Stephanie Turenko, Toronto
Tanya Bednarczyk is not your ordinary 28-year old. This passionate Montreal “born-again Ukrainian” is heavily involved in the Ukrainian community, inside and outside Canada.
Upon having just returned from Ukraine, Tanya discussed her most recent work with the New Pathway. Being in between jobs, Tanya was offered a volunteer opportunity with a rehabilitation program for widows of Ukrainian soldiers and their children in the Carpathian Mountains. The program was funded by Canada-Ukraine Foundation and carried out by Help Us Help the Children (Nove Pokolinnya). She helped facilitate two rehabilitation sessions, each lasting ten days.
Both sessions had 10-15 widows and as well as their children. The program created a safe and inclusive space for the women to discuss their loss. “We wanted to take them out of their environment in the village, where everyone is telling them to stop crying, to stop talking about it, to get on with their lives. The program wanted to bring these women together, so that they could find each other”, Tanya explains.
The women had psychological support, and art and cultural rehabilitations. There were lots of activities, like floral and pottery workshops, to distract them and encourage them to talk. The women had the opportunity to go on excursions into the mountains, see the ski-resort Bukovel, hike to waterfalls and explore the town Yaremche.
The widows’ children were engaged with games such as “What Time is it Mr. Wolf?”. They also did a lot of art with them, such as stain glass windows with tissue paper – activities that they do not have in Ukraine that the volunteers remembered from their childhood.
In addition, there were activities for the mothers and their children such as orienteering games so that they could bond and really remember the relationship they have and the one they have to keep going forward with, now that their husbands and fathers are gone.
Tanya told us of one widow whose son, as they were driving in the Carpathians, turned to his mother and said “If Tato is in heaven, then he is here in the Karpaty with us”. She continues, “…to have a nine-year old say that, it was clearly a very special place to bring these women with their children. All of them were so grateful. These types of programs do not exist in Ukraine. It was very nice for them to be invited to such a thing, and have the opportunity to talk about their situation over and over again”.
When asked how she felt during these sessions, Tanya said she was very humbled by the women’s strength. A lot of the women were her age and they have several children. They have just lost their husbands from the war taking place in eastern Ukraine but they are continuing on with their lives.
Upon completion of the sessions, Tanya siad she noticed a big difference in the women; many made friendships that will last forever. Two women in particular were put into a room together, and it turns out their husbands died in the same plane in the East. They were inseparable ever since they met and are still in touch. All the women have created a group on Facebook, as a forum to continue their discussions in moving forward with their lives.
After the rehabilitation sessions, Tanya went on the Help Us Help the Children Shoe Route. The volunteers of these not-for-profit organizations drove through eastern Ukraine delivering shoes to orphanages. Tanya, the sole Canadian on this mission, explains they visited 12 orphanages in 2 days: “We drove from Kyiv and it was calm, and then as soon as you cross from Kharkiv to Donetsk, you see the men, the tanks and the check points where you have to show your passport every two minutes. And it just shows you the war is real, I was there, and I saw it”. When asked if she felt scared being in the war-zone, Tanya said that Sloviansk is pretty calm now. The volunteers were well protected and it seemed fine because Ukrainians in those areas were going on with their lives: “…the stores and the gas station were still working. People are getting on with their lives – that’s what they have to do”.
Although she didn’t stay at the orphanages long, Tanya said the children were very excited finding their sizes and receiving their new pair of shoes. Many were in shock because the volunteers were speaking to them in Ukrainian. All the children also spoke Ukrainian and they are learning Ukrainian in their schools; there were even Taras Shevchenko portraits on the walls. Tanya recounts the orphans could not believe that someone from so far away was at their small school in the middle of a war zone.
One particular orphanage Tanya visited really struck a cord: “…that was something I’ve never quite seen in my life – that an orphanage had been bombed. All the kids have been moved. But it was very sad because you could see all the artwork still stuck in the walls and toys in the rubble. It was so shocking and I would never expect to see that in Ukraine. Driving through Sloviansk and seeing everything bombed and seeing that orphanage, it just showed me something actually happened and it’s not just something on the news”.
The conditions of the orphanages vary, Tanya explains. Having worked with many orphans in Ukraine, there is not a significant difference between them in western to eastern Ukraine. “You have poor orphanages and you have ones that are looked after better, but it’s all about the quality of the care inside. They all seemed to have loving people watching over the children and I think that’s so important especially in a time like now” Tanya states.
After this eye-opening trip to Ukraine, Tanya plans to return in the next couple of weeks. She will be participating in the Help Us Help the Children Winter Camp, where orphans from across Ukraine are brought to the Carpathians to learn how to ski and snowboard. Afterwards, she wants to stay and help with Patriot Defence.
“I realized how important this Canadian help is. Ukrainians appreciate it so much. I would encourage anyone who has the time and something to give back to Ukraine to do it because the war is real; the human suffering is real. It’s such a shame that it is this war that has brought a lot of people in the country together, Russian speakers or Ukrainian speakers, as they’re all Ukrainian and willing to help each other. A lot of support is needed not only for the women and children, the military needs our support; the volunteer battalions need our support. We have to continue to send things and people there to ensure these people are getting what we’re sending because corruption still exists in that country. The time is now.
Why did my parents send me to Plast or to Ukrainian school? Was it just to sit back and do nothing? You have to take this love for this country and show these people ‘I was born across the ocean and I have the same blood as you. You are my brothers and sisters and I need to help you right now.’ There were honestly so many encounters with people I had that just made me so proud to be a Canadian but even more proud to be a Ukrainian. People are very grateful there and we just need to keep going and keep giving”.