Ukrainians across Niagara are feeling trepidation, fear and anger right now, as their native country is invaded by Russia.
Irene Newton, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Niagara, said there are “a lot of mixed feelings.”
“A lot of us still have family over there, including myself. So there's fear for family, anger at, of course, the Russian government for doing what they did, and anger that the world let it get to this point,” she said in an interview with The Lake Report.
“I wish that something could have been done sooner in advance, instead of being reactionary. Being proactive about this might have been the way to go. But, of course, nobody really knew whether Putin was actually going to go through with this or not.”
She said amid the anger is also a sense of gratefulness that countries worldwide are strongly condemning Russia’s actions.
“At the same time, we're also grateful and thankful that the western governments have stepped up, that they're all on this one page together and putting in the sanctions and sending defensive and lethal weapons and money and humanitarian aid,” she said.
The Canadian government has prioritized immigration for Ukrainian citizens, something she said she hopes to see Canada and other countries continue to do to help refugees.
“We're hoping that if necessary that all the governments will allow evacuees and refugees to leave Ukraine, if necessary, and come to our countries and find some peace and quiet.”
She said she’s been in talks with the province about fast-tracking refugees and the logistics behind it, including jobs, language barriers, housing. She said Ukrainian-Canadians are lining up to open their homes.
“There are so many Ukrainian families in Alberta, in Manitoba, in Ontario, in Saskatchewan, that they will all open their doors and open up their homes to the refugees.”
She’s also helping to raise money for the Canadian Ukrainian Foundation to send over humanitarian aid like food, clothing, beds and medical supplies.
One of the logistical problems is getting the supplies there, which will likely need to be done on land through Ukraine’s western borders, she said.
Newton and the Ukrainian Congress are hosting a rally on Saturday in St. Catharines to raise awareness and money.
The rally is “open to everyone to come with flags with placards, saying sanctions are required and asking Putin to get out of Ukraine and leave us alone,” she said.
Seeing the support globally means a lot to Ukrainians, she added.
“A lot of us have social media and we send this stuff back to our families in Ukraine by cellphone or computers, whatever, and it means a lot to them to see this. And it's worldwide. We've seen the major rallies in Germany and England, in the States, everywhere, in Canada — it's not ending — and that does certainly offer them a little bit of positivity, that we are there for them.”
Newton, whose Ukrainian maiden name is Schumylo, immigrated to Canada with her parents when she was just a year old. Her parents, who were about 30 years old at the time, had fled Ukraine during the Second World War “to escape what was happening there with the Communist regime and Hitler's regime fighting over Ukraine.”
She said there are obvious comparisons between Hitler’s and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s actions and, like many around the world, she condemned the Russian invasion as a war crime.
If she could, she said she would love to go and help her family over in Ukraine. “But that’s not going to happen, obviously.”
She notes that while she’s grateful for her life in Canada, it wasn’t a choice for many refugees.
“All this time and especially now with this new invasion and the new war breaking out, the thought that crossed my mind was 'Ukrainians didn't choose to come here.' Ukraine is a beautiful country, it offers a lot of possibilities. But when you're under fire, and you're under invasion, like so often as Ukraine has been for territory, they have no choice, they want to find safety,” Newton said.
“They want to find a place where their families can thrive. And Canada, God bless Canada, has become the perfect ground for that — a great country, a wonderful mosaic of multiculture and and people have been able to thrive here and work here and grow.”
She said she’s been in touch with her family in Ukraine, mainly first cousins, who thankfully live closer to the Polish border.
She said landlines are down, but most of her family has cellphones to stay in touch.
“They're they're closer to the west. So they're not in as much turmoil right now is the people from the east and from Kyiv … but they're looking at stores that are empty, schools that are closed, airports are closed. There's nothing on the shelves, the pharmacies are shut down and schools are shut down — everything. They're just locked down themselves. They really can't do much,” she said.
“The men from 18 to 60, if they're healthy, will not be allowed to leave. They're being asked to remain and stay to take arms and fight.”
She said the women and children in her family also hope to stay in Ukraine for as long as possible, “but they also know that if they have to they're ready to flee and they're ready to go to Poland.”
Several countries, including Canada and the U.S., have placed strict sanctions on Russia in response to the invasion.
Asked if she thinks sanctions are a strong enough reaction, Newton said, “It’ll be a strong long-term reaction. It’s not helping the immediate needs.”
“Bluntly put and I can see this, I think without any reservation, Putin has become a pariah, a war criminal now, because what he's done to Ukraine is nothing less than a war crime. A country totally unprovoked war that he sought on an innocent country because he doesn't like the fact that they want a democracy next door to him. And he should be treated as such. He should be treated as a war criminal and his government should be blackballed in every sense, and exports cut off.”
“And I know that's what they're doing, and those sanctions are great and sanctioning the oligarchs and all the people with wealth and money and the banks is all wonderful, but that's long-term. That's something that's not instant. And right now what we need is help,” she said.
“And Ukraine will stand up for itself. The people will fight, but they need the arms, they need the airplanes, they need the jets, they need the lethal weapons, the defensive weapons, and most of the western countries have now stepped up and are doing that and offering more and more aid to them.”
“So we're hoping that that will be a deterrent. But then this morning I hear Putin say, 'If the west keeps sticking their nose into our business, we will start using nuclear warfare, which I find totally insane. I mean, seriously, nuclear warfare? But this comes out of his mouth and I don't know. That's not good for anybody.”
She said she heard from a man from Romania today, who is living in Toronto.
“They're terrified in Romania, because they're right next to Ukraine. And so is Poland and Bulgaria and Slovakia. They don't want this. I mean, who wants any of this? And if Putin is ready to do this to Ukraine, he will continue into Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, Poland. It's not going to stop him. This is just fuelling his fire. So, people are on edge all over the place. It's not just Ukrainians. It's all the Eastern European countries who are bordering Ukraine.”
“What's to stop a crazy man from continuing his onslaught?”
She said someone needs to stop Putin.
“But nobody's been able to over the last 20 years. And I don't think they're going to be able to now unless one of his own does it.”
The rally is Saturday at 2 p.m., starting at Saints Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Catholic Church and marching to another Ukrainian church on Facer Street.
Donations will also be collected for the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal Fund, through the Canada Ukraine Foundation.
Anyone who wishes to make a donation can do so at www.cufoundation.ca.
She said Putin’s reasons for invading Ukraine — claiming Ukraine is carrying out a genocide — are completely fabricated and unjustified.
“He insists that Ukraine is being run by Nazis, which is ridiculous and I laugh all the time to my husband and I said, 'Then if Ukraine is Nazis, if we're run by Nazis, why would we have a Ukrainian-Jewish president? Because Olanski is of Jewish background and before him our prime minister in Ukraine was of Jewish background,” she said.
“That's Putin's alternate reality. He lives in an alternate reality.”