Ukrainians in UAE gather to mark Independence Day far from home

Many had fled after Russia invaded and a show of solidarity was tinged with concerns for loved ones still there

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It was an Independence Day like no other for a group of Ukrainians who gathered in Abu Dhabi to mark August 24 with a show of solidarity.

As war devastates their homeland, they united to celebrate 31 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union brought Ukraine its independence.

But thoughts of loved ones still there were never far way.

Many were marking Independence Day outside of their country for the first time.

On February 24, we were told: 'You have no chance.' On August 24, we say: 'Happy Independence Day Ukraine'
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speech

Today marks six months since the Russian invasion. While the threat of attacks in Kyiv reduced domestic Independence Day celebrations, Ukrainians in Abu Dhabi — many of whom fled to the UAE when the war broke out — were determined to mark the occasion.

A pre-recorded speech by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was played to those gathered at The Bridge in Al Qana.

Mr Zelenskyy called on his fellow Ukrainians to rally behind their nation.

“On February 24, the entire Ukraine heard explosions and gunshots. And on August 24, it wasn’t supposed to hear the words Happy Independence Day,” he said.

“On February 24, we were told: 'You have no chance.' On August 24, we say: 'Happy Independence Day Ukraine.'

“During these six months, we changed history, changed the world and changed ourselves. Now we know for sure who is really our brother and friend, and who is not even a casual acquaintance.

Young Ukrainians were part of the celebrations in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Photo: Victor Besa / The National

“The whole world learnt who Ukrainians are. What Ukraine is.

“It doesn't matter to us what kind of army you have, what matters to us is our land. We will fight for it until the end.

“We are facing this day in different circumstances, conditions and even in different time zones, but with one goal — preservation of independence and victory of Ukraine.”

A curfew is in force in Ukraine's second-largest city Kharkiv, in the north-east of the country. It has previously been besieged and pounded by Russian artillery. In Kyiv, public gatherings have been banned.

Instead, Independence Day this year would more likely be marked by low-key family events amid the country's struggle.

Ukraine's armed forces say almost 9,000 Ukrainian military personnel have been killed, with thousands more civilian casualties. Around a third of the 41 million population has been displaced.

The Ukrainian community in the UAE currently stands at about 15,000, including 4,000 in Abu Dhabi. A small group gathered on Wednesday evening to sing the national anthem, with cheers of “freedom for Ukraine”.

A sombre mood inside The Bridge venue was marked by a minute’s silence for the lives lost.

Ukrainian embassy spokesman Vitaliy Fedianin said it was a difficult time for those who had been forced to leave their homeland.

“It has not been easy for these people to move abroad, when husbands, fathers and sons have had to stay behind to join local armed forces,” he said.

“There is no safe place in Ukraine right now.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin can shell every house and apartment building, so any day could be the last for everyone.

“The UAE is a good, stable country that provides good conditions for people, but they will still think of home and it is very difficult to know relatives are not in a safe place.

“We want just one thing, and that is victory. Our only wish is to restore independence on all our territories.”

Nura Pasichnyk, 37, a real estate broker in Abu Dhabi, has been in the UAE for seven years.

She said she would usually celebrate the day in a park with friends, sharing stories of Ukraine.

“This year it feels more significant and important to do this. We are still fighting for our independence,” she said.

“This year has been very hard for all of us, especially as I have family in Kyiv.

“We spoke together on the phone and they are OK, but they cannot celebrate outside.

“To see people join like this together gives us encouragement. We do this to support our country and to be together on this special day.”

Ukrainians in UAE - in pictures

Updated: August 24, 2022, 7:05 PM