‘It’s still painful’: Ukrainian residents mark 2 years since start of Russian invasion

Sonya Jahn speaks to local residents and Ukrainian families gathered at St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church to mark two years since Russia invaded Ukraine. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

On Feb. 24, 2022, Maria Trofymchuk was trying to answer a question no parent wants to hear their child ask: are we going to die today?

Trofymchuk and her then three-year-old daughter where living in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv when Russia invaded the country. She quickly packed her daughter into her car and started driving west.

“She saw the military equipment in the road going straight towards us,” Trofymchuk remembered. “This was our guys. This was our (Ukrainian) forces, but she asked, ‘Mom, what is going on?’ I said to her, ‘it (is the) start (of a) war, and she asked me, ‘Mom, will we die today?’ I looked into this three-year-olds eyes, and I didn’t know what (to) answer.”

Trofymchuk’s trip to the Western part of Ukraine normally would have taken eight to 10 hours. On that day, it took more than 20 because of how many people were trying to escape the fighting. Eventually, Trofymchuk and her daughter reached safety, and travelled in Prince Albert in October 2022 after a short stay in Newfoundland.

Trofymchuk said her daughter has learned English quickly, and adjusted well to life in Canada. But on days like Saturday, which marked two years since the start of the Russian invasion, they can’t help but feel sad.

“She’s (a) very smart girl and she knows that it’s war in Ukraine (and) it’s dangerous,” Trofymchuk said. “She knows she’s Ukrainian and we pray every evening. Sometimes I forget, but she reminds me. ‘Mom, we need to pray for Ukraine, and for victory—for our victory,’ but she misses home very much.”

Trofymchuk and her daughter are one of 114 Ukrainian families who have arrived in Prince Albert since the war began. Many of them were at the St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church in Prince Albert on Saturday to pray for Ukraine and remember those who had lost their lives, their families, and their homes during the invasion.

Maria Trofymchuk speaks during Saturday’s ceremony marking two years since the start of the Russian invasion. — Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

“It’s still painful,” said Trofymchuk, who acted as emcee for the evening. “It still hurts, like the first day.

“Ukrainians are very brave and fight bravely,” she added. “I hope that victory will be very, very soon, not in years, but in months. We really wait for that and pray for that every day.”

Olha Slipchenko was living in Myrhorod on the first day of the invasion. The city is located roughly two-and-a-half hours east of Kyiv.

Myrhorod literally means “City of Peace” in Ukrainian, but all Slipchenko remembers from that time are fights breaking out everywhere, and local residents fleeing their homes.

“I’m very sad,” she said through a translator. “It (Saturday) is a day when it comes back to your memory.”

In Prince Albert, Slipchenko has settled in as part of the community. On Saturday, she was one of many Ukrainian newcomers who performed with the Veselka Ukrainian Choir.

Slipchenko said she’s grateful for the chance to be with other Ukrainians on the anniversary of the invasion. She’s also optimistic Ukraine will win.

“I think all of Ukraine is positive,” she said. “We had a chance to give up. What to do? Give our land to Putin? No. Never. We will fight him to the last.”

Saturday’s ceremony included prayers from Rev. Andrei Kachur of St. George, a candle lighting ceremony, and remarks from Prince Albert resident Sonya Jahn, who has overseen efforts to help Ukrainian families settle in Prince Albert.

Jahn told the families in attendance they are loved here in Prince Albert. She said that’s an important message to get out on a day so many Ukrainians are missing their friends, their extended family, and their home.

“Some of them would love to go back, but they know that they have nothing to go back to,” Jahn said. “Their homes have been bombed, and they have nothing left back home. Many of their family members have been killed, their neighbours, and yet they miss their homeland.

“We want them to feel welcome, to know that they’re loved, to know that they’re cared for and we really want them to have a good future here.”

While the fighting continues, more and more families continue to arrive in Prince Albert. Jahn said she expects four new families to make the trip, although it’s difficult to say when they’ll arrive.

“I never know from day to day when I might get some more families,” she said. “I could have some more families tomorrow who will just pop up, and I have people who will contact me right from Europe to say that they’d like to come to Prince Albert.

“Some of the larger centres are getting filled up, so now they’re looking at places that still have availability for housing and employment opportunities,” she added. “We are one of those locations that still can do that. Although accommodations may be limited, we still have the ability to support these families.”

Members of the Veselka Choir perform during Saturday’s ceremony marking two years since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. — Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Jahn said they’re still looking for donations to help those families. The biggest needs are new or like-new towels, plus sheets and quilts for double or queen-sized beds.

Bedroom and kitchen furniture is also a big need. Jahn said they have a Quonset to store donated furniture. She estimates they’ve filled it up and emptied it out a dozen times already.

Jahn’s mother was born in Ukraine, and she visited the country before the invasion. She said it’s sad to see such a beautiful country destroyed, and so many families forced to leave their homes.

“All of these people are like you and me. They just want to live a peaceful life,” Jahn said. “They just want to live to raise their children. They are working people. They want to contribute to their communities, and to be productive individuals and contribute to a society and share their culture, so it makes me sad that that is all being destroyed right now.”

To help support the war efforts, local Ukrainians plan to host a fundraising supper at St. George on Friday, March 1. The meal includes ham, scalloped potatoes, perogies, and vegetables. All funds raised will go towards purchasing medical and protective gear for the soldiers of Ukraine.

Tickets cost $30 and are available at Ukreation in the Gateway Mall.