Ukrainians in New Brunswick mark sombre anniversary of Russian invasion

A bus drives past a destroyed bridge in Irpin, outside Kyiv, earlier this month. Feb.  24 will mark one year since Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine.  (Roman Pilipey/Getty Images - image credit)
A bus drives past a destroyed bridge in Irpin, outside Kyiv, earlier this month. Feb. 24 will mark one year since Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine. (Roman Pilipey/Getty Images - image credit)

Ukrainians in New Brunswick are reflecting on a very difficult year.

Friday marks the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of their homeland.

"I still remember that day and night when the war began," said Ganna Ivanova, who arrived in Fredericton on July 1.

Ivanova and her family spent a week waiting in fear and anticipation of Russian forces coming to their city on the Black Sea coast before deciding to move to the western part of the country.

 Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Her three-year-old daughter cried for days, insisting they return home.

Ivanova had to show the child pictures of destroyed buildings to try to make her understand it wasn't safe.

"What could I do?," she said.

Even then, she struggled to grasp the how and why.

"She told me, 'But they are made from stones. It couldn't be destroyed.''

Her mother shares that confusion.

Jeanne Armstrong/CBC
Jeanne Armstrong/CBC

It's still hard to understand how this war can be happening between two nations that are "siblings" from "one family," said Ivanova.

Initially, she hoped the fighting would be over by the time she got off the train in Lviv. Now she has no idea how or when it may end.

"They say Russians do not give up, but Ukrainians do not give up as well," she said. "No one sees the finish for this war."

Jeanne Armstrong/CBC
Jeanne Armstrong/CBC

"It was pure shock," said Oksana Tesla, president of the Ukrainian Association Volya of Fredericton — Volya means freedom — as she described getting word of the attacks in a message from her mother.

Memories from those early days come back to Tesla in "short flashbacks."

She remembers not knowing which of her loved ones to call first.

There were several in different locations and included her husband, who made it to Canada last spring.

Submitted by Oksana Tesla
Submitted by Oksana Tesla

"At that moment I didn't know anything," she said. "It was just the beginning."

Tesla described the past year as surreal.

It's as if that day never ended, she said, and a "parallel reality" began.

Every day since, she's been worried for her friends and relatives who are still in Ukraine, including her parents, sister, aunts, uncles and other extended family.

Most of them live in western Ukraine, where it's relatively safe, but nothing is certain, Tesla said.

They face regular power outages and air raid sirens.

"All of us here are trying to live our normal lives — we are far from there, we have everything we need, we have security, we feel safe … but our friends and relatives are not."

"We know that for sure. We face that every single day. We read the news. We talk to them. We hear it over the phone."

Jeanne Armstrong/CBC
Jeanne Armstrong/CBC

"I can't believe that it really happened," said Larysa Motspan, a Ukrainian who moved to Fredericton three years ago.

"I saw videos, I saw photos, but I can't believe that it's almost a year," she said Thursday.

Many of Motspan's relatives are also still in Ukraine in "terrible" situations.

Her husband fought as a Ukrainian soldier in the Donetsk area during the 2014 Russian invasion.

Her daughter Carolina was only two years old at the time. It had a significant impact on the family, she said.

"They grew up so quickly. They know about war."

Submitted by Oksana Tesla
Submitted by Oksana Tesla

The predominant feeling, said Tesla, is helplessness.

A strong undercurrent is that nothing can or should be taken for granted.

"What we've learned is to value every single minute, like, truly, of your life," she said.

Tesla fights the helpless feeling by working on relief projects, organizing group events and helping individuals.

She travelled to Ukraine to deliver three big suitcases full of medical and other supplies that had been collected in Fredericton, for example.

Her group's goal is to raise awareness of what's going on and to share their culture and experiences.

They recently organized a potluck in the park that Tesla said was especially appreciated by the children because they had a rare chance to play together in their own language.

She also gets a boost from meeting new arrivals who shake her hand and say thank you.

When each project ends, however, the helplessness creeps back. And the difficult adjustment process faced by newcomer families is a dark cloud over the burgeoning local Ukrainian community.

"They weren't planning to come here," she said, and many struggle with language, which hinders their ability to live independently.

Motspan now works at the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, trying to make life a little easier for more recent newcomers.

"I totally understand all of these people," she said, "because I was in the same boat."

She interprets between English, Ukrainian and Russian, and she calls newcomers to talk and to share what she's learned to empower them during the arduous immigration process.

The stories about their journeys here are "always sad," she said.

"They are not prepared to immigrate or change their life."

One family, for example — a mom, grandfather and two daughters — lost their home during the 2014 invasion and moved to what they thought was a safer city.

Then, just eight years later, their new home was also destroyed.

Remarkably, that family is doing pretty well, said Motspan. They have an "amazing" host family in Fredericton and the mom got a job as a pharmacist's assistant.

Ivanova's daughter has also gotten used to Fredericton, where she already had an aunt living, and is "more or less happy." It's safe, said her mom, and she has friends at daycare.

The family still misses their home, but Ivanova loves her new job as a Ukrainian settlement worker at the Multicultural Association of Fredericton.

It's been "one of the good miracles that happened to our family," she said.

Like Motspan, she talks to newcomers, listens to their fears and hopes and provides explanations and support.

"For many of them this is the first visit overseas or even abroad," she said.

"Everything is different. It's not bad and not good. It's just different."

"When you meet someone who speaks your language and this person can tell you what can you expect, that helps. It makes you more confident."

Community support also means a great deal to Ukrainians, said Tesla.

That's why she hopes to see a large turnout for events Friday.

A flag raising is planned for 12:30 p.m. at Fredericton city hall and a candlelight vigil is planned for 6 p.m. at the New Brunswick Legislature grounds.