Ukrainian Manitobans relive historical pain, offer help from afar amid Russian siege

As Ukrainians continue to flee the Russian invasion and advance on Kyiv, many are being helped by the kindness of their fellow citizens while others are reliving heartaches.

'I think everyone's just in a state of shock, horror, anxiety ... just trying to process it,' prof says

This photograph shows a view of a school destroyed as a result of fighting not far from the centre of Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, located some 50 km from Ukrainian-Russian border, on Monday. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

WARNING: This story contains graphic images.

Orysia Kulick couldn't stop the tears from coming.

Even as an assistant professor in political studies at the University of Manitoba, she struggles to make sense of the Russian siege in Ukraine.

"I think everyone's just in a state of shock, horror, anxiety and everyone is just trying to process it," she said. "There's a lot of sharing of information, we're checking in with our people back in Ukraine, we're talking to one another, trying to hold one another up.

"There's a lot of pain."

Being from a Ukrainian family, Kulick has witnessed that pain among those watching an assault on their country for the second time.

Orysia Kulick says everyone is in a state of shock, horror, anxiety and trying to process what is happening in Ukraine. (Submitted by Orysia Kulick)

"My grandmother, when she saw the news, put her shoes on, she put herself to bed without dinner before seven o'clock, just went into the dark room," Kulick said. "She's back there to when she was eight and the Soviets came in 1939."

In Winnipeg, as in many other places, there is a community of people who came as refugees of the Second World War. This is a community that knows a few things about intergenerational trauma, she said.

"We're sort of reliving stories that we've heard, experiences that are held in our own bodies, and now it's happening again," said Kulick, who also teaches a range of courses on Ukrainian culture and society.

"But watching this unfold in the 21st century, with weapons that are far worse, with stakes that are much higher, is just devastating."

Blood from the body of a serviceman colors the snow next to a destroyed Russian military multiple rocket launcher vehicle on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine on Friday. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)

To deal with it, people are experiencing very different and very personal responses, she said. Some are getting active, some are going silent but everyone is coping the best way they can.

"It's just sad, war is hell and it has no place in 2022. And I think we really need a collective spiritual and moral reset. This is wrong."

'Deja vu'

For Myron Pawlowsky, coping means consuming and sharing as much information as he can.

"I'm not able to stop obsessing about it really," he said.

Though he has lived in Winnipeg his entire life, the current situation in Ukraine still hits close to home. His parents met in a displaced persons camp close to the end of the Second World War after fleeing Ukraine amid the advancement of the Soviet Red Army.

"It is deja vu all over again, literally," he said.

During the war, his teenage mother and her sister were couriers for the Ukrainian insurgent movement. When the Soviets claimed Ukraine, their lives were at risk so they escaped to Canada.

"My mother's family found out after they left … that they were on a list to be sent to Siberia to be repressed in some fashion," Pawlowsky said.

Now it's his cousin, Oksana, who is on the run. The retired schoolteacher who lived in Boryslav, in Western Ukraine, recently fled to Poland along with her husband, their adult daughter and her two sons, aged nine and 11. 

Oksana's son-in-law, who is about 40, stayed. Under martial law, Ukraine banned all male citizens ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

"They hope the son-in-law doesn't get drafted and is able to to look after the house — and that there's still a house when they come back," Pawlowsky said.

An armoured personnel carrier burns and damaged light utility vehicles stand abandoned after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Sunday. (Marienko Andrew/The Canadian Press)

Oksana's other daughter lives in Poland, in a town 120 kilometres from Boryslav. But the journey by car took 2½ days because of long waits at the border.

"Buses full of kids from orphanages were arriving at the border and they were being processed ahead of families and cars," Pawlowsky said. "She said it was tragic seeing these poor kids with no parents to speak of, or no parents were looking after them, being taken to Poland."

With no options but to wait in their car, Oksana's family was met with food and other items from Ukrainians on one side of the border, and then Polish people on the other, Pawlowsky said.

"She's been magnificently, positively surprised by the help they received on the way," Pawlowsky said.

He has been messaging his cousin and her daughter in Poland, while doing what he can from 8,000 kilometres away.

"To me, it's not just my relatives, as dear as they are to me, but Ukraine is dear to me," Pawlowsky said. "This Russian attack has literally taken over my life over the last few days."

He is using social media to combat disinformation and to direct people to organizations seeking humanitarian aid.

"I feel as if I'm coordinating some assistance effort but of course I'm an ordinary citizen. I realize I have a small role to play but nonetheless … I really feel as if it's my duty."

Musician offers shelter

Oleksandr Bulich, better known by his stage name Sasha Boole, is also doing what he can but from a much closer vantage point.

He lives in a town near Chernivtsi in Western Ukraine, where he has set aside his guitar and songs to offer shelter to refugees.

"Mostly it's women and kids. Some of them are in the city of Chernivtsi in the flats that we own, and some of them are in the basement of a house in the countryside," Boole told CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Monday.

Sasha Boole has set aside his music to focus on sheltering people from the war in Ukraine. (Sasha Boole/Twitter)

He and his brother have hauled water to the countryside home and have built benches from wood gathered nearby. They have also provided sleeping bags, dehydrated food and a small gas stove, offering what they can to their boarders.

At present they have about 20 people but the numbers are dynamic. For some, the shelter is a brief pause on their way to Romania.

"For them, it's kind of a stop, to have a deep breath, to have some food, to sleep normally because some of the people spent two or three days on the road … or, before, they were sleeping in a subway or in a bomb shelter," Boole said.

"But some of them are staying here and they don't plan to go anywhere from Ukraine. They want to join and help Ukrainians to do anything they can."

Five days into the invasion, there is a stark and emotional contrast in the country, Boole said. 

"From one side you see the pure kind of support and collaboration between people here in Chernivtsi and around — people letting people live in their houses, people cooking food and giving it for free, people trying to help as much as they can," he said.

"But from the other side, you see that there's cities like Kharkiv that are almost vanished with artillery and dead civilians."

In the days leading up to the war, musician friends around the globe offered to take Boole in, "but I said no, I will stay with my family, with my friends, my country."

When it is necessary, Boole intends to strap on gun rather than a guitar and step into the battlefield.

"Right now, there's such a lot of people that want to do it, they are actually asking you, 'just wait, we will contact you,'" he said.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Marcy Markusa, Caitlyn Gowriluk, Peggy Lam