The holidays are tough for Ukrainians in Toronto. Despite Russia's war, they're still determined to celebrate

Zlata Pavlova came to Toronto in April with help from her cousin Varvara Shmygalova. While everyday life in Canada has been hard knowing war is raging on back home in Ukraine, Pavlova says she's trying her best to continue on and live life.  (Martin Trainor/CBC - image credit)
Zlata Pavlova came to Toronto in April with help from her cousin Varvara Shmygalova. While everyday life in Canada has been hard knowing war is raging on back home in Ukraine, Pavlova says she's trying her best to continue on and live life. (Martin Trainor/CBC - image credit)

Toronto resident Zlata Pavlova says she has mixed feelings being in Canada for the holidays while Russia's war on her home country continues to rage on.

On one hand, she's happy she gets to safely celebrate with her boyfriend and cousin, the latter of which helped relocate her to Toronto in April. But on the other, it's hard to muster up feelings of joy and cheer when she knows many back home don't have the same luxury.

"On New Year's Eve, I was just crying, laughing, crying, laughing," Pavlova, 25.

"It's very mixed emotions, you know. But we try to be grateful for what we have."

Pavlova is one of many Ukrainians trying to build a new life in Ontario, with no promise of an opportunity to go back home. The Ontario government says as of October, there are over 39,000 Ukrainians who have come to the province after being displaced by the war.

And for all of them, this year marks the first holidays away from home, almost one year since Russia's attack on their home country began. Despite the tragedy and struggles of the past few months, the community hopes to celebrate the New Year and the upcoming Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas in honour of their culture and people.

"We think that keeping the traditions alive and celebrating life despite Russians trying to kill us, figuratively or physically, is very important," said Pavlova's cousin, Varvara Shmygalova.

"We're showing them that no matter what, Ukraine's going to live and Ukraine's going to exist and Ukraine's going to thrive, and we gonna celebrate no matter what."

Ukraine said on Monday it shot down all Russian drones in a new wave of attacks, after Moscow launched an unprecedented third straight day of air strikes against civilian targets.

Russia has carried out nightly attacks in recent days on Ukrainian cities, marking a change in tactics after months in which Moscow usually spaced such strikes around a week apart.

Ukrainian children celebrate with community

At the St. Demetrius school in Etobicoke, most students are largely of Ukrainian origin. School principal Lily Hordienko says while this year's school winter break is happening during Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas Eve on Jan. 6, and Christmas Day on Jan. 7, the school put on a St. Nicholas concert before the break, where students' families got gifts staff and the larger community help put together.

"People were just so generous and so willing to help out," Hordienko

"They would thank us for giving them an opportunity to make a difference in these people's lives. So that was really,  really heartwarming to see."

Submitted by Lily Hordienko
Submitted by Lily Hordienko

Hordienko says since the war began, over 140 children — representing over 30 per cent of the student body — have arrived from Ukraine as refugees, adding the school had to order more portables and hire more staff to keep up.

Hordienko says the school has been a comfort to newcomer families and young students, where the Ukrainian flag is hung and people speak their mother tongue.

With the ongoing war, Hordienko is still anticipating more to arrive this new year. Despite the school being close if not already at capacity, she says they want to take anyone who needs them.

"On one hand, you leave feeling so fulfilled that you were able to help somebody. But also at the end fo the day, you feel the heaviness of it all," said Hordienko.