Central Albertans on a Medical Mercy Canada trip in May to Ukraine were welcomed with open arms.
Dr. Leighton Nischuk and Warren Kreway, both of Lacombe, were among five Canadians who went to Ukraine for a month after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March and while Ukrainians were preparing to elect a new president.
“It was probably my best trip to the Ukraine. I think the people really appreciate that we came. They didn’t think we were going to come. It said there are people that care and so we got a lot of hugs, a lot of good food,” said Dr. Leighton Nischuk, a director with Medical Mercy Canada.
Nischuk said he got the impression that Ukrainians were feeling alone and that the world was on Russia’s side.
He said people on the western side of the country want Ukraine to be its own independent country.
“A lot of people knew the Russian language and spoke the Russian language, but they don’t want anything to do with Russia.”
And even though things looked bad, optimism prevailed, he said.
It was Nischuk’s fifth trip to Ukraine since 2009 to visit villages in four the country’s western provinces to check on small restoration projects underway at facilities like health clinics, schools, and geriatric centres.
Nischuk said they never felt that they were in danger, but did find out later that four Russians were arrested near one of the villages not long after the Canadians visited.
“They had a whole bunch of rifles with them.”
Before the May 25 election, he received an e-mail from the Canadian government to limit their travel on election day and stay away from polling stations. A week before the election, all major cities had road blocks made of concrete barriers, tires or sandbags guarded by police who were checking vehicles.
He said as the election drew near, Ukrainians grew more worried.
“The churches were full every evening, people getting together to pray.”
On May 25, the humanitarian group did travel to a nearby village where they were invited by the local mayor to visit the polling station, so they went.
“People were sitting there talking, visiting, smiling. It seemed really quite relaxed. Outside, children were playing soccer. There wasn’t any sort of fear at all. And when they heard we were Canadians, they were happy to see us and they wanted a picture with us,” Nischuk said.
Kreway, who made his first trip to Ukraine, said Ukrainians in rural areas were feeling isolated and kind of lost.
“They have Russian television and the Russian television is not allowing them to see what is going on,” Kreway said.
“It was very reassuring to them that we came all the way from Canada to help even in this mess that they’re in. It reassured the people that the world does care. We are paying attention. The world has eyes on them.”
One of the reason’s why Kreway, 65, wanted to be part of Medical Mercy efforts in Ukraine was to connect to his heritage. Kreway met three distant cousins while in the country.
He said his grandfather was born in Ukraine and left so he could raise his family in safety. Leaving Ukraine meant cutting off all communication.
“They were afraid once they got here, or wherever they were heading, they’d be caught and sent back. So they just kept silent their whole lives. My dad and my grandfather said nothing. That’s really sad. To live your whole life without being able to know if there were any relatives alive, or what happened.”
He said Russia is continuing to the turmoil and repression that has held Ukraine back.
One of Kreway’s jobs was to get out into the local villages, meet people, and let them know why Medical Mercy Canada was there.
Medical Mercy has worked to distribute medical supplies and equipment, as well as help fund projects like updated plumbing in health clinics, new floors, doors and windows.
“They are very, very poor. Most of health units they have in the villages barely have running water or indoor toilets. It was like stepping back 150 to 200 years at times,” Kreway said.
Nischuk said the team visited about 80 project sites and he has seen conditions get better over the years with more efforts being made to restore facilities.
“(Medical Mercy) was sort of like a spark. We’d see that quite often,” Nischuk said.
He said many people support the efforts of Medical Mercy in Ukraine because they have relatives there.
“There are some really generous supporters. Once they connect with family, it makes it much more real to them, the difficulties they have, and they really want to help.”
Nischuk’s mother and father came from Ukraine and he has discovered about 150 relatives. He said it was particularly important to return this year with the challenges the country faced.
In February, his father passed away and it was nice to return to the country where he father was born, Nischuk said.
“It was like going back and bringing his spirit back.”
For more information about Medical Mercy Canada visit www.medicalmercycanada.org.