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Dave Obee: Why I am sending money to Ukraine

I have been sending money to friends in Ukraine, the people who have helped me on my trips there, serving as translators or guides as I visited archives or my ancestral villages.
A police officer distributes humanitarian aid to local residents in Lyman, Donetsk region, Ukraine. EVGENIY MALOLETKA, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

I wanted to write this column in late February when the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. I chose not to, however, because I did not want anyone to think that my own personal interest in Ukraine would be a deciding factor in this newspaper’s coverage.

Even our decision to publish a Ukrainian flag, suitable for your window, came because of reader requests, not my family history.

But it’s time to talk about it.

My mother was born in Ukraine, as were her parents. I have been doing family history research for most of my adult life, so it should be no surprise that I have been to Ukraine several times.

I have seen the country emerge from the gloom and the devastation, both economic and environmental, of Communism. On each visit I witnessed more freedom and more opportunity than I would have thought possible before the old Soviet Union disintegrated.

From the opening days of the war, I have been sending money to friends in Ukraine, the people who have helped me on my trips there, serving as translators or guides as I visited archives or my ancestral villages.

Friends in Canada and the United States have joined the cause, and together, we are sending about $1,000 a week. I plan to continue giving as long as there is a need.

I started by sending a few hundred dollars to my closest friend there. When I reached him, he had been waiting at the Polish border for 33 hours, trying to get his family to safety. Once he got to the border, he handed the car keys to his wife so she could cross as he hitchhiked back to Zhytomyr.

I wanted to help Alex and his family, but they spent the money on supplies for others. So I sent more money, and more, and friends here offered to help. Our money has been used to buy food, medicines, bandages, batteries, radios and much more, as the supply chains in Poland and Germany have allowed.

I am hardly the only person in Victoria doing this sort of thing. George Kereluk, who runs the Walk in Comfort shoe stores, asked his customers for donations. After he received $10,000, he matched that number, and sent $20,000 to eastern Poland to help Ukrainian refugees.

Lorne Campbell, who runs three Old Farm Market stores, raised $26,000 in one week — and that amount is being matched as well. Many others are doing all they can to help.

Over the years, I have written a few times about my mother’s family. They were ethnic Germans, living in an area that was predominately German-speaking, but close to the centre of Ukraine. Given all that I have learned over the years, nothing about the Russian invasion has surprised me.

In 1985, as the winds of change were reaching the Soviet Union, I visited Moscow and the Black Sea area. My request to visit my mother’s birthplace in Ukraine was denied by the authorities, so my first visit there was not until the 1990s.

And oh, what I found in the archives. My family members had endured deportations during the First World War, state-sanctioned looting, mass starvation and mass executions in the 1930s, and more deportations after the Second World War.

And don’t forget what the Russian soldiers did. One of my distant cousins never knew the name of his father. His mother didn’t catch the names of any of the soldiers that day.

Families burned alive? Civilians killed and left on the side of the road? Babies slaughtered with bayonets? Yes, all of those things happened in my family.

For years, as I gathered this information from relatives and confirmed it through archival records, it all seemed so remote. Now it is current, and it is shockingly real.

The people I am helping, through my Ukrainian friends, are in the homes and on the lands that were stolen from my ancestors before I was born. When I have been in villages such as Ivanovichi or Solodyri or Wjasowitz, some locals have nervously asked my driver if I was there to reclaim my family’s property.

But no, I wasn’t. And today I am determined to help the people in those villages and all the others, because they desperately need that help.

There are many ways to send aid to Ukraine. Please do what you can. There is more at stake than most of us would care to imagine.

Dave Obee is editor in chief of the Times Colonist.