Residents worry and hope for loved ones in crisis
By Sue Tiffin
A few years back, Maryssa Danilko visited Ukraine, the home country of her grandparents.
Her memories of that visit are vivid, painting an image of cities where people “hustle and bustle,” and a countryside that is very poor but where the hospitality is warm and welcoming, and visitors are greeted with “very open arms.”
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine beginning February 24, Danilko said she feels as though she’s in shock.
“I just feel like at a loss, almost,” she said days after Russian president Vladimir Putin authorized airstrikes across Ukraine, and Russian convoys began advancing into the country. “I’ve been kind of battling tears for the last couple days.”
The Minden resident has been trying to follow what’s been happening as attacks are reported throughout Ukraine, through family, friends, and eyewitness accounts shared online.
“I’m hopeful, but I’m fearful, absolutely,” she said. “The stress and anxiety that I feel for them is unbearable.”
Military reservists aged 18 to 60 have been called to service and many of the country’s more than 44 million residents are attempting to flee the cities or the country as the invasion intensifies.
“Basically the men are joining the fight and women and children are staying at their countryside homes, because everyone is fleeing the cities, so they’re going to their parents,” said Danilko. “Women and children are just getting on the trains and trying to leave, saying goodbye to their husbands and fathers and grandfathers, saying, you know, we hope to see you again. It’s really, really, sad. I cannot even imagine going through that. I can’t even imagine.”
The stories Danilko has been hearing tell of a Ukrainian resistance, one fighting to keep independence gained when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
“I have a friend whose 70-year-old uncle joined the army himself, just because he was a welder by trade and thought he could help, and they’ve put him on the sidelines to help fix artillery and things,” she said. “People are standing up for their country. People are joining on their own will and merit. It’s so sad, but it’s so nice to hear that people are not just giving in.”
Canada’s Ukrainian population is one of the largest outside of Ukraine and Russia, with about 1.4 million people identifying as Ukrainian Canadian.
“Everyone’s feeling it,” said Danilko. “Everyone has this connection. Not just family but it’s this nationalistic pride. Ukrainians are very proud to be Ukrainian. I’m sure lots of cultures have that. But it’s definitely affecting all of us.”
Danilko said she grew up hearing stories of how her grandparents – both from the west side of Ukraine, just on the outskirts of Lviv – survived, ultimately having to flee the country.
Her maternal grandmother was born in 1910 or so, and fled during The Holodomor, or Great Famine, in the 1930s, when millions of Ukrainians died.
“She was burying food in the earth just to feed her family,” said Danilko.
Her grandmother’s mother died when she was around 20, and she was being raised by her grandmother but “it was just a hard life,” said Danilko.
“At 14, she took her sister, and they ran, they went to France,” she said. “They worked in kitchens and as farmhands until they could get their own strength on their own two feet. They were running until they hit Canada. But by Canada she already had three kids, and came to Canada by herself, without my grandfather … You can only be grateful that she had the strength to make a better life for herself. And that’s what these people are trying to fight for. They’re just trying to fight for a better life. They’re not, you know, they’re not going to succumb to political pressure and greed, so they’re just trying to fight for freedom.”
Danilko’s father’s family came to Canada during the time in the ‘60s and ‘70s when land in Northern Alberta was being offered to immigrants.
“They were handing out free land as long as you could farm it, and they were literally by train just trucking in [thousands] of these Ukrainians at the time to try to build up Canada. That’s how we ended up here. But if it wasn’t for my grandmother, I’d be there.”
Danilkos’ parents met in Toronto, where she was raised attending Ukrainian immersion school, and Saturday school, until Grade 8, developing a love for Ukrainian dance, and a strong understanding of Ukrainian history, geography, literature and language.
She met Minden resident Alex Danilko in Innisfil, when she attended a pig roast celebrating the Ukrainian community at an onion farm owned by Boris Horodynsky. Alex’s parents – Roger and Susan – harvested wood for Horodynsky and he was in attendance at the same party, where the two met.
“When I came up to this community, nine years ago, it’s always been a passion of mine to dance and have culture, because I’m so strongly connected to the Ukrainian culture, I just thought, well, why not try to bring it here,” said Danilko, who helped to partner The Nutcracker with the Verba Ukranian Dance Company from Winnipeg, and was instrumental in bringing the Lemon Bucket Orkestra to town in 2020.
