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Newcomers get a taste of the home they were forced to flee at National Ukraine Festival

The return of the National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin offered newcomers displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine a comforting taste of home over the weekend.

Lesia Yaroshenko travelled more than 300 kilometres from Winnipeg to attend the event in southwestern Manitoba. Yaroshenko and her sons Hnat, 16, and Vlad, 12, hail from Kyiv — her husband, Yehen Khorolskyi, remains in Ukraine.

The family has been living in Winnipeg for about 2½ months. 

“We were ordinary people in Ukraine. We did not want war. We had our ordinary lives, families, jobs, dreams,” Yaroshenko said.

She says she appreciated being able to connect with people because many Ukrainian-Canadians in Dauphin have maintained the language.

Lesia Yaroshenko volunteered at Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, Man., on Saturday as part of the newcomer summer camp U-Win. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“It’s really great that the traditions, the languages — they are kept here,” she said. “I hope that despite COVID quarantines and the war and whatever happens in the world this festival keeps going and people meet and share their thoughts and stories and these Canadian and Ukrainian-Canadian dreams continue to come true,” Yaroshenko said.

Dancers perform at Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival grandstand show in Dauphin, Man., on Saturday. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

At one point, she says, she was unsure whether she would be able to travel to the festival due to the long drive and the price of a weekend pass. 

“It’s not easy to manage when you are a newcomer and you’ve got almost nothing,” Yaroshenko said.

She ended up winning two weekend passes to the festival after playing in a Ukrainian volleyball tournament.

Dancers perform at Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival grandstand show. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

However, Yaroshenko says, she wanted the entire team to be able to attend. The group reached out to the festival’s organizing committee offering to volunteer in exchange for passes. In the end they were able to make the journey to Dauphin with a group of more than a dozen friends.

Yaroshenko works as a senior counsellor and camp director at U-Win Summer Day Camp, which supports Ukrainian newcomers entering the school system and provides support for youth looking for employment, along with other activities and opportunities. 

Yaroshenko says she enjoys being a part of U-Win because she connects with other newcomers in Winnipeg. Her visit to Dauphin helped widen the social network she is helping create. 

“I knew that there’s such a big Ukrainian festival in Dauphin and it’s been a while because of COVID that it didn’t take place,” Yaroshenko said. “Here there is such a friendly spirit. We just learn by doing and we share this with the people from Ukrainian descent or those who are interested in Ukrainian culture.”

Hnat, left, and Lesia Yaroshenko volunteered at the National Ukrainian Festival as part of the newcomer summer camp U-Win. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Hnat Yaroshenko, 16, volunteered at the festival as part of U-Win.

He was aware of the vibrant Ukrainian culture in Manitoba, he said, and it was amazing to experience it in person.

Crowds learn the ‘Perogie Dance’ at Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“I like the atmosphere here, it’s really great,” Hnat said. “It’s like the mood of camping, the mood of Ukraine, the mood of ‘relax.'”

Winnipeg-based Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble Kathryn Kuzyk, left, has her costume pinned by Katelyn Turchy. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Hnat was especially struck by the lively music that filled the site and hopes to strap on a guitar next year.

“I even want to create my own Ukrainian band because I have seen all these great bands and I like this music,” Hnat said. “There are so much festivals here. It’s so great to see it here in the other part of the world.”

Reese Robertson, 10, and Hadley Robertson, 6, make friends with a horse at the Cossack Camp. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Festival committee president Kayla Gillis estimated 7,000 visitors attended the three-day event, which typically sees about 5,000 visitors each year.

Crowds dance at Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival Grandstand stage. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The festival’s mandate — celebrating and promoting Ukrainian culture— took on new meaning because of Russia’s invasion. Activities were added to the program, including dedicating some grandstand shows and performances by dance groups to those who died or remained behind to fight in the conflict.

Gillis says the committee was grateful to all the U-Win volunteers who stepped up to help make the weekend a success — including those who travelled from as far as Alberta to help.

Gillis said the volunteers among the newcomers especially loved it because so many attendees spoke Ukrainian with them.

Ukrainian dancers prepare for the grandstand show. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“I hope that they walked away feeling very welcomed and knowing that coming to a new country it’s not easy, but we’re all there to help and support them.”

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