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Ukrainians and supporters gather in Victoria as war rolls into third year

Hundreds attend rally at Centennial Square to mark two years of Ukrainians fighting against invasion by Russia
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People gather at Victoria’s Centennial Square on Saturday to mark the second anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST. Feb. 24, 2024

Daria Lysenko says she will forever remember Feb. 24, the day when she woke up to a nightmare.

She learned the news from her sister over the phone. Russia was launching an invasion, her sister said.

Within minutes, she began hearing explosions outside the windows of her newly furnished apartment where she lived with her husband and her one-and-a-half year old son.

That was two years ago, in Kyiv, Ukraine — the first of many sirens and air raids that followed, she told a crowd of about 400 that gathered in Victoria’s Centennial Square on Saturday.

“My son trembled every time and hid behind me,” she said, adding that her son stopped talking for six months because of the war.

On Saturday afternoon, capital region’s Ukrainian community and their supporters gathered to mark the second anniversary of the Russian military invasion.

Lysenko, who now lives in Victoria, wiped tears from her eyes while listening to Andriy Yaremyn, 9, sing a song for peace in front of the stage.

For Lysenko, the conflict stretches to 2014 when Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula. “They removed opportunity to see my parents and denied access to the house where I grew up,” she said.

At the rally, representatives from several Ukrainian-Canadian organizations thanked Islanders for their support and for welcoming Ukrainian newcomers into their communities.

Karen McNamara, founder of the Help Ukraine Vancouver Island Society, said the organization has supported some 1,500 Ukrainian refugees in resettling on the Island in the last two years.

“We have a responsibility to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” she said. “We do not have the privilege of being fatigued while we sit here in the comfort of a free country.”

Alec Rossa, president of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, recalled emails and phone calls offering support came flooding into the church when news of the invasion came.

In collaboration with the Ukrainian Cultural Centre, a fund was quickly established to help support the influx of Ukrainian refugees making a new home in Victoria, he said. “Dave Obee and Jack Knox at the Times Colonist Christmas Fund presented us with a $100,000 donation to immediately start helping the newcomers to South Vancouver Island.”

Help from other sources swiftly followed. Efforts from local businesses, the Kiwanis society board and the Victoria Foundation eventually led to the establishment of the Kiwanis Ukrainian Village in August 2022, he said.

Andriy Fabrikov, president of the Ukrainian-Canadian Cultural Society of Vancouver Island, thanked all who opened their houses, fundraised, and volunteered to help Ukrainians fleeing from war. “Today, we step into the third year of the brutal and awful period of our history.”

Speaking at the rally, Langford-Juan de Fuca MLA Ravi Parmar said that while he didn’t know much about the situation when the conflict first started, it has since become a personal cause after he joined a local humanitarian mission to Ukraine last year.

“Freedom is at risk and we need to continue to fight for the Ukrainian people,” he said, adding people in the capital region have already helped raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for generators, school buses and medical supplies for Ukraine.

Dima Borysenko, Ukrainian Canadian Congress Victoria branch president, said that similar rallies were held in 45 other communities in Canada on Saturday.

There was increased police presence at Centennial Square and throughout downtown Victoria on Saturday, a day which saw two rallies in the city core.

A rally and march at the B.C. legislature, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, occurred at around the same time as the rally for Ukraine in Centennial Square.

mjlo@timescolonist.com