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Monday, April 22, 2024
While bombs fall around her family, one Niagara woman staves off helplessness with action

As bombs fell on Kyiv on Monday night, Daria Zakharchenko was on the phone with her mother who was trying to sleep in an apartment hallway for protection from the incoming Russian artillery.

“I was talking to my parents last night when all the explosions were happening and my mom was like, ‘OK, hold on, we are going to hear from truthful sources, from our government, where the missiles landed,’ ” Zakharchenko said in an interview on Tuesday.

When the invasion first began, missiles fell within a five-minute walk of her family’s home in Kyiv, the 27-year-old said.

It can be difficult to differentiate truth from fiction with the sheer volume of videos, pictures and reports coming from all over Ukraine and worldwide media, she said.

Zakharchenko’s mother, father and grandmother live in the besieged Ukrainian capital. Her father is unable to leave as all Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are being called to the defence of their country.

Convincing her mother and grandmother to leave has been fruitless.

“My mom said, ‘I’m not going to leave my husband,’ and my grandmother said, ‘I’m not going to leave my only son. I’m not going anywhere,’ ” Zakharchenko said.

But, “once we win, you guys come here and you can relax,” she told her family.

Zakharchenko is working with the Niagara-on-the-Lake Rotary Club to gather physical supplies and cash donations to support people in Ukrainian. They are collecting items at PigOut Catering’s warehouse in St. Catharines.

Zakharchenko is connected to the Rotary Club through her employer at PigOut, Anne Dickson, who is a NOTL Rotary member.

Dickson told the club about Zahkarchenko’s drive to collect donations.

Zakharchenko said collecting and organizing donations has made her feel less helpless, and encouraged all Canadians to donate and help in any way they can.

“A little bit is always better than zero,” she said.

Rotary Club president Patricia Murenbeeld said she met Zakharchenko as she was collecting her first bunch of donations to send to Ukraine.

“And a light went on and I said, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do this alone,’ ” Murenbeeld said at the warehouse on Tuesday.

Murenbeeld noted there are many Rotary Clubs in Ukraine as well, meaning they literally are fighting for their lives and homes.

“That’s the real piece of the puzzle that is unique, that we have to support our neighbours,” Murenbeeld said.

Zakharchenko moved to Canada six years ago with her parents’ encouragement.

“Basically, my parents pushed me. They were like, ‘We want to send you to Canada,’ ” Zakharchenko said.

She and her brother Dimitri settled in St. Catharines.

“They wanted for us a better life,” she said.

It is no coincidence that her parents pushed for their children to leave the country after the initial Russian invasion in 2014, which Zakharchenko recalls with intimate detail.

“I remember this day very well,” she said.

“The day, when it started, all the shootings. I remember I was going from university and my dad was picking me up,” she said.

“My friend was staying at the dormitory and she was from another city and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so scared.’ So I said, ‘Dad, we are picking up all my friends and we are going to our apartment,’ because it was a really dangerous time.”

“But we blocked the attack. Lots of people died but the Russians actually retreated,” though now they occupy parts of Ukraine, she said.

With the current invasion, Zakharchenko’s 23-year-old brother has been considering returning to help fight.

“He’s like, ‘Give me the tank I will just go there and get them,’ ” she said with a laugh.

But avoiding war was precisely the reason her parents pushed for their children to move halfway around the world and they are happy their kids are safe, she said.

Talking about the atrocity that is the Russian invasion of Ukraine was difficult for Zakharchenko, who broke into tears several times as she recalled stories she has heard from first-hand witnesses and seen on social media – tales of Ukrainian bravery, resilience, determination and suffering in the face of unfounded aggression.

“I’m stressed for the past 20 days. Everything will be good. We are holding but it’s difficult to talk about it,” she said with tears in her eyes and a smile on her face.

Zakharchenko has been disgusted at the atrocities the Russian army is inflicting on Ukrainian civilians.

“When you’re an adult, it’s hard on you mentally. But when you’re a mom and you’re actually pregnant …” she trailed off.

“This is so hard to talk about, but a pregnant woman actually died with her unborn baby,” she said regarding a Russian artillery strike that levelled a maternity hospital in Mariupol last week.

