Many Canadian residents with family in Ukraine are left feeling helpless and in constant fear for their safety.
Marika Gray, communications outreach for St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Parksville, was born in the province of Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine and moved to Canada with her immediate family in 1959.
Throughout her life, she has been in constant communication with her family and has returned to visit many times.
Since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, Gray has only had sporadic contact with two of her cousins; at first through internet video calling, and now only over the phone.
She is unsure how much longer she’ll be able to keep in touch. Internet access is completely unavailable to her family. Gray is completely dependent on her cousins for updates on her family’s well-being.
“It’s been hard for them to keep it together. Initially, they held it together a little better. They were hoping it would stop. Of course, we were all hoping it would. But they are extremely fearful. We cry when we talk to each other. It’s very heart-wrenching speaking to them and wanting to help and knowing there’s absolutely nothing that we can do about it. Except hope they can get to one of the borders so they can eventually come to Canada – whether that’s possible at this point, I’m not sure,” she said.
The family Gray has communicated with were born and raised in western Ukraine. Their last location known to her was approximately four hours southeast of Lviv, one of the largest cities in Ukraine located approximately 70 kilometres from the Polish border.
“However, more recently, there have been bombings near Lviv and near the Lviv airport. So, right now it’s very worrisome because they are close to there. And the last time I spoke to (her cousin), they did hear bombings,” said Gray.
Gray’s family has told her the citizens that have not, or cannot, reach or cross surrounding borders are fleeing from eastern to western Ukraine.
Similar to so many others, Gray’s family have not yet crossed the border because they don’t want to leave behind loved ones that cannot, or are not allowed to cross; they have medical conditions that prevent mobilization; there is a lack of vehicle transporation; and they don’t want to risk their lives in crossing humanitarian corridors designated for evacuating citizens.
“There have been road closures for some time. So getting out is hard… And then when there have been agreements with Russia to have a corridor for escaping, those corridors have been bombed. So it’s extremely fearful. Do you trust the corridors, or do you not?”
A family member of Gray’s has chosen to stay with her husband, who is under 60 years old and cannot cross a border since, reportedly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has imposed a temporary restriction that prevents all men between 18 and 60 from evacuating in order to maintain military readiness.
If some of Gray’s family is able to eventually evacuate to Poland, they know people on the other side that could help them. If only they could get there.
“They were hopeful that things wouldn’t get as bad in western Ukraine. However, it seems that it is progressing. And if they really had to, I’m hoping that somehow they would be able to get to the border,” she said, although adding there have been reports of bombings near the Polish border as well – where a majority of refugees are fleeing.
“It’s hard. I’ve spoken to other people that have family in Ukraine and they’re in the same position as I am. They hope they get away. Some people, very few people, have trickled into Canada. And we can only hope and pray that our families and other Ukrainians can escape this.”
St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Church is accepting donations for the Canada-Ukraine Foundation to help with humanitarian efforts.
Joy Lockhart, communications and treasurer for the church, said people have reached out through social media to ask if they could provide assistance or offer support in any way. Others have even offered accommodations for Ukraine refugees.
“Then there are people who want to come into into our church and they want to just come and sit and pray reflect. And that’s OK, too. If people want to do that, all they have to do is reach out to us and we’ll arrange for them to be able to do that,” she said.
For refugee sponsorship, Lockhart suggests those interested can contact the department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
For anyone interested in participating in the church’s culture, they will hold a Pysanka (Ukrainian Easter egg) workshop on Saturday, April 9.
“It’s important for people to know that we have people that come to services from all over the world. We have people from Romania and Serbia and Georgia and Greece. We are an Orthodox Church,” said Lockhart.