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A mission of hope and adventure for Ukrainian staff at Dubai Expo 2020 has turned into a nightmare as war continues to rage 5,000 kilometres away in their homeland.
Pavilion staff described how initial shock at the Russian invasion turned to anger as cities across Ukraine continue to be bombarded two weeks into a war that has ripped a hole in the lives they left behind.
A little more than three weeks away from the end of the six-month exhibition, most hospitality workers, hosts and technical staff at the Ukraine pavilion were eagerly awaiting reunions with family and friends.
For some whose families have been separated or homes destroyed by Russian missiles, the future is far from certain.
One of those is Kateryna Moroz, a Ukraine pavilion contractor, who left her home in Kyiv to take up a temporary post in Dubai.
Her 5-year-old son left Ukraine for Turkey to be with his father weeks before the war began. Her parents remain in the country, close to the Russian border near Crimea.
“I try to speak to them every couple of days, but it is getting harder,” said Ms Moroz, an events manager.
“They can’t get money from the banks and getting food is more difficult. We are all worried about this humanitarian disaster.
“I want to go to my son, wherever he will be. From there, we will decide if we can go back to Ukraine.
“Some of the staff here want to go back to help the army.
“One of our barmen had already moved his wife and child to Poland, but he is prepared to go to Ukraine to fight for his country, and he is not alone.
“The discussion is about what we can do to help and when we can begin to rebuild.”
While Ms Moroz said her Kyiv home is undamaged, two other investment apartments under construction are in the heart of the city and unlikely to survive the shelling.
Her priorities have changed, with money not the factor it once was, and her thoughts have shifted towards the safety of family and friends.
“The days have changed and we no longer count them as normal people do, like Monday or Tuesday — it is just the first day, or the second day of war, and it goes on,” said Ms Moroz.
“Our calendar is all about the days of war.”
About 40 staff work at the pavilion. Most had already been living in Dubai or decided to visit for the duration of expo, which will continue for another 22 days.
All now face the difficult decision of where to go next. Some will utilise a long-stay visa granted to Ukrainians since the Russian invasion began, while others are looking to return home to defend their country and care for their families.
A cultural event on Sunday brought Ukrainians together to sing their national anthem, one of many signs of how the pavilion has become a hub of solidarity and reflection over the past 14 days.
Pavilion visitors of all nationalities are presented with a blue and yellow ribbon, the colours of the national flag, to show support for Ukraine.
When two young children asked their parents if they could post messages of support on the pavilion’s wall, it was the beginning of a flood of similar handwritten notes that now dominate the exhibition.
Messages such as “I stand with Ukraine” and “The world is with you” are common messages to be found among the thousands of colourful Post-it notes on the pavilion walls.
“Before this wall appeared, staff were in a big shock, we were all confused as to what was happening,” said Ms Moroz.
“We were crying and even the men found it difficult to maintain normality here.
“Because of this wall of support, we have come back to life. It may only be a small symbol, but we are very grateful for what people are doing.
“The messages we have received on these stickers are in many languages, even Russians have left us messages — not all good, but we accept them all.
“There is a strong desire now to return to Ukraine. We have the option to stay for a year, but I don’t think that will happen.”
Ukrainians who arrived in the UAE before March 3, 2022 can stay in the country for up to a year, without being fined.
But those arriving after March 3 will have visa-free entry for 30 days, as per previous policy.
Since the Russian attack, more than a million people have fled Ukraine, the UN has reported.
So far, the UAE has pledged $5 million in humanitarian aid to benefit Ukrainians affected by the conflict and on Monday, a plane carrying 30 tonnes of emergency medical supplies was sent to the country.
Ivan Sydorenko, director of the Ukraine pavilion, expects to go home to defend his country any way he can.
“I will focus on keeping the pavilion going until the end of Expo, but then I must think of how I can support my country,” said Mr Sydorenko.
“Before the war, I had a plan to return to Ukraine in April.
“It is unbelievable to think what has happened there now and unthinkable that I will not try to return home.
“I will finish all my work here and then think how to help my country. If I had to, I think I would fight.”
Both Mr Sydorenko’s parents are in Ukraine, but he has become reliant on relatives for information on their welfare as lines of communication have broken down due to power and internet cuts in Kyiv.
Before Expo, he worked for the Ministry of Economy — although his role is now certain to change.
The pavilion has become a place of solace for Ukrainians and a conduit for information for citizens living in the UAE, he said.
“It was clear we could use the pavilion as a centre of support for other Ukrainians who may be here in Dubai or visiting Expo,” he said.
“In the pavilion, we were close as colleagues before but now we are more like a family because of this.
“Everything has changed, my personal future is not important after my mission here at Expo is complete.
“We know life is very difficult now in Kyiv. I have not spoken to my parents in a week.
“I don’t think about what my job will be when I go home, only my friends and family in Ukraine.”