“And it wasn’t even me bringing it here. It was me showcasing it here, but there were already a lot of Ukrainians here. With the lineage of, oh, my aunt is Ukrainian, my grandmother was Ukrainian. So, it was really nice to see the community come together here too.”
While Danilko hears reports from cousins and friends, she’s connecting here with members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community experiencing the same worry from afar, and those not connected to the community who share concern.
“It’s so lovely, everyone’s been reaching out,” said Danilko. “People that have a connection, people that don’t and it’s just been so uplifting. I feel very supported. It’s just very nice for people to simply say, ‘hey I’m here and it’s just messed up what’s going on and I’m with you.’ It’s nice to know you’re not alone.”
Though the situation is one of stress, Danilko is also finding hope in the resistance.
“I think people are really coming together,” she said. “It’s no surprise for this Ukrainian community. But I think people are really coming together and standing their ground … Just hoping that on the news, the next village in the paper isn’t going to be the village that your mother came from. It hits, really close to home.”
Bill Kulas said he’s proud that his grandkids are fifth generation Ukrainian Canadians.
“We’re Canadians first and foremost but proud of our Ukrainian heritage,” he said.
While Bill’s wife Ginger is of Scottish descent, Kulas said before his mom passed away she spent several years sharing Ukrainian tradition with Ginger, including Easter egg decorating which Ginger has taught throughout the years in Haliburton County.
“She just did it out of respect for my ancestry,” said Kulas. “Ukrainian Easter egg decorating is 1,000 years old. So when Putin says there’s no such thing as Ukraine, and the Ukraine language, and they shouldn’t be in existence, you know, you’ve got an evil, evil person who’s inflicting terrible, terrible things upon a people, their language, culture and way of life. This is not something that’s new.”
Kulas said his family spoke of the horrific starvation of Joseph Stalin’s Holodomor.
“I remember ancestors talking about it – they would have to grab pieces of grass and dandelions and put it in a pot of water and try to survive on that,” he said.
On his mom’s side, his family came to Canada in 1906. On his dad’s side, 1913.
“My dad came with a pillow case, two shirts and $5,” said Kulas. “My mother was of Polish and Romanian descent. My dad was from the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine – very much like Haliburton County with big hills and forests.”
Bill’s dad came by ship, landing in Halifax, then travelling by train through Montreal into the silver mining area of Cobalt, Ontario, where family had already arrived.
“Then my dad went to Rouyn-Noranda in northwestern Quebec, and was one of the first pioneers to open the gold mine of Rouyn, Quebec. He went by dog team in the wintertime.”
At some point after arriving in Canada, Kulas said his father shortened his name from the family name of Kolotylo.
“He had some relatives that were in the Ottawa Valley, and the last name was Kulas,” he said. “He thought that was easier to spell … Imagine coming as a 16-year-old to Canada with a pillowcase and $5 in your pocket, and two shirts, and that’s it and not being able to read, write or speak the language. So the name got shortened to Kulas.”
Kulas said his parents met in Montreal.
“I’m proud of my family,” he said. “It’s out of respect for them that I feel for the people in Europe.”
He said his family was pro-democracy and pro-freedom in Quebec, and were not able to visit Ukraine because of that.
“My family were a threat to the Russian communist regime, so they were never able to go back and visit their family,” he said.
Now, Kulas keeps in touch with family spread throughout Ontario and out west, and those who continue to live in Ukraine. His cousin, Ivan Fratsovir, lives there with his wife and children.
“They’re closer to the Polish border, they’re in Western Ukraine, and it’s more rugged territory so it’d be tough for tanks to get to where they are, that’s for sure,” said Kulas. “He’s been very optimistic.”
The cousins can text back and forth using an app that translates their messages from English to Ukrainian, and Ukrainian to English.
A text from Ivan reads: “It is very scary that everything happened that way, and it is unbelievable that Russia attacked Ukraine. People are panicking, hiding in the subway, some have already left their homes. Rockets are falling all over our country, but we will not hand over our Ukraine to the occupiers. Putin wants to seize the capital, Belarus has supported Russia but I think everything will pass, everything will be fine. Thank you for your support.”
“Pretty brave,” said Kulas. “Hopefully God sees the wrongs and blesses the people being affected and that things get better. The strong religious beliefs and upbringing of the Ukrainian people is what’s holding them up.”
