Ukrainian expats celebrate Christmas with hope for peace

Many families who moved to the UAE to escape war early this year say they miss spending Christmas with their loved ones

Ukrainian expatriates celebrate Christmas at Yoy restaurant in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
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It was a Christmas torn between hope and despair for the estimated 25,000 Ukrainian expatriates in the UAE.

With a destructive war dragging on for 10 months now in their home country, families said they still want to spread some festive cheer and hold on to their hope for peace.

“I don’t feel like it's Christmas. I am away from my country and from my family,” Oleksandr Ihnatenko, a Ukrainian expat in Dubai, told The National.

A project manager, Mr Ihnatenko came to Dubai with his partner Daria Kvasova in January, a month before Russia launched the invasion on Ukraine.

“My best memory of this festive season is having dinner with family, exchanging gifts and sharing joy sitting around a table,” he said.

“My parents, grandmother, siblings and cousins are in Kyiv. I called them on the phone and they said they have a power outage and the internet is also down. It is a difficult time for all of us to celebrate. No one is safe in Ukraine.

“However, celebrating Christmas in Dubai with other Ukrainians, we feel a sense of home.”

Oleksandr Ihnatenko and partner Daria Kvasova, both from Kyiv, say it is the first time they are spending Christmas away from their families

Another Ukrainian expat, Vektoria Khorishenko, who works as a waitress in Dubai, said she is sad that her family is not with her this Christmas.

“I miss them terribly,” Ms Khorishenko told The National.

She moved to Dubai in February to escape the war, leaving behind her three brothers and parents. “All my brothers are serving in the military. My parents are grappling with power outages in the cold winter. There are fears of fresh attacks from Russia. But we are doing our best to mark Christmas wherever we are.”

On Friday, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned of a new wave of Russian attacks over Christmas, even as the country is bracing for a freezing winter with Russian troops increasingly targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. This year, Christmas is marked with muted celebrations across Kyiv and other cities in the country.

Vektoria Khorishenko, a waitress from Kyiv, moved to Dubai after Russia invaded Ukraine in February

Traditionally, Christmas is celebrated on January 6 in Ukraine and until January 19, as per the Julian calendar. But more and more Ukrainians are celebrating Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar on December 25.

On both dates, Ukrainian families in the UAE will mark Christmas with a special mass, carol singing and other festive traditions.

In Abu Dhabi, expats attended the midnight mass in St Joseph’s Cathedral on December 24. There will be another mass on January 6 night.

Children went door-to-door singing carols and exchanging gifts.

“We don’t want them to miss Christmas because of the war back home,” says Vasylisa Frolova, who moved to Dubai in February this year with her husband and son aged one.

“We are grateful that we are safe here. But that is not the case for millions of Ukrainians. We are in a foreign country but our hearts are in Ukraine.”

The world's longest Smerekova Hata cake, prepared to celebrate Christmas at Yoy Ukrainian restaurant on Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

World's longest Smerekova Hata cake

In Dubai, the only Ukrainian restaurant in the UAE, Yoy, meaning “wow” in the East Slavic language, hosted a special Christmas eve dinner for about 100 guests.

The chefs baked a 2.5-metre-long Smerekova Hata cake, a traditional dessert made of wheat, cream and sour cherries.

“This could be the world’s largest Ukrainian cake. We used 34.5kg of wheat and 10kg of cherry to make this,” Pavlo Moroz, owner and chef of the restaurant, told The National.

“We wanted to have a special Christmas so that our people can celebrate our traditions,” he said.

Vitaliy Fedianin, spokesman for the Ukrainian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, said celebrating Christmas in the middle of the war also means upholding his country’s fighting spirit.

“Christmas is one of the biggest traditional holidays in Ukraine. It is a symbol of the victory of good over evil, light over darkness. Now with the war raging, we want to show to the world that despite all the difficulties of fighting the Russian aggressors.”

“We Ukrainians believe in the victory of good and light,” he said.

“We will not allow the Russian occupiers to take away from us this faith and festive Christmas spirit, which we especially try to pass on to our children. Victory is our main wish this year.”

Updated: December 25, 2022, 7:14 AM