Ukrainians in Toronto look on as violence rages amid Russian invasion

As fighting rages and the world's eyes are on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, people in the Greater Toronto Area with ties to the region are watching and hoping for the safety of their families and friends.

People with family in Ukraine tell CBC News they are frightened, but their country must be defended

Toronto resident fears for family’s safety in Ukraine

4 months ago
Duration 0:54
Most of Varvara Shmygalova's family lives in Kyiv, including her parents, step-siblings and grandparents — who, Shmygalova says, are using an underground garage as a bomb shelter.

Varvara Shmygalova is faced with a horrifying reality every time she picks up the phone to call her family in Ukraine.

Since Russian forces invaded her home country, the Toronto resident can't be sure anyone will be alive to answer her calls.

"You just really hope they're not dead yet," Shmygalova told CBC News. 

She spoke to her grandmother and grandfather Thursday, both of whom are in their mid 80s. The two were in an underground garage next to their home at the time, because it was the only place they could go to seek shelter as fighting rages and bombs fall.

"They're just telling me, 'It's OK, don't cry, we lived a good life. It's OK if we die, you have to be fine.' And I can't be fine. Why [is] my 85-year-old grandma is telling me that it's OK that's she's going to die?"

Missiles pounded the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Friday, as Russian forces pressed their advance and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with the international community to do more, saying sanctions against Russia announced so far were not enough.

Air raid sirens wailed over the city of three million people a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion that has shocked the world.

Back in Toronto, Ukrainians wait with their stomachs in knots, knowing the danger facing their families. 

Trying to stay calm from afar

GTA resident Olena Shkarovska told CBC Radio's Metro Morning Friday that she is doing what she can do stay calm, as her brother, Denis Shkarovskyi, returned to Kyiv on Friday to enlist in the army because he feels he has no choice but to protect his country.

"Of course I feel very sad and frightened, but I understand that it's the duty of every citizen to protect their country, and I only regret that we live in a time that we have to do this," she said.

Demonstrators outside the Russian consulate in Toronto protested against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday. (Christopher Mulligan/CBC)

Shkarovskyi had been working as a lawyer, and spent most of his days in an office in the centre of Kyiv, or a courtroom.

Now, he is talking matter-of-factly about gathering weapons, medicine, food and warm clothes.

"It is my duty," he told Metro Morning host Ismaila Alfa Friday. "I must protect my country … I can't decide any other way."

WATCH | Shock and protests in Russia: 

Shock and protests in Russia after Ukraine attacked

4 months ago
Duration 2:26
More than 1,000 people were reportedly arrested during protests across Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, while some residents were shocked the attack happened. Meanwhile, the government worked overtime to keep control of the message surrounding the incursion.

A democratic nation of 44 million people, Ukraine voted for independence at the fall of the Soviet Union and has recently stepped up efforts to join the NATO military alliance and the European Union — aspirations that infuriate Moscow.

Putin has said Russia is carrying out "a special military operation" to stop the Ukrainian government from committing "genocide" — an accusation the West calls a baseless fabrication. He said Ukraine is an illegitimate state whose lands historically belong to Russia, a view which Ukrainians see as an attempt to erase their more than 1,000-year history.

Western countries have placed financial sanctions on Moscow, billed as far stronger than earlier measures, including blacklisting its banks and banning technology imports. However, they stopped short of forcing Russia out of the SWIFT system for international bank payments, drawing strong words from Kyiv, which says the most serious steps should be taken now.

Action needed, not condolences

Shmygalova told CBC News that the rest of the world needs to push back against Russia's invasion.

"Do something at least," she said, with exasperation. "Don't express your deep condolences, we've heard this for eight years. It doesn't help. I understand you feel for us and I'm grateful for that, but it's just not enough at this point. Sometimes you need to make real sacrifices to really help someone."

WARNING | This photo gallery contains graphic images:

The average person can also help just by voicing their support and showing up on the streets in protest, she said.

"Stand with us, rally with us. Tonight, tomorrow, any day of the week," she said. "Each person's position at this point is important. We have to hear that the world is not just going to take it silently — because how are you going to live with that? How are each of you going to live [with] that?"

At a news conference Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the province is asking the federal government to welcome more Ukrainian refugees, and it will offer settlement services.

"The hard-working people of Ukraine will always be welcome here," he said.

With files from Reuters and CBC's Chris Glover