Surviving a faraway war

Yana Kachaluba is a Ukrainian student at Ryerson.

Yana Kachaluba is a Ukrainian student at Ryerson.


A Ukrainian-born Ryerson student is struggling to maintain normalcy in the face of conflict in her home country, where her relatives still live.

Yana Kachaluba says she has grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins living in Ukraine, where war looms after after a week of the worst violence since a promising ceasefire between the government and pro-Russian rebels in early September quickly apart.

Despite parliament voting to support a temporary and limited self-rule to two eastern regions in Ukraine, Ukrainian casualties continue in Luhansk and Donetsk.

The long-term future of Luhansk and Donetsk remains unpredictable, and the breakdown of last Friday’s ceasefire stands as a reminder that peace is tenuous at best.

“They are freaking out about my cousins being called into the military,” said the second-year business student and secretary of Ryerson’s Ukrainian Students’ Club.

The crisis began with protests last November, when Ukraine’s then-president refused to sign a European Union trade agreement.

The five ensuing months of violence has battered many parts of Ukraine. According to the United Nations, about 250,000 people in the city of Luhansk have no electricity or running water. As of Sept. 16, the UN says more than 310,000 people have been internally displaced and another 814,000 have fled to Russia.

“I know a lot of people here, young guys and fathers, are signing up to go to Ukraine in case war breaks out,” Kachaluba said. “It’s scary. My friend’s dad signed up for war. Like, what is going on?”Kachaluba added that her uncle is in Canada on a work visa, but, much like her friend’s father, he is determined to return to Ukraine if war breaks out. Kachaluba, who moved to Canada from Ivano-Frankivsk in the western part of the country when she was five, is among 1.2 million Ukrainian-Canadians in Canada. Among the provinces, Ontario has the highest population of Ukrainian diaspora, with 130,355 in Toronto alone, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada report.

Ukrainian student Yana Kachaluba in her dancing costume for Barvinok Ukrainian Dance School

Ukrainian student Yana Kachaluba in her dancing costume for Barvinok Ukrainian Dance School

The Ukrainian group Kachaluba belongs to has had more than 120 pledges in the past year, and is one of Ryerson’s largest ethnic clubs. This year, it hopes to expand its platform beyond social-club status.

On Sept. 27, the club is expected to host a large boat zabava (dance) to raise funds for the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, which is providing humanitarian aid to Kyiv.

“Although it is easy and tempting to feel helpless during this time, it is more important to keep the community together and do what we can that will benefit the situation,” says Michael Fik, president of the club.

“The only way to do that is to stay active and to try to raise money.”

The group hopes the events will bring Ukrainian students together and engage them in the issues surrounding their country.

“I felt that responsibility,” Kachaluba said. “There’s not much I can do, personally, myself…I’m just worried. It’s my country.”

Kachaluba is also active in the expatriate community. She speaks Ukrainian at home with her parents, celebrates Ukraine’s Independence Day on Aug. 24 and performs with the Barvinok Ukrainian Dance School. She says these activities help her maintain a Ukrainian identity in Canada, her current home.

Kachaluba says she’s had it with the constant stream of upsetting stories flowing out of her homeland.

“It made me depressed. They would have live streams of people getting shot by snipers. You see the families reacting and the funerals,” she said, adding the conflict made studying for finals last spring especially difficult.

“Exam period was the worst week for me. Everything was happening and I had to study for exams. I couldn’t take my eyes off the TV.”

Kachaluba says she recognizes that re-establishing stability in Ukraine would be challenging. Ukrainian MPs have granted self-rule to two eastern regions in Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, and have also given an amnesty to pro-Russian rebels there. The long-term future of Luhansk and Donetsk, remains unpredictable, and the breakdown of last Friday’s ceasefire stands as a reminder that peace is often tenuous.

“If war does break out, we (can’t) compare to Russia’s equipment or their military,” she said. “Russia runs the world, practically. So, it’s hard to think about that.”

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