August 24th is Ukraine's Independence Day (День Незалежності України). It commemorates the Declaration of Independence of 1991, marking the day that Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union. Today, as Ukrainians are fighting the oppressor to protect their independence and freedom, the fight is heartbreaking yet hopeful.
I've just returned from Ukraine. While it was a difficult trip, I’m so grateful that I was able to share the experience with my daughter Kalyna. So much has changed since we were in Ukraine four years ago.
Here is a photo of me happily wandering through a field of sunflowers. The 'соняшник' (sunflower) is Ukraine’s national flower. In addition to Ukraine being the biggest sunflower oil exporter in the world, it holds a very meaningful place in the hearts of Ukrainians symbolizing peace and resilience. After the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, Ukrainians planted sunflowers in the devastated area to represent renewal and hope as well as to help extract toxins from the soil. Since Russia’s invasion, the sunflower has become a global symbol of support, resistance and unity.
Kalyna and I spent two weeks in the mountain village of Tatariv at the Help Us Help camp which hosted 200 orphans, orphans of war, children of military personnel and children living in orphanages throughout Ukraine. The children, aged 7-17, enjoyed two fun-filled weeks in the stunning Carpathian Mountains without the jolt of air sirens or the threat of air strikes. They played, laughed, met new friends, sang, danced, swam, hiked and enjoyed new experiences and challenges. The theme of the camp was ‘Around the world in 14 days’ to highlight the countries that are actively supporting Ukraine at this time. The children are amazed that the world cares about them so much.
Spending time with the children was joyful, heartwarming, heartbreaking, emotionally and physically exhausting yet totally exhilarating. Their trauma and hardships are real yet their courage, hope, spirit, and resilience are unbelievable. It was a privilege to get to know these kids. It was difficult to say goodbye. I think of them often and hope they are safe.
We also spent time in the city of Lviv, one of my favourite places in the world. Lviv’s stunning architecture is very similar to Vienna, but with a cooler edgier vibe. The cobblestone, the Opera House, the coffee houses, the street performers, the flower markets, the Rynok (outdoor market), the food (Baczewski Restaurant is a must) and the open, kind, friendly and generous people make it even more special. Ukrainians love the way we speak Ukrainian (with a Canadian twist).
Located in western Ukraine, close to the Polish border, Lviv feels far from the war. People are strolling the streets, coffee houses are packed, the outdoor markets are busy. Yet, a day after we left the city, Ukraine’s western region, including Lviv were hit by a large-scale Russian air attack.
While people try to carry on with life, the threat and effects of war are evident throughout the city. Historical statues and religious shrines are covered and protected with scaffolding, church windows are boarded up, sidewalk level windows are sandbagged.
Seeing military personnel in Lviv was sobering. Some were physically intact, others were wounded, disabled or missing limbs. While Ukraine is brave, determined and full of hope, the country is hurting and the mental and emotional trauma is evident. The death toll is shocking. So many brothers, sons, fathers and husbands lost. There is no one in Ukraine who hasn’t been touched by loss. It’s truly heartbreaking.
May we see peace soon. With love and reverence for Ukraine. Slava Ukraini! До перемоги. 💙 💛 🇺🇦 🌻