Ukrainians flee the iron fist

Story and photo by JACE BARRACLOUGH

“Me and my wife had to escape and almost got killed since we never supported Russia”

 

Protesters rally in the Maidan. Photo courtesy of Art Ira via Facebook.

The winter of 2013-14 changed the lives of Ukrainians forever. Thousands were displaced and forced to find shelter in either refugee camps located in more peaceful areas of Ukraine or across the border in Russia.

This happened when former Ukrainian President Yanukovych decided to back out of joining the European Union (EU), which would have allowed better trade with European countries and a step toward westernization.

Instead, Yanukovych rejoined with Russia. In the bitter cold, citizens took to the streets to protest the decision and demand the impeachment of their president.

Thousands of protesters filled the town square in Kiev, also known as the Maidan. Not even the Berkut (riot police) could force them out. A civil war erupted between the Berkut and protesters. It was then that President Yanukovych fled to Russia and gave the Russian military permission to take control of the situation.

As bombs shook some homes and demolished others, thousands of Ukrainians fled, only taking what they could fit inside the suitcases they would be carting around for months, potentially years.

According to the United Nations, there are over 2 million Ukrainians displaced and another 300,000 seeking asylum in neighboring countries.

Aden Batar, immigration and refugee resettlement director for Catholic Community Services, says that refugee camps are crowded and some of the tents may be filled to capacity, forcing people to make their own shelter using other resources.

Batar says one can receive refugee status for various reasons, but in the case of Alex Evgeniya — it was his political affiliation.

“We are refugees from Ukraine, but our status is still pending,” Alexey Evgeniya says.

Evgeniya and his wife are from Crimea, a peninsula that was part of Ukraine until Russia invaded in February 2014. Russia then decided to annex the peninsula making it its own.

“Me and my wife had to escape and almost got killed since we never supported Russia,” he says.

Along with their escape comes anonymity. They, as well as many other Ukrainian refugees, are reluctant to divulge information in fear of Russian intelligence intercepting any and all channels of communication, thus putting their own lives in danger.

Ukraine is no stranger to conflict. Ukraine fought for Germany in World War I. In World War II Ukrainians were divided. Some fought for Germany, others Russia and many for their own independence.

As a country pinned between the influences of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it seems they’ve battled a constant game of tug-of-war being pulled in all different directions. It wasn’t until 1991 that Ukraine declared its independence from the USSR.

However, in 1994 Ukraine signed an agreement to be protected by the Russian military. Thus, allowing Russia to once again grab hold.

“I feel that refugees [are] afraid to talk about their stories,” says Oleh Kernytsky, mission facilitator  at St. Jude Maronite Catholic Church in Murray. “It is not only for security reason[s], but they don’t want [to] go again through all troubles they had in the past.”

Kernytsky says most refugees he associates with tend to focus more on life since their resettlement and choose to leave the past where they believe it belongs — in the past.

One of Kernytsky’s congregation members was a professional bobsledder who trained for the Nagano, Japan, Winter Olympics. Though she was the superior athlete, another candidate bribed the officials and made the team instead.

She was discouraged but decided to continue training for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. This time she made the team.

It was unclear as to what the “bribe” entailed. However, it would be one of the major factors as to why she didn’t dare go back to Ukraine following the 2002 Olympics after making and competing in the bobsledding event she was denied four years prior.

Seeking asylum, she stayed in Utah and graduated from the University of Utah with a Ph.D. in physical therapy. She is now married with children and works as a physical therapist in Salt Lake City.

Class at the University of Utah.

It’s likely tough to imagine something good on the horizon when you are engulfed in such hostile and tense situations. But tragedy often helps one to understand and appreciate the most important things.

Aden Batar helps us to recognize most of those things aren’t necessarily tangible.

He says, “Peace is something you cannot buy.”