Varela, she said.
Over the course of Kravchenko’s three-week stay, Babiera also sent her explicit photos of other men and young women in messages shared with the Star.
“When (Varela) started to talk about it every day, I started to understand (they were) trying to force me into this step-by-step, slowly,” Kravchenko said. “They really only have jokes about sex and webcaming,” she continued, recalling uncomfortable conversations during breakfasts together, questions about her intimate life during dinners and how the pair advised her to “show men her charm” when they visited a local mall to hand out resumes.
“I didn’t know that when I would arrive in Canada, they would propose that I work on webcam. … I was scared. I told them ‘no.’ But they didn’t care,” Kravchenko said, adding that she has many sleepless nights.
“They told me I can be rich, like a millionaire here,” she continued. “(Varela) said he can be in the same room as me (when I’m on webcam) and hack anyone who I don’t want to see me.”
The Star was shown text conversations between Kravchenko and Babiera where the latter said “Ukrainian models are making … $450 American dollars per day,” for posting erotic content.
“I have a work permit and in the papers it said I can’t be in the sex industry. But (Varela) proposed to me (that he can) change that … remake this work permit to say I came here to be in the sex industry,” Kravchenko said.
According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, all open work permits prohibit working in businesses related to the sex trade and doing so may be in violation of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
Kravchenko said eventually they proposed finding her a Canadian boyfriend, “not Ukrainian or European,” that she could make videos with.
“I was like, ‘wow.’ I had only seen this (happen) in movies or serials,” Kravchenko said.
It was during the colder, windier weeks of March when the pair allegedly offered Kravchenko work in a food truck. She said she didn’t feel comfortable in the neighbourhood, “there were lots of motels and a lot of weird people.”
It wasn’t until Kravchenko called a friend she met on the plane, who is living with a local woman, Daciana Birau, and her family, that she said she found her escape.
Birau told the Star she felt she had to help. After speaking with Kravchenko, she said, “I’m going to go with you, take your clothes and move you.” The two packed Kravchenko’s belongings, barely closing the suitcase in their haste to leave.
Birau said the couple wasn’t home at the time. Kravchenko said afterward the pair removed her from their social media accounts.
“She didn’t have warm clothes. She’s in the middle of town. She doesn’t know anybody,” Birau said, adding that the area where the food truck was located is known for the sex trade. “It’s a strategic place there. She cannot be there. She’s too young. Anybody could take her, disappear in a second, and we wouldn’t know anything.”
Kravchenko eventually filed a complaint with London police.
Complaints prompted two Facebook groups that connect Ukrainians with Canadian host families to ban Varela and Babiera from their pages: Ukraine Help Middlesex, a local London group, and Canada Hosts Ukraine, the national group where Kravchenko connected with the couple.
Richard Hone, a London resident and administrator of Ukraine Help Middlesex, said he first learned of the pair through the host of another Ukrainian woman. Hone said the couple initially offered to host her through the Canada Hosts Ukraine Facebook page. The Star saw messages of the couple proposing “webcam work” to the Ukrainian woman, whose identity the Star has agreed not to disclose for privacy reasons. She is now living in Vancouver.
“These people were recruiting under the guise of hosting,” Hone told the Star. “They have never hosted through our local group which we thought was odd … We gathered all the posts and comments they’d made on our local London group, as did the national group.
“Once that was (done), we banned them from the group including multiple fake accounts.” According to Hone, and in screenshots seen by the Star, the couple had multiple Facebook accounts under their real names as well as names that coincided with aliases they used on their online pornographic videos and other social media accounts dedicated to that content.
“I do erotic webcam shows once in a while. It is a good source of income,” said one message viewed by the Star, from Babiera’s Facebook account to another Ukrainian woman.
The Star could not independently confirm how many women interacted with Babiera and Varela, but Hone said about “10 to 12 girls went through their home,” including a few couples.
When the Star reached out to one of the administrators for Canada Hosts Ukraine Facebook group about banning the couple from the page’s membership list, one administrator said, “Out of principle, I can’t give you (any) information in this context. It’s publicly available anyway.”
Although both pages remain open to the public to find and view in order to be accessible, the Star confirmed that the couple (under their real names and aliases seen in screenshots) are no longer members of Ukraine Help Middlesex and Canada Hosts Ukraine Facebook groups. Hone said banning the couple means they can also no longer find or view the pages.
“We’re really trying to combat this because it does put a bit of a negative spin on anyone who wants to do hosting,” Hone said. “Ukrainian women just want to build their lives here and it’s such a simple ask.”
Giving credit to Birau and her family, Kravchenko now has her G1 driver’s licence and recently took her first English exam evaluation. Kravchenko said she will also be visiting colleges and universities to prepare her application while she studies to take the International English Language Testing System (IELT) exam.
“I started to change my character (in Canada), I started being more kind and I really like that,” Kravchenko said. “We went to the beach 30 minutes from here and if I stayed (with Varela and Babiera) I would have never seen the beach.”
She told the Star she believes it’s important for her to talk about her experience with the hopes of helping other women.
When asked what she would share with other women and girls who face what she faced, Kravchenko said the main piece of advice she has is to “just say no.”
“Don’t listen to people proposing you jobs that you don’t like. Just say ‘no,’” she continued. “Not ‘I will think about it’ or something else. Just say ‘no.’”
Canadians are largely unaware of what trafficking looks like in Canada, said James McLean, director of research and policy at The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, though it often follows a familiar script in that it occurs within relationships, with somebody in a position of authority.
“It could be a host family, a family member, a boyfriend,” he said.
“Separating someone from family and friends would also be part of that formula,” McLean said.
Kalish added that luring and grooming often happens through relationship-building; “trying to offer a basic need, like housing, food and shelter.”
“Why would (traffickers) convince (someone) to do this form of work unless they’d be benefiting from it?” Kalish said.