Ukrainian refugees arrive in Victoria, torn between gratitude and guilt


Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, two million Ukrainians have fled their war-torn homeland.

Those with family connections in Canada are starting to arrive, albeit with mixed emotions.

“It was a very extremely hard decision for us to decide to leave,” said 24-year-old Kateryna Paliukh translating for her mother Liudmyla Paliukh, who arrived in Victoria last week.

“Of course, maybe the decision to leave was not the most patriotic, but our mission currently is to save the children so that we can later rebuild our country,” said Kateryna.

Liudmyla made the impossible decision to escape her town of Khmelnytskyi, a city in western Ukraine with her 14-year-old son Oleksandrto, to where her daughter Kateryna lives in Victoria.

“On the day that we were leaving, Russia was bombing the military airport outside of our town,” said 24-year-old Kateryna, translating for her mother Liudmyla. “The experience was surreal.”

Now in safety, their concern turns to those they’ve left behind.

“It was incredibly difficult to leave because your whole life is there, everything that you’ve built, your family, your mother, her husband, my father is there,” said Kateryna. “He decided that he was going to join the defence unit to protect our town, to protect his country.”

In Victoria, the Ukrainians lucky enough to have family ties and been able to escape the war, have been welcomed with a wave of support.

Sunday, a rally involving an estimated 2,000 people lined Douglas Street. Since the war started, $15,000 has been raised for Victoria’s Ukrainian Cultural Centre.

Iryna Kaplun, and her 62-year-old father Roman Zderka who arrived in Victoria with his wife Nadiya on Thursday, got to see the rally on Sunday and were overwhelmed by the support.

“He’s thankful to Canada and Canadians that they welcome them so warmly here,” said Kaplun, translating for Roman.

Nadiya and Roman had to leave their hometown Chervonograd in the Lviv region, where they’ve lived all their lives, with two hours’ notice as Russia began to drop bombs on Western Ukraine.

“The closest bomb explosion was 80 kilometres from them. So for perspective, that’s like from here to Duncan,” said Kaplun translating for her parents. “He left in the clothes that he was wearing and that’s it.”

But now as they reach safety, survivors’ guilt is setting in.

“His heart is there. He feels guilt, for sure,” said Kaplun for her father Roman.

Both the Zderka and Paliukh family say they feel helpless watching from safety, as a neighbouring country tries to stamp theirs out.

“For a long time, Russian people and Ukrainians would call each other brothers,” said Kaplun. “Not anymore.”

For now, both families wait with mixed emotions of gratitude and guilt, hoping for a better future.

“Glory to Ukraine. Glory to heroes,” said Kaplun, reciting a common Ukrainian patriotic slogan for her father.

Help Ukraine Vancouver Island lists places where people can donate and is actively looking for volunteers to help with a range of services.

Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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