At a bus and train depot in Rzeszow, Poland, about 100 km from Ukraine’s border, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly came to hear the stories of Ukrainians fleeing Vladimir Putin’s bombs.
More often than not, for those she met, the tears came before any words.
One woman, sitting at a table in the train station across from her her two school-aged children, managed to introduce them to Joly as Danil and Margarita, but that’s as far as she got.
She began crying uncontrollably, unable to continue a conversation with the visitor who came to show Canada’s commitment to helping Ukrainians endure the Russian-inflicted catastrophe.
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A volunteer with the city later explained that like practically all of the other Ukrainian women now in Poland, she had to leave her husband behind to carry on the fight. Men of military age, from 18 to 60, aren’t allowed to leave.
‘It was very emotional because war is not just an expression and a name — it has an impact on people and it shatters lives. And that’s what we saw today,” Joly said later in an interview with CBC News.
“It made my team and I even more determined to put maximum pressure on the Putin regime.”
During her visit to the train station and later a Red Cross warehouse, Joly announced Canada was expanding its sanctions to include 10 more Russians involved in high-profile positions in the oil and gas industry, and two companies in Russia’s energy sector, Rosneft and Gasprom.
Aid to resettle refugees quickly
Joly’s visit to Poland follows a decision by Canada to provide $100 million in humanitarian assistance to help countries such as Poland cope with the arrival of more than 600,000 Ukrainian refugees in just the past week.
Canada has also banned all financial transactions with Russia’s Central Bank, closed its airspace to Russian aircraft and banned Russian ships from using Canadian ports.
Earlier, the Trudeau government sanctioned 18 members of Vladimir Putin’s government, including Putin himself and defence minister Sergei Shoigu.
“We want to make sure that we isolate Russia and particularly Vladimir Putin’s regime economically, diplomatically and … in every single way possible,” said Joly.
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Canada has one of the largest Ukrainian diasporas in the world — second only to Russia — with between 1.4 and two million people claiming Ukrainian ancestry.
Joly wasn’t able to provide an estimate on how many Canadian-Ukrainians are still in Ukraine and trying to leave. Instead she indicated the priority is helping governments such as Poland’s resettle people quickly, as close to Ukraine as possible.
Another woman at the shelter told Joly that she and her elderly mother had decided to leave Lviv, which is in western Ukraine and has so far been spared much of the devastation that Russia has inflicted on eastern regions.
“It is safe right now,” she said. “But we don’t know what Putin will do tomorrow in our hometown and we are scared.”
“Our men are defending. My brother, my boyfriend and my father are protecting our home.”
Displacement is temporary, they hope
Accompanying Joly on her visit was Canada’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Larisa Galadza, who was forced to abandon the embassy in the capital Kyiv ahead of the Russian invasion and move diplomatic and consular operations to Poland.
Galadza, whose four grandparents emigrated to the United States and Canada at the end of Second World War, said she has struggled to come to terms with the horror of Russia’s attacks and the human misery they have caused.
“Just this surreal reality of the fact that this is how my family, and so many Ukrainian Canadian families left Ukraine at the end of the Second World War. And here it is again,” she told CBC News.
“I think the atrociousness, the weapons that are being used, and [how] indiscriminate the attacks are really surprises me.”
Galadza says the embassy staff who are with her in Poland are continuing to help Ukrainians with Canadian connections make the best decisions they can, given the circumstances.
“We solve a lot of communications coming at us from people in Ukraine, contacts, counterparts, staff friends, family and we’re trying to sort through all of that and channel it properly, provide the help that we can and pass important information on to the people who need it.”
She says most people she speaks with plan to return to Ukraine as soon as it is safe and don’t want to leave the country as a long term solution.
“I think everyone is optimistic that this is going to be a temporary thing and they just need to send their, you know, their kids and their spouses and their parents may be out for a little while. That’s the feeling that I get.”
But Galadza admits she’s not so sure.
“I can tell you, reading my grandfather’s memoirs, I think he knew he wasn’t going back. This is my first experience of war, so. I don’t know.”
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