Seeking a good life
Haliburton resident Jennifer Mykolyshyn said she’s not one to post on social media very frequently, but the invasion of Ukraine has made her want to connect and share in a different way.
“It’s been emotional,” she said. “I’ve been reading articles like crazy. I never had Twitter, I never had TikTok, I never read The Kyiv Independent. I can’t stop looking. But I’m also trying to maintain my health. And also for my family members, I have to take breaks, only look at the news one or two times. But at the same time there’s a huge sense of guilt, that you can’t be with them and you only have to watch and feel it and know it, that they’re there. It’s this weird balancing thing.”
Mykolyshyn said while she’s had feelings or opinions about world events over the past few years, this time she feels directly connected.
“It’s affecting me and my family and it’s just … it’s an unreal thing,” she said. “When I’m imagining it’s happening, I imagine it’s our community here. What would it be like to take up arms with the people I work with and the people I live around, and have to do that?”
Her grandparents arrived in Canada by ship in the late-1940s and early 1950s, having been displaced by the Second World War.
Mykolyshyn said in her family, there has always been much love, and big meals.
“You can go anywhere in the world and a fellow Ukrainian will show you that love,” she said. “That’s just the way it always has been before any of this. There was always a sense of strength and a sense of love and unconditional caring. Strength and toughness. Ukrainians have a long history of war, war with Russia, suffering genocide, starvation, pain, and they always come through and survive.”
A few years ago, Mykolyshyn visited family who lives outside of Ukraine. Her cousin, she said, moved out decades ago.
“Ukraine has been a difficult place to live under Russian-sympathetic rulers, corruption and not a lot of opportunity sometimes,” she said.
Her cousin learned a new language in her 30s, brought her family and started a new business in another country, the location which Mykolyshyn does not want published to protect the security of her family.
“She has created this safe space to have a good life,” she said. “That’s what it’s always been, is to go get the good life. That’s why people came to Canada, for a good life. That’s what my grandparents did. They took crazy steps, left their families, left their home, left everything … The crazy thing is it’s happening again and they’re being pulled back into it. I can’t even imagine working so hard and living this good life and then all of a sudden you’re pulled back into this bad dream again. It’s – how do you stop this?“
Now, her cousins are returning to Ukraine to help protect the country from occupation.
“They’re amazing and wonderful and welcomed me with open arms and were so generous – cooked for me, taught me how to make borscht and pyrohy. I’ve had some really wonderful times with them and it’s just so weird to have it go from that, to …”
Mykolyshyn and her dad regularly speak with family – her dad speaks Ukrainian and will translate, or Mykolyshyn uses a translator to text. A few days ago, her family gathered for a dinner.
“They had a farewell dinner because they’re going back,” said Mykolyshyn. “There’s a lot of Ukrainian nationals that are going back to fight because it’s a duty. There’s no question. They can’t just let their country be taken over. It’s non-negotiable, it’s just the way it is.”
Mykolyshyn said the experience of seeing her family go through this has brought new perspective.
“Before this, I’ve been feeling that I haven’t had a lot of choice,” she said. “Being a millennial, the housing market exploding, not being able to buy a house, in other areas, too, feeling like I don’t have a lot of choice. But now I realize very much that we have every choice. We have every choice and freedom. My understanding of what freedom really is, is now very clear.”
Her worry has caused Mykolyshyn to take action, attempting to help through showing support from Haliburton County.
“Seeing all of the support and the rallies all over the world, the lighting up of the major cities, the Eiffel tower, it actually feels good to me,” she said. “It consoles me. It makes me feel like the whole world cares and is watching. There’s a feeling of unity. But I also see how every day things are ramping up.”
Besides personally donating to agencies helping those in need, she is looking into how she can help with a fundraiser, has ordered a flag for her car to promote continued awareness locally of the situation in Ukraine and after reaching out to Dysart et al, has confirmed the municipality will raise a flag to show support. Her partner, Mark Arike, has joined a Rise to the Challenge For Ukraine fundraiser in an effort to raise $2,000 for the Canadian Red Cross’s Humanitarian Crisis Appeal.
“I was surprised and happy, comforted to know, that people who are not Ukrainian or don’t have a Ukrainian background are feeling similar to what I am feeling, which is helplessness, wanting to do something,” she said. “There’s unity there, and humanity, of seeing people experiencing this and how wrong it is and needs to be stopped.”