Ukrainians in N.L. reflect on 1st anniversary of Russian invasion

Events marking the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine are happening all over the world Friday. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images - image credit)
Events marking the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine are happening all over the world Friday. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images - image credit)

It's been one year since the sounds of explosions and air raid sirens signalled a change in life for Hanna Furs.

She spent the early days of the Russian invasion scared for her life, and the life of her eight-year-old son. She jumped every time the refrigerator cut in or there was a knock on the door.

Now safe in her adopted home of St. John's, Furs is reflecting on everything lost or forever altered since the invasion began one year ago. She remembers the feelings of confusion and fear after fleeing to Italy last March.

"It's hard to stay safe, because you don't know your future," she said. "You don't know where your kids [will be] tomorrow. You lost your life. You lost your friends. You lost your parents. You lost your house."

When the shock began to wear off, Furs said people started reaching out to their friends to see where people had fled. She realized her dear friend, Oksana Makarenko, was nearby in Italy.

When it's all taken from you, you understand how happy you were. - Oksana Makarenko

Makarenko told her she was thinking about going to Canada, and they began doing research.

Furs, Makarenko and their children are some of the more than 2,000 Ukrainians to have found a new home in Newfoundland and Labrador over the last year. Their arrival has helped change the cultural fabric of the province, which is mired in a demographic crisis and has struggled to meet immigration targets for several years.

The two women joined the fledgling Ukrainian Cultural Organization of Newfoundland and Labrador, founded by St. John's business strategist Bruce Lilly. Iryna Pegasina, who fled Ukraine to Bulgaria during the war and eventually came to St. John's, joined as well.

The group is holding an event marking one year since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine. The event will be held Friday at 5:30 p.m., at the east block of Confederation Building in St. John's.

Lessons from mothers

The three women think a lot about how the war has affected their children. Initially, Pegasina said, the goal was to shield them.

"You protect them from information," she said. But it didn't take long for them to figure out what was happening. They were in foreign countries with their mothers while their fathers were still at home. Pegasina said her son came home from school one day and said he hated Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who ordered the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2021.

"They all understand," Furs added. "Our children, they all understand this. It's very young. I said to Oksana, their brain very quickly absorbs all of this."

In the early days of the war, Makarenko said they all hoped it would be over soon. But she said they soon realized the war they were seeing in Kyiv wasn't new, and it wasn't going to be a short burst. It was an extension of the 2014 invasion of Crimea, in Ukraine's eastern region.

"Because we're far away from that part, far away from the east, we just didn't understand it," she said. "We had our pink glasses on. And then the illusion swept in a second."

Greg Locke/The Canadian Press
Greg Locke/The Canadian Press

Pegasina said it was hard to come to grips with reality, even after understanding the full scale of the invasion.

"Imagine someone came and stole your life," she said. "Stole your house, stole your friends, stole your relatives. Your mountains and oceans."

Furs said it won't fully sink in until the war is over. So far, the United Nations estimates more than 8,000 civilians have been killed, and more than 13,000 have been injured. A whopping 14 million people have been displaced. Russian gains have been minimal, but Ukrainian victories have come at a heavy cost at times.

Makarenko said its been tough to watch from thousands of kilometres away, knowing there is nothing they can do while their friends and family remain in harm's way.

"I am happy [our kids] are safe now. At the same time, it has been very hard mentally because, you know, you feel this guilt that you're not in your country now, that you're not there doing more."

"We're still in Ukraine," Furs said. "Mentally, we're still in Ukraine. We can't believe what happened with our land. You look at all these bombs and you can't believe. It's like [a] nightmare."

While reality might take a while to sink in, the traumatic experiences of war have given Ukrainians perspective, Makarenko said.

"You start to understand what really matters and how happy you actually [were]," she said. "You were always struggling to get a better job. Not recognizing what you have now, at this moment, at this time. When it's all taken from you, you understand how happy you were."

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