‘They won’t live under a Russian regime’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has drawn widespread praise for his courage and defiance. Photo: Ukrainian Government

A Ukrainian student in Halifax thinks of her family, huddled in a Kyiv basement as the invaders advance

When Dali Kapanadze left Ukraine to study abroad in 2015, she expected Russia would someday invade her homeland.

She hoped the day wouldn’t come until she was in her thirties and established in a career with money to help. Instead, she’s a 21-year-old student at Dalhousie University, 6,597 kilometres from home and a year away from a degree in microbiology and immunology.

“When I was leaving to study, I took my departure as a mission to protect my family and friends in the future when this time comes,” she tells Unravel Halifax days after Russian President Vladimir Putin began an unprovoked and globally condemned attack on her home country. “I was hoping I’d be more ready.”

Her mother and grandmother, who turns 80 this year, have spent the past week hunkered down in a basement in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, with air raid sirens wailing, explosions thundering, and heavy gunfire as Ukrainian soldiers, along with ordinary citizens wielding Molotov cocktails and rifles, fend off the Russian invaders.

Her family had no plans to flee unless Russia ended up occupying Ukraine. “They won’t live under a Russian regime,” Kapanadze says. “They’d rather die.”

But after a week of shelling of people’s homes and many civilian casualties (2,000, according to an unverified report from the Ukrainian government), she’s convinced her mother and grandmother to leave. “I hope they can cross the border and reunite with me in Halifax,” she says.

Kapanadze has managed to contact most of her friends to make sure they are safe, except for a few, who she worries might be dead.

Hundreds of thousands flee
The Ukrainian community in Nova Scotia is small compared to the Prairies, Ontario, and British Columbia. Those provinces help make Canada the country with the third largest population of people who identify as Ukrainian outside of Ukraine itself and Russia.

Of the roughly 1.4 million people in Canada claiming Ukrainian heritage, Nova Scotia accounts for about 10,000, with the biggest community in Cape Breton, many of them fifth-generation Canadians.

Since Russia’s invasion, more than a million civilians have fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations. The European Union is estimating that as many as four million might try to leave. Most of the refugees have flooded over the border to Poland, with many others going to Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Moldova.

Federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, also the MP for Central Nova, says Canada has been processing Ukrainian applications on a priority basis. The government has resisted calls to waive visa requirements, but Fraser says visas are being expedited for temporary emergency travel and “there is no limit” to the applications Canada is willing to accept.

Andre Mereshuk, president of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, says his group is offering free immigration consultations for Ukrainians seeking to come to Canada as refugees.

“This is war. It’s horrible,” says Mereshuk, an engineer who moved to Halifax to attend Dalhousie in 2011 and was followed in 2015 by his wife and three children. “It’s genocide of the Ukrainian nation.”

He and his wife both have family and friends in Ukraine. “My mother-in-law doesn’t want to go. She’s an old woman. She’s always lived in Ukraine,” he says. “Sometimes people can’t go. If they’re in the eastern part, there’s no possible way to get to the western part. It’s too difficult. Cities are under attack night and day.”

Halifax has had three rallies in support of Ukraine since Putin’s invasion began on Feb. 24. It marked the start of what is the largest on-land aggression since the Second World War. Another show of solidarity is planned for Saturday near downtown Halifax’s Westin Hotel at Peace and Friendship Park, a public square that used to be named after the city’s controversial founder Edward Cornwallis.

Dali Kapanadze. Photo: Darina Yarosh

More than Ukraine’s freedom
Kapanadze, who moved to Halifax 3.5 years ago after graduating from a private high school in Vermont, knows of a handful of fellow-Ukrainian international students. She didn’t get a sense of the size of the overall community until the rallies protesting Putin’s unlawful invasion.

Around a hundred people showed up at the first protest near Halifax’s Central Library.

“By the look on their faces, you can tell who was Ukrainian and who was not. You can see the great grief and you cannot confuse it with anybody else,” Kapanadze says. “When we started singing our anthem and heard how powerful we sounded, then it becomes very clear. There were so many people in the crowd who knew it.”