She said 4,000 children have been born in Ukraine since the war began, many of them born in bomb shelters and subway stations.

“When the first kid was born on the subway, in the bomb shelter there, everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there is a light of hope,’ ” she said.

Russian rhetoric has been as aggravating as the attacks on civilians are disgusting.

“Russia said, ‘Ya, we attacked (the maternity hospital) but there were no people in it.’ They actually said that,” Zakharchenko said, outraged.

“Russians are saying, ‘Oh, no, these are all actors.’ Like, seriously?”

“It’s just barbaric how this is even possible in the 21st century. You can cross a border with guns and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to save you,’ by killing you,” she said.

She noted Russian rhetoric and even some of what is seen on the media serves the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.

“It’s all propaganda. Unfortunately, 140 million Russians, not all of them, but most, believe it because they were brainwashed for the past 20 years.”

Referencing a viral video of a Russian broadcast employee this week speaking out against the invasion on state-run television, she encouraged people to read between the lines.

She said Russian state television is not broadcast “live,” even if it says it is and the video would most likely only have gotten released with approval from the Kremlin.

She referenced an equally famous video of Vladimir Putin giving a “live” address in which his hand casually moves through a microphone in the shot, demonstrating the video was faked to distill confidence in Russia’s “lunatic” of a leader.

She also wanted people to be aware that Russia is spreading narratives meant to undermine the resilience and stability of Ukrainian citizens.

“Russia wants our people to panic because when you’re panicked it’s easy to get to you,” she said.

And that is why the support of Canadians is essential to the war in Ukraine. Supplies and monetary donations are extremely important but by demonstrating support we can help the Ukrainian spirit stay strong, too, she said.

“You have to actually support them, motivate them so they are actually staying strong,” she said.

“Because if you’re going to panic or if you’re feeling so depressed it’s going to affect you — you can’t. You have to stay until the end.”

She said Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy has been a source of stability and confidence for Ukrainian people, shaming anyone who ever doubted the former comedian would not be a good leader for the country.

“Where are all your presidents right now and where is our comedian?” she said.

Zelenskyy is, as the world knows, on the frontlines of the war asking for ammunition for his troops instead of evacuations for himself and working tirelessly to garner support for his country.

Support and encouragement for Ukraine were alive in every word Zakharchenko spoke.

“I always tell my parents, ‘Guys, we’re gonna win soon.’ I believe that,’” she said.

“We believe in our victory. Every single person in Ukraine believes in our victory. Mom was like, ‘Well, we’re going to win. There’s no other thought than that.’ ”

At a meeting on Tuesday, the NOTL Rotary Club made the “historic” decision to reallocate $10,000 from its community service committee in order to help Ukraine.

The club will be donating $25,000 to various relief efforts at home and on the ground in Ukraine, including Doctors Without Borders, an organization with members literally on the front lines of the invasion, helping care for wounded Ukrainians.

The $25,000 is going to be matched by the federal government and an anonymous Ukrainian doctor.

Murenbeeld was adamant her club’s support will not end once the war is over.

“The country will have to be rebuilt,” she said.

“I see that as the really long-term, one-on-one personal impact the club can do. When (the conflict is over) it’s not stopping, it’s not stopping there,” she said.

Zakharchenko agreed. “We need to restore the country. We have to provide houses for people who, right now, are in Poland or western Ukraine and their houses have been completely destroyed.”

She said entire cities have been destroyed by Russian bombing.

“My hope is someday you and I are going to be in Ukraine and we are going to be together, boots on the ground,” Murenbeeld said to Zakharchenko.

“Absolutely,” Zakharchenko replied, saying she and her brother plan on going to help rebuild once the Russians have been kicked out of the country.

If you would like to support Zakharchenko and Rotary Club’s work to support Ukraine, she can be reached at 905-650-0781.

The Rotary Club’s next big fundraiser is its Gigantic Garage Sale on May 14 and 15. Funds raised will go toward children’s charities and will be split between the club’s Community Service Committee and the International Service Committee.

The international funds have been committed to a maternal and child health project in Mali.

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