Toronto

Some Canadians aren't just sending aid — they're flying to Ukraine to join the fight

As people across Canada mobilize to help Ukraine with money and supplies, others are flying overseas to join the fight.

Ottawa warns against travel to Ukraine, but says it understands the desire to go

Kateryna Protsyk, left, had someone close to her leave for Ukraine this week. Anthony Walker, right, seen with his wife Rebecca and children, flew out of Toronto on Saturday. Both felt the call to defend the country against the Russian military. (Submitted by Kateryna Protsyk, Submitted by Rebecca Walker)

Kateryna Protsyk says her Toronto apartment was unrecognizable earlier this week.

Bullet-proof vests, helmets and medical supplies collected by friends were strewn across the floor — as much as they could fit into five pieces of luggage. Protsyk said goodbye to someone close to her who plans to join the front lines in Ukraine, where they both have family. CBC Toronto agreed not to identify him for fear of reprisals. 

"I asked him why he's going, and he said, 'First of all, because I am Ukrainian, that is my native land,'" she recalled.

"Then he said there is more he can do there than he can do here." 

Russian forces this week intensified their attacks on major urban areas, including the capital, Kyiv, and the strategic port cities of Odesa and Mariupol in the south. Amid the fighting, the humanitarian situation worsened and the international outcry against the invasion grew. More than 874,000 people have fled Ukraine in search of safety in neighbouring countries, a UN refugee agency spokesperson told CBC News Network on Wednesday.

Protsyk said his plan is to fly into a neighbouring eastern European country and then connect with people he knows in Ukraine at the border.

Protsyk says her friends raised money to send military and medical supplies to Ukraine. (Submitted by Kateryna Protsyk)

As people across Canada continue to mobilize to help Ukraine with financial aid and supplies, many in Ontario's Ukrainian community have been discussing how to enlist with the armed forces there. On Tuesday, the Ukrainian president signed a decree temporarily lifting the requirement for entry visas for any foreigner willing to join the country's International Defence Legion. While Canada is advising its citizens against travel to Ukraine, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Ottawa understands people's desire to take up arms.

Meanwhile, even Canadians outside the Ukrainian community, like Anthony Walker, have been talking about joining the fight. By Saturday, Walker was on a plane to eastern Europe.

"He said if it was happening to Canadians, we would want the help and one person can lead to another person, and another person. That was his motive," his wife Rebecca said.

The mother of three said Anthony is a comedian with no military background. At first, she was angry, but now she feels pride. Her husband has been sharing his journey on Twitter, where he has over 100,000 followers.

"You go through a lot of emotions. I've got to be supportive now," she said.

'You can help resist this horror'

Borys Wrzesnewskyj, chair of the Ukrainian World Congress's Human Rights Commission, says his organization is actively calling on Canadians to "join the resistance" and has already had a lot of interest.

"We've had many calls from people both from the Ukrainian-Canadian community and the general Canadian community," Wrzesnewskyj said. 

"We're particularly interested in people who have military or police experience."

Wrzesnewskyj, who is also a former member of Parliament, said the group is working with Ukrainian officials to get a process underway for Canadians who want to join.

"People are realizing this is not just an attack on Ukraine. Ukraine is a shield for the democratic West and the values we stand for. We call on all Canadians of goodwill who are willing to help."

Wrzesnewskyj said the call isn't just for combat troops, but also humanitarian efforts on the ground, especially with the large influx of refugees streaming into neighbouring countries.

Civilians learn about bomb awareness last month during a beginners combat and survival training course run by instructors from the Ukraine Territorial Defence units at a school in the capital, Kyiv. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

"You can help resist this horror in many ways," he said, adding he's not surprised that there is a collective feeling from Ukrainians across the globe of wanting to defend their country.

"It was not by choice that my grandparents came to Canada; they were refugees," he explained.

"Perhaps there are no other people in the world that so value their freedom and independence."

'We understand the desire to go'

Minister of National Defence Anita Anand said Canadians should know the risks of going to Ukraine.

"We understand this is a fight for Ukrainians' motherland and we understand the desire to go, but our responsibility as a government is to indicate the security risks with undertaking travel to Ukraine," she said Sunday at a news conference.

Anand said the more than $7 million in lethal military aid Canada had previously committed had been delivered. She emphasized a combat mission to aid Ukraine was "not on the table" for Canada.

Speaking later on Sunday, Anand and Joly both reiterated the official government warning not to travel to Ukraine, but also expressed sympathy with the desire of many to protect their ancestral home or aid family members.

"In that sense, it's their own individual decisions," Joly said.

Meanwhile, the military gear has been cleared out of Protsyk's apartment. While she said she's nervous about what could happen in the coming weeks, she's choosing to remain hopeful.

"As Ukrainians, faith is what we have," she said. 

"Faith in our military, faith in our people and also courage."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.

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