She hopes the protests in Halifax and beyond will continue but worries about people losing interest in the conflict.

“In modern days, the attention of the public changes very quickly,” she says. “People get worn down mentally very easily and just look at the next shocking thing. We cannot let that happen. I’m telling that to all my friends and acquaintances and all the people I know that I will need you in the next days and next weeks.”

Kapanadze believes the conflict isn’t only about Ukraine’s freedom. “It’s fighting for the safety of other Europeans, of Americans, and Canadians,” she says. “Putin is a terrorist. You can’t negotiate with terrorists. Every diplomatic approach they take is a weakness. That’s the difference between his state and the civilized world.”

She’s been watching Russian TV and finds it striking that many Russians speaking out against the invasion are worried about getting arrested.

“Getting arrested is a very small price to pay for freedom,” she says. “The Ukrainian people are willing to die for their land, their independence, and their culture that Russia is trying so hard to erase.”

At 14, while still living in Kyiv, Kapanadze protested with her family and friends at February 2014’s Revolution of Dignity that culminated in the overthrow of the Ukrainian government and ouster of the country’s then Russia-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled.

Her father, internationally known Georgian painter Temo Svirely, died less than a year later of pancreatic cancer at age 50. She wonders about the safety of 200 of his paintings as bombs and missiles rain down on the country. Selling the art has been helping the family get by.

“My education abroad would not be possible otherwise,” says Kapanadze. “Being an international student has always been tough for me financially. I come from a family of artists.”

She would normally get home once or twice a year, but with COVID limiting travel, it’s been three years since her last trip.

Soldiers in Ukraine defend their homeland after Russia’s unprovoked invasion. Photo: Ministry of Defence of Ukraine

A local sanction suggestion
Kapanadze has asked Dalhousie and the school she attended in Vermont to consider not admitting new students from Russia as a sanction against Russian oligarchs as long as Ukraine is under attack. “Why should well-off people from Russia have the luxury of sending their kids to a democratic country to get an amazing education while their neighbours can barely survive?” she says.

Dalhousie spokespeople didn’t respond to a question about whether they’ll consider the suggestion.

An onslaught of international sanctions and moves by companies to freeze ties are having a catastrophic impact on Russia. Its currency has plummeted, interest rates have skyrocketed, its stock market has temporarily closed, its energy companies now trade as penny stocks, and its banks are on the brink of collapse.

Kapanadze says if schools aren’t willing to stop admitting new international students from Russia, the sanctions will end up having the same effect as money for the rich to send their children to school dries up. “The tremendous economic crisis in Russia is already happening,” she says.

She would like to the door remain open for Ukrainians staying to defend their country who might seek to flee as refugees later. “They are heroes for staying and fighting,” she says.

Perhaps the biggest hero of the crisis is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian who starred in a satirical TV comedy series about a high-school teacher who becomes president.

Kapanadze thought of him as a joke when Zelenskyy was elected for real.

“It was very difficult to take anything he was doing seriously,” she says. “He went from faking to be a hero to one of the most heroic men that I have ever known of. What he’s doing right now, you can’t even put a price on that. We will never forget.”

It was always Kapanadze’s plan to one day return home and contribute to her country. “That’s all Ukrainians ever wanted,” she says.

But it’s difficult to imagine the future now. “It feels like somebody you love is dying, but that somebody is everybody you know and care for,” she says.

How Haligonians can help
Mereshuk says he’s grateful for the support Ottawa has shown, with sanctions, humanitarian aid, and millions of dollars’ worth of military aid, such as helmets, body armour, gas masks, and anti-tank weapons.

He’s received many emails from Nova Scotians offering to help. “At this time, donations like clothes and medicine are really difficult to send because there’s just one corridor to ship humanitarian aid, which is through Poland,” he says. “It’s really busy and almost not possible.”

It would be more helpful for people to donate money through the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, he says. “They prepare food and medicine packages and first aid kits specifically designed for this purpose that can last 30 days and not spoil.”

He says another option is to buy a T-shirt in support of Ukraine, with all proceeds going to the humanitarian fund.

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