Ukrainians living 3,500km from home in UAE mark bittersweet Independence Day

Refugees in the UAE who fled their homeland or abandoned plans to repatriate wonder when they can return to a free country

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A graveyard of rusting Russian tanks lines Kyiv’s streets as Ukraine prepares to commemorate its Independence Day six months since Russia crossed its borders to wage war.

About 3,500 kilometres away in the UAE, Ukrainians who fled their homeland or abandoned plans to repatriate can only wonder when they will return to a free country.

With its array of captured military vehicles as an emblem of Ukraine’s defiance, Khreschatyk, Kyiv’s main street, has become a symbol of the invasion to date.

We spent the first night of the war in a subway and left the city the next day
Svitlana Kalych, Ukrainian in Abu Dhabi

Wednesday will mark 31 years since Ukraine gained independence from the former Soviet Union. For many it will represent a bittersweet moment, with thousands of civilians killed and millions more fleeing the country since the outbreak of war.

On February 25, only one day after Russian forces invaded, Svitlana Kalych and her daughter Sasha, 3, fled to the UAE to live with in-laws. Her husband stayed behind in Ukraine to fight on the front line.

“We lived in Kharkiv, it’s east of the country and very close to Russia,” she said.

“Russian forces shelled residential areas, so it was too dangerous for us to stay in our flat. We spent the first night of the war in a subway and left the city the next day.

“The last six months have been hard for me and my daughter because home is not a place, it’s where your family is.”

Living in her sister-in-law’s rental apartment in Abu Dhabi, Ms Kalych, 29, has not been able to work as she is on a tourist visa.

Yevheniy Semenov says marking Ukraine's Independence Day is difficult as war continues to rage back home. Victor Besa / The National

Her plan is to return to the western region of Ukraine, which she says is “relatively safe”, within the next month to continue her job at the Department of Justice. She said she lives every day with a feeling of uncertainty.

While they are safe in Abu Dhabi, her husband continues to fight back home and her father has refused to leave his small village in Pechenihy, where Ms Kalych grew up.

“My husband has defended our homeland since the first day of the war,” she said. “It was his decision. He couldn’t stand aside and ignore the invasion and I'm very proud of him.

“My father stays at home, in a small village where I was born. The [main] passage passes through this village and it is the only way to evacuate people from the occupied territories of the Kharkiv region.”

Ms Kalych said each day was “a bittersweet moment for all Ukrainians” — sweet because they are still alive and continue to fight, and bitter because so many people have lost loved ones willing to pay with their lives for freedom.

“From now on, Independence Day has a sacred meaning for every Ukrainian,” she said.

“I can't spend this day with my close family but I want to spend this day with Ukrainians, people who are strong in spirit and not broken by such difficult trials.”

Yevheniy Semenov, who has lived in the UAE for eight years, said he had spent the past six months helping to support the Ukrainian community in the Emirates.

While the war in some parts Ukraine has been continuing for years, he said the turbulence that has unfolded since February has proved there is "no safe place for citizens in Ukraine" at present.

“For the past six months, I have been constantly working on ways to be useful for my people and for my country,” he said.

“I monitor news day and night, support Ukrainians back home and have been active helping the Ukrainian community in the UAE, including newcomers who have fled the war.

A day after Russia invaded, Svitlana Kalych and her 3-year-old daughter Sasha fled Ukraine for the UAE. Photo: Svitlana Kalych

“The loss of thousands of defenders and civilians is the most horrific part of it all. Aside from having to deal with the constant destruction of lives and land, Ukraine is now facing a huge economic challenge, which is influencing global markets and is being felt by us Ukrainians based in the UAE.”

Mr Semenov said he did not predict an end to the war any time soon.

His whole family decided to stay in Ukraine and help those who were internally displaced.

“My sister’s husband, who worked as an engineer, was called to the front line as part of the Ukrainian armed forces,” he said.

“My mum and sister are volunteering by supporting the refugees and local armed forces.

“I would like to emphasise that it is extremely important to help people in Ukraine successfully survive this winter, because thousands of them will have issues with electricity and heat supplies, while many others will not have access to them at all.”

Mother's new life in Abu Dhabi

Dina Nemyrovych, a mother-of-three, moved to Abu Dhabi in March from Kyiv.

While her husband stayed behind in Ukraine to fight with the army, she fled to a new life in the UAE.

“My first thought was I would be here just for a few weeks,” Ms Nemyrovych said.

“I soon realised I would be here for longer, so I started looking for work and had a job offer with an international consultancy firm.

“It has taken time to get the right visas and documents, as we left Ukraine with just our passports.

“Now we are on the final step and my youngest is starting school soon in Abu Dhabi.”

Her children are aged 11, 19 and 30.

As part of a volunteer group, Ms Nemyrovych helped to co-ordinate the Dattalion website, collecting thousands of videos and images of the war to help transparency in reporting by international media.

“Because of the law, it is impossible for my husband to leave Ukraine,” she said.

“I like to plan for the future and that has become very difficult with a big war in our motherland.

“Our Dattalion archive has a huge database of images of the war that has been accessed by the media, as a reliable information source. It is not enough to just have an army, we also need an information army to collect evidence.

“Ukraine has changed, and it will take time to recover economically. A lot of business was done in Kyiv and the war has had a huge impact on this, as many well-educated people with international experience have left Ukraine.

“The jobs they once had may not be available for a long time.”

Inside Ukraine’s capital, the focus for much of the fierce fighting and air strikes in the early days of war, the city’s residents are adapting to a new life.

Musician Anastasia Khomenko, 21, had dreams of becoming a pop star and was close to finishing her bachelor's degree in music when the Russian tanks rolled in.

Like her family and many neighbours who refused to leave as the bombs rained down, she took her passion for music online and won worldwide exposure thanks to an online radio station in Ras Al Khaimah that added her music to its daily playlist.

Those songs of hope now play in supermarkets and shopping centres across Kyiv.

“Most people have now adapted to the war,” Ms Khomenko told The National from her family apartment close to Khreschatyk where the wreckage of enemy tanks are on display.

“We still hear air raid sirens and gunshots, particularly in cities close to the border. There is nothing we can change or influence, so we can only accept this and do our best to keep on living to support the economy.”

While concerts or live music events to commemorate independence day are vastly unlikely, Ms Khomenko is planning a celebration of her own to mark the occasion.

“My music is still my priority and I use it any way I can to help me through this,” she said. “I sing songs about a free Ukraine, hopefully they can inspire and help to motivate people, to uplift their mood and help somehow.

“People ask me questions on Instagram and other social channels. When they hear songs about what is happening in Ukraine, they want to hear more about me.

“I would usually play in local parks or outdoor stages at this time of year, but we just can’t do this now. I will play some of my material online ... to bring some positivity back to our country.”

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Updated: August 24, 2022, 10:24 AM