It was a bittersweet Christmas for Vitalii Nechai and his family.
The Ukrainian family, following a brief stint in Europe, came to Red Deer to escape the war between Russia and their home country.
“We were in Ukraine for two months before we decided to leave the country,” he said.
“When the war started, (there were) rocket alarms. We, as Ukrainians, had to hide in the bomb shelters. … In the night, at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock, the alarm is on and you have to run to the bomb shelters.
“Right now the situation is even worse. (Russia) continues to fire rockets that are hitting the infrastructure of towns. … Rockets are fired every day to all of Ukraine.”
On Friday, Nechai, his wife and their three children, aged 16, 11 and three, were able to enjoy an Orthodox Christmas Eve supper at St. Vladimir Ukrainian Catholic Church in Red Deer.
While they were able to celebrate the holiday with a 12-dish meal, carolling and other Ukrainian traditions, everyone was still thinking about the hardship Ukrainians are experiencing right now, said Nechai.
“My father is still in Ukraine. He doesn’t want to leave the country. Right now he’s in my native town. My mother is in Europe,” said Nechai.
“This is maybe the first time we’ve celebrated Christmas separated. We really appreciate the opportunity to be here – there’s the spirit of Christmas here.”
The family has been in Canada for about eight months now.
“We are thankful to all Canadians for taking Ukrainian families and bringing them to a safe place,” Nechai said.
“Right now I am happy, at least for my children. They are in a safe and great country, that gives big support to all Ukrainians.
“I am glad here (in Canada) there are people who understand what is happening right now (in Ukraine) and who is an enemy – who tried to occupy another country.”
Father Jim Nakonechny, with St. Vladimir Ukrainian Catholic Church, said it was great to bring many displaced Ukrainians together to enjoy a meal with each other.
“Seeing new families meet with each other for the first time … is just wonderful. I’ve seen people opening up and making new friends,” he said.
“We figured we can bring everyone together, have a beautiful evening and make it memorable for their first year in Canada.”
About 500 displaced Ukrainians are living in central Alberta.
“We’re all praying as a community that 2023 will bring peace and an end to the war,” said Nakonechny.
On Monday afternoon, the Rotary Club of Red Deer hosted close to 30 Ukrainian families, with about 100 people overall at St. Vladimir’s Parish Hall for a Ukrainian Christmas celebration.
Rotary president Darcy Mykytyshyn said the club has made a strong effort over the past year to help Ukrainians displaced from the conflict settle in the city. He explained the club was happy to give them a little taste of home at Monday’s celebration.
“Today was just an opportunity to just get people out to relax and enjoy the season. Give them an opportunity to relax and enjoy the community,” Mykytyshyn said, adding he hopes rotary can help connect displaced Ukrainians with employment opportunities.
Former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach, who has been a huge driver of aid from Canada for Ukraine, also spoke at the event. The grandson of Ukrainian immigrants, Stelmach said he’s heard from so many Ukrainians about the struggles they’ve faced to get here.
“They really appreciate the fact that they can come to Canada where it’s safe,” Stelmach said.
“Here in Alberta, there are job opportunities. They know they have some challenges with English as a second language. They are very blessed… the other day, a father was hugging his son, he said ‘now my son has a future’.”
Claude Dupont, financial secretary with the Knights of Columbus, which has been involved with the Ukrainian Displaced Persons Planning Committee, said the past year has been a whirlwind ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
“We went from watching bombs dropping on cities on TV to trying to figure out how we can help,” he said.
“We opened up all of our events to the newcomers. They’ve become family to us.”