Op-Ed: Ukrainians have fought for our culture before, and we will not back down

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By Alexandra Holyk

My first memory of Ukrainian activism dates back to November 2004 during the Orange Revolution. Almost three-year-old me was bundled up head-to-toe in an orange scarf, hat and mittens, sitting on my father’s shoulders at a rally in downtown Toronto and chanting the name of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was just the beginning of my role of cultural activism within the Ukrainian community. 

Back then, there were countless demonstrations following the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine, when both Viktor Yushchenko—who was running on an anti-corruption platform—and Viktor Yanukovych—the presidential candidate backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin—won two-fifths of the vote each. In a runoff election, Yanukovych was declared the winner, but Yushchenko supporters charged fraud and staged mass protests for nearly two weeks. In another runoff election, Yushchenko was declared the winner and—despite challenges from Yanukovych—was inaugurated as Ukraine’s president on Jan. 23, 2005.

Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty and freedom from Russia didn’t start nor end there. Today, as we enter the two-week mark of war after Putin ordered his troops into the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, more than 2 million people have fled to neighbouring countries and hundreds have died or been injured. Approximately 167,000 Ukrainians have returned from abroad to defend their country, as Ukrainians are once again fighting for our land, culture and independence as a tyrannical Russian president tries to rip them away. 

Ukrainian people have been fighting Russian aggression and oppression for hundreds of years. That’s why we’re so “badass”—it’s why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told U.S. president Joe Biden that he “need[s] ammunition, not a ride”; why Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island told Russian warships to go fuck themselves; and why an elderly woman told Russian troops to put sunflower seeds in their pockets so that flowers grow when they die. 

As a second-generation Ukrainian born and raised in Canada, I am eternally grateful that my grandparents escaped war-torn Eastern Europe in the mid-20th century to provide a better life for their families. I take pride in my Ukrainian heritage and being an active member in various aspects of the Ukrainian community in the Greater Toronto Area. I first got into journalism through the Ukrainian TV program Kontakt, which has since led me to pursue a degree at Ryerson University and a career in media post-graduation. 

At the same time, I can’t help but feel guilty and helpless for my friends and family who are still in a bomb shelter or have travelled to neighbouring countries as refugees with only the clothes on their backs.

“When it comes to my cultural heritage, I am a Ukrainian before I am a student and before I am a journalist”

Growing up in the Ukrainian community, I thought it was normal to be aware of everyone’s business, know everyone’s close friends and family and see everyone within the community on a weekly basis. It was common to see familiar faces at a festival, concert, church service, youth group meeting, camp, dance practice or any other event. Though this has its downfalls (I can’t hide anything from my parents), it also has its benefits, which have especially shone through during this latest attack. 

Due to our closeness, the Ukrainian community around the world came together almost instantly to support Ukraine’s culture through physical and monetary donations, rallies and information on social media. The Ukrainian World Congress initiated the #StandWithUkraine campaign, which has taken off as a global movement attracting celebrities, fashion designers, billionaires, world leaders and media. 

In journalism school, I was always taught to avoid inserting myself into the narrative of a story; I can report on activism, but I cannot be an activist. But when it comes to my cultural heritage, I am a Ukrainian before I am a student and before I am a journalist. This means I will stand to support the country from which my ancestors came and use my strengths as a reporter to ensure an accurate account of what’s going on. 

It is also vital for those working in media to correct the mistakes and inequities of other journalists when covering the war in Ukraine. By using language such as “civilized nation” and comparing the war in Ukraine to those in Middle Eastern nations such as Afghanistan, Palestine, Yemen and Syria, reporters are perpetuating eurocentric white privilege. This is displayed not only in their coverage of the war, but also in other countries’ receptiveness of Ukrainian refugees, while those fleeing other war-torn countries are ignored. 

Unfortunately, the news cycle turns over so quickly that by the time the media corrects itself, the Russia-Ukraine war may be considered old news. This phase of Putin’s attack on Ukraine has been in the works for eight years, but has recently resurfaced with the invasion. There are plenty of humanitarian crises still going on that aren’t being talked about; Ukraine is just the latest trending topic.

On Feb. 28, Ryerson President Mohamed Lachemi released a statement in response to the ongoing war in Ukraine, saying the university “stands with the many voices around the world calling for peace and hoping that this conflict will come to an immediate end.” He provided a list of general mental health resources and supports and stated that the multi-functional light fixtures on Gould Street will be lit up blue and yellow—the colours of the Ukrainian flag and coincidentally the colours of the university—for the “foreseeable future.” 

At the University of Toronto, a student was trying to connect with her family in Kyiv to arrange asylum for them and had asked her political science professor for an extension. In response, the professor said there are other armed conflicts and humanitarian crises happening all the time; “if we grant an extension to students because of the situation in Ukraine, we have to consider those other students.” After the situation was shared on social media, the political science department agreed on a seven-day extension for the student, but it required significant push back and attention in order to happen. 

As president of the Ukrainian Students’ Club at Ryerson and as a Ukrainian post-secondary student, I recognize the gesture and support coming from post-secondary institutions and faculty. But I believe we need more than just blue and yellow lights illuminating a narrow, mostly pedestrian street. 

“[Ryerson administration] asked how they can help, but now they must actually help us”

I call upon Ryerson University and the Ryerson Students’ Union—which has failed to show up for yet another humanitarian crisis—to provide academic, financial and humanitarian aid to Ukrainian international students and all students who come from countries impacted by war. This includes lowering tuition for international students from war-torn countries and/or providing them with a grant to support themselves while they support their families; offering same-day or next-day mental health support for students; providing extensions for assignments; cutting ties with Russian-owned companies; and donating funds to support humanitarian crises around the world. 

What the university has done is only a performative first step: they asked how they can help, but now they must actually help us. 

On March 12, 2022, almost 18 years after my first instance of Ukrainian activism, I will find myself at another rally highlighting Ukrainian students and performers that I organized along with six other Ukrainian clubs at post-secondary institutions in Southern Ontario. Like two-year-old me, I will once again be adorned in pro-Ukrainian memorabilia and chanting phrases in support of Ukraine, because this is not the first time nor will it be the last time that I, alongside millions of Ukrainians around the world, will fight for our sovereignty, culture and freedom.

Alexandra Holyk is an online editor at The Eyeopener.

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