“This is not new to us but the extent of it is,” says OUSC president Anhelina Ostapyk
Since the early morning hours of Feb. 24, the world has been following the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although Canada and several other countries have taken punitive measures including economic sanctions and foreign aid, much attention has been focused on the Ukrainian people living in the midst of these forces and how they can be supported.
“I remember exactly when I heard the news because I was out for dinner [with friends]. Then when I returned to my Airbnb, I was getting so many Twitter notifications,” said Diana Tkachenko, former uOttawa Ukrainian Students’ Club (OUSC) member and third-year visual arts student.
“And then I go on TikTok, and the first thing that I see is somebody saying, ‘oh the city of Kramatorsk has been shelled’. That’s the city that I was born in…so my first initial thing was ‘oh, I need to call my dad and I need to call my grandma.’ ”
For the executive members of the OUSC, the news has been expected since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 — which itself, has an extensive history behind it — yet the shock and emotions persist.
“This is not new to us but, the extent of it is. And it’s really distressing, but it wasn’t off the table before Feb. 24,” said OUSC president and fifth-year anthropology student Anhelina Ostapyk.
“Even prior to 2014, Ukrainians and Ukraine have been oppressed on all fronts. Historically, for centuries, every century. Ukraine has never invaded Russia. But there’s just such a complex, dark history there with a lot of tragedy.”
Andriana Ozymtchak, a first-year law student and OUSC advocacy director, was aware of the gathering of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border since November and felt like something would happen.
“I just didn’t think that it would be on this scale of an entire invasion of the country. It’s like we were dreading it, but we didn’t expect it to happen,” said Ozymtchak. “When the news came in, I was on Twitter, just looking at tweets about Ukraine. And I came across the tweet that Putin declared war officially, at the exact moment when it came out on Twitter. I was just in a state of shock that entire night.”
While Tkachenko was born and raised in Ukraine until her family immigrated to Canada at 12, Ostapyk and Ozymtchak were both born in Canada and had been heavily involved in the Ukrainian-Canadian community.
For Ostapyk, the Ukrainian-Canadian community felt like the place she fit in.
“I grew up in a Ukrainian household like speaking the language and learning about the cultural traditions and stuff like that. And the Ukrainian community was the place where there were people that I could connect with on that level,” she said.
“Just being part of [the] Ukrainian community, everyone’s very passionate. And we call ourselves diehards for our country. No matter if you’re born in Ukraine, or if your parents immigrated from Ukraine to Canada or your grandparents, everyone has the same passion for the country, the culture and the language,” said Ozymtchak.
All three members have family members and friends still living in Ukraine, with some fleeing from the situation and others remaining in the country due to the ban of men aged 18-60 leaving the country. They use apps like WhatsApp and Fiverr, or simple phone calls to keep in touch, as internet connections are being disrupted.
“My cousin is over the age of 18, so he can’t leave the country and none of my family wants to leave him there so they’re all staying. And the same thing is with my dad, he is under the age of 60, so he can’t leave the country either. So everybody’s just kind of staying in there. We’re just able to talk to them whenever they’re not hiding because there are air-raids going off pretty often,” said Tkachenko.
The members of the OUSC have been focusing their efforts on supporting the Ukrainian-Canadian student community here in Ottawa, as well as international students from Ukraine. With support from the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) and the Ukrainian Canadian Students’ Union (SUSK), the club is trying to push for academic accommodations and mental health resources.
“A lot of our students speak Russian and Ukrainian as their first or native languages, so we’re trying to coordinate with community members who are qualified to deliver Russian and Ukrainian language counselling and psychotherapy sessions,” said Ostapyk.
“We also had a support session last Thursday, with just club members for us to all gather over zoom and sort of support each other and support each other emotionally and like listen to each other’s experiences and how we’re all feeling and to provide advice to one another on how to kind of cope,” said Ozymtchak.
Members would like supporters of the situation to think critically about insensitive jokes that might be made or disinformation that might circulate regarding the situation.
“Be mindful of the kind of language you use. And as well the kind of jokes you make, because I feel like there’s been just like a recurrent pattern on social media of people making jokes that genuinely have nothing to do with them,” said Tkachenko.
“People should be mindful if they’re asking for Ukrainian people to explain the situation to them. I’ve had that happen multiple times now where somebody has DM’d me and didn’t ask me if I was okay, and they were like ‘oh, can you explain to me what is happening?.’ ”
Ostapyk says that no one can understand the weight of the war unless they understand the history of Ukraine, how they have been oppressed, and the historical context between Ukraine and Russia.
“I really encourage people who want to learn about what’s happening right now to try to learn about [the] history of Ukraine and how Ukraine was treated during the Soviet Union, World War Two, World War One, and beyond that.”
Tkachenko says that there is a significant lack of resources in Ukraine, such as food, medicine, and humanitarian resources, and that people cannot work while in hiding. Ostapyk clarifies that the Ukrainian Catholic Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church are both accepting donations for medical supplies and resources.
Ozymtchak advises those in support of Ukrainians to repost factual information regarding the situation and avoid triggering content that may affect students.
“What I’ve been trying to do is post more information that is a bit more supportive of what’s happening, so a little bit more uplifting. If President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy makes a statement, I’d post that because it’s a bit more hopeful,” she said.
Resources for those wishing to support Ukraine and Ukrainian students
- Follow news updates from sources such as The Kyiv Independent and Svidomi, directly reporting news live from Ukraine.
- Donate to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress or the Canada-Ukraine Foundation for humanitarian aid and monetary donations, respectively.
- Watch documentaries such as ‘Winter on Fire’ to stay informed about the history of Ukraine.