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Ukrainians still standing firm 12 months on

23 February 20230 comments

As the world marks a year since Ukraine was illegally invaded by Russia, Ukrainians at home and in exile across the world are quietly confident they will ultimately prevail.

Despite least 6,919 civilians being killed, 11,000 wounded and the creation of around 11 million refugees, Ukrainians remain resolute.

Yevheniia Cherkasova 24, and her sister Alexandra, 14, fled besieged Kharkiv as Russian tanks attempted to encircle the city.

After surviving bombing and missile strikes, the sisters were put aboard a train by their parents in the precarious hope they would reach safety. They arrived in Melbourne in March, last year

Yevheniia says there is no doubt among her compatriots at home and abroad that Ukraine will survive Russia’s ongoing brutal campaign of aggression.

“Our family is doing fine mostly. Sometimes things are better, sometimes things are worse,” she says.

“People are always afraid of what’s coming next, maybe some new attacks. But it’s amazing it’s been a year and really the Russians haven’t got very far. In fact, in my city of Kharkiv, they have been pushed back.”

Left to right: Alexandra and Yevheniia

Yevheniia talks to her parents, still in Ukraine, every day and also to friends still there.

“No one is in any doubt that there will be a victory. We just don‘t know when. Everyone is super positive and as time goes by, people are getting more and more confident.

“Now, everyone is talking about Joe Biden’s visit. They are super excited and it’s a good sign for Ukraine,” she says.

Stefan Romaniw is co-chair of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisation and he has just returned from the trip to Ukraine. He tells two stories that sum up the strength and resilience of the Ukrainian people 

“In one of the shelters we fund I met an old woman who was 92,” Stefan says.

“She takes me into her small room in this old government building that we’ve had refurbished and she tells me her story,” he says.

“She says that she has been an orphan most of her live. She tells me she lived through World War II.

“The women says she worked all her life and was able to get her own apartment. Then she points through the window at a destroyed building and says ‘that’s all gone now’.

“The woman then rubs the flannelette sheets on her bed that our organisation has proved as says ‘look how warm this is’.

“She points to the mattress and says ‘look how soft this is’ and them she touches the pillow and says ‘look how comfortable this is’.

“Then she takes my hand and says ‘you know what, everything will be OK’,” Stefan said.

He tells another powerful anecdote…

“I was speaking by phone with man in a city that had just been bombed and I asked him how things were going for him and his family,” Stefan says.

“He said there had been bombings and no one knew what was going to happen from day to day.

“Then he told me his wife was outside washing the windows.

“I expressed some surprise and asked whether that was safe. He said that he had asked the same question of her. Her response was ‘no missile is going stop me from doing what I plan to do. Today, I plan to wash our windows’,” Stefan says, with a touch of emotion is his voice.

There are now around 7000 Ukrainians in Australia who have fled the Russian invasion of their homeland.

The local Australian Ukrainian community has been supporting the new arrivals in a variety of ways.

“Obviously we are continuing to fight for the cause. On a political level we are calling for more military support for Ukraine,” Stefan says.

“And on a local level we are continuing to support people who have come to Australia from Ukraine.

“One of the problems has been certainty over visas so we have been lobbying government over that,” he says.

Ukrainians who arrived before July 31 last year were given humanitarian visas but those arriving afterwards – around 1800 – received temporary or bridging visas, which means they are not eligible for government support until their humanitarian visas are processed.

“There are people still coming so visas have been a focus of our support,” Stefan says.

“And we are also focused on accepting these people who are actually fleeing the war and in need of protection.

“And the community has rallied around and we’ve been able to organise programs for people to help with mental health and also with basic things like driving lessons and swimming lessons.

“We have also tried to be welcoming and to include the new arrivals in our events. And we are keen to ensure they feel part of something and welcome in the community.”

Stefan said some of the issues the newly arrived Ukrainians faced were around employment education and accommodation.

“We try to survey them regularly with the data base have to see what their needs are. Mostly it’s around employment and accommodation and in some cases food. So we try to address those things with the support of other agencies like AMES and Foundation House,” he said.

In Ukraine, Stefan says there is “cautious optimism” among Ukrainians still struggling to resist Russian attacks and the threat of a fresh Russian invasion.

“Ukraine has been able to reclaim territory and push the Russians back. The people are incredibly resilient and they are cautiously optimistic,” he says.

Stefan says the Ukrainian people and army have a lot to fight for while the Russians are now mostly conscripts who are ambivalent about the whole enterprise.

“Ukrainians have a lot to fight for and they’ve had 300 years of this – of big brother bullying from Russia.

“In the medium term, when Ukraine wins, there will be a need to rebuild which will offer opportunities to remake the country.

“And then everyone will want to be associated with Ukraine because it stood up for freedom and democracy and values the western world shares. And, in the long term, Ukraine will benefit economically.

Australian-Ukrainian artist and architect Maru Jarockyj, who has also been supporting newly-arrived Ukrainians refugees, says despite threats of fresh Russia offensive, optimism about the future of her parents’ homeland was high.

“Especially after visit of President Biden, I think there is a lot of optimism. With Ukraine holding out in Bakhmut, I think their stubbornness and their sense of mission will carry them through,” Maru says.

“My worry is China and Iran and the Wagner group – and that we’ll see more people jumping the fence to support that lunatic Putin.

“But I get a sense the resolve of Ukrainians is bigger now than it has ever been,” she says.

Maru, like many members of the local Ukrainian community, has been supporting families who have fled to Australia because of the fighting.

“We’ve been doing what we can. I helped a young Ukrainian girl get a job at a Bakers Delight owned through a client of mine,” she says.

“And there was another young lady who is also an architect. We’ve helped her get a job with a firm in the city.”