Ukrainian community marks Orthodox Easter Sunday at St Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi

Ukrainians in the UAE pray for their war-torn homeland, 417 days after Russia’s invasion

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Ukrainians in Abu Dhabi came together on Orthodox Easter Sunday to pray that the war in their homeland would soon come to an end.

A Ukrainian-language service was held at St Joseph’s Cathedral on Sunday to mark the religious festival, led by Father Liubomyr Fylypchak, who roused the congregation with traditional hymns.

Worshippers prayed for their families in Ukraine, almost 14 months on from the Russian invasion, and two days after a Russian rocket attack in Sloviansk killed at least 11 and injured 21.

The conflict is estimated to have left tens of thousands dead and displaced millions.

Supporting one another

Yevheniy Semenov, 29, who has lived in Abu Dhabi for ten years, helped organise the Easter service, which saw the church come alive in colour as dozens of Ukrainians arrived in traditional vyshyvanka embroidery.

“Ukrainians in the UAE are trying to support people back home as much as possible,” says Mr Semenov.

“Everyone here is grateful to the government and the leadership of the UAE for the support, and we feel honoured to be here in the safest country in the world.”

Mr Semenov, who arrived in the UAE as a student, now helps to organise community events to help refugees settle into life in the emirates, including Saturday school and language classes for kids, and psychologist sessions for anyone who needs extra support.

“We are all overseas and everyone has their relatives back home, so we understand the pain,” says Mr Semenov, whose entire family remains in Ukraine.

“Helping others in worse conditions brings us together and makes that pain more bearable.”

One of the newest worshippers to join the St Joseph’s congregation is Liliia Datsyna, 29, from Lviv, who moved to Abu Dhabi from Ukraine in December to join her partner Andrii Opanaschuk, 30, who has lived in the emirate for three years.

In February, the couple, who are musicians, married in nearby St Therese Church, offering a much-needed moment of joy in an incredibly dark year.

“I’m praying for the end of the war,” says Mrs Datsyna. “Our parents, our relatives and our friends are all in Ukraine and what is happening there is very sad.

“It's a different world here in Abu Dhabi, and when you're calling home and your mom is crying because of the news it is very difficult.

“Easter is a big celebration in Ukraine, but if we went back our husbands wouldn’t be able to leave again. We don't know what to expect, but we pray that the war will end soon.”

Prayers for family back home

Mr Opanaschuk, who is a conductor at Abu Dhabi’s Youth Orchestra, spoke of his love for the Emirates and the safe haven it has provided for his new wife.

"I’m so happy Liliia is finally here,” he says. “The people of the UAE have been so welcoming to all of us, but not everyone is so fortunate and we all just want the war to end.

“Today I prayed that God would save our lives and protect our families back home.”

The Easter service was the second led by Father Liubomyr, who arrived in Abu Dhabi in March 2022 and was overwhelmed by the tolerance and warmth of the nation.

“I wasn’t prepared for just how welcome we would be made to feel in a Muslim country but we need it now more than ever," he said.

“Ukrainian people can’t be at home, they can’t see their parents or be with their loved ones, so the church has become that place where they look for consolation.”

In the past year, the priest has seen the congregation swell as the conflict rages on.

“Before the war, the church community here was a lot smaller, but when you have something that you can’t manage by yourself you need an atmosphere of acceptance and trust,” he says.

“Our community is growing, and the support is not just spiritual but social, too. We are here for anyone that needs us.”

Updated: April 16, 2023, 7:53 AM