Christmas comes early and bittersweet for Eastern Europe’s Ukrainian refugees | Popgen Tech
PRAGUE/WARSAW, Dec 20 (Reuters) – Many of the millions of Ukrainian refugees in central and eastern Europe plan to celebrate Christmas early this year in solidarity with their hosts, learning carols in new languages to spark holiday cheer despite fears of family members at home.
Ukrainians generally celebrate Christmas on January 7 in common with Russians, but the country’s Orthodox church has gradually moved away from Moscow’s orbit in recent years.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, the church said congregations could now also celebrate on December 25 – something many refugees said they would embrace.
Svetlana Safonova, 48, said when she fled Lviv in March, she didn’t think she would have to spend Christmas away from her husband and adult daughter, who serves in the Ukrainian army.
“We would like to celebrate on December 25 to respect Bulgaria and show once again that we cut ties with Russia,” said Safonova, who plans to make traditional potato dumplings with her 9-year-old son and her cousin’s family.
“We will go to an Orthodox church and pray for peace in Ukraine and for the health of our soldiers and children.”
Vasil (45) and Marina (36), Khymyshynets who fled their village near Kiev in March with their two children after a missile or artillery round exploded near their home, now live in a two-room apartment in Prague.
The family – unable to afford a tree because they were saving to send gifts to relatives in Ukraine – baked Christmas cookies and taped pine branches and Christmas lights to the wall while the children practiced singing carols in Czech.
“We decided to use only a few pine branches for the decoration so that it looks good and makes the children happy,” Khymyshynets, who was allowed to leave Ukraine after the army rejected him due to poor eyesight, said at the weekend .
Russia’s attack on Ukraine, now in its tenth month, has killed tens of thousands of people, laid waste to cities and driven millions from their homes, with 4.5 million registered across Europe, data from the UN refugee agency UNHCR shows .
Many were drawn up by states bordering Ukraine such as Romania, Slovakia and Poland – which hosted the most – as well as nearby countries such as Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
Attacks on Ukraine’s power grid and heating plants mean few planned trips home for the holidays.
“We didn’t notice many people going back for Christmas,” said Jakub Andrle, a migration program officer for Prague-based charity People in Need, which works in and out of Ukraine. “The longer people stay here, the harder it is to go back.”
‘THANKS TO PALE’
Poland – emerging Europe’s largest country and sharing a roughly 500-kilometer (310-mile) border with Ukraine – has registered more than 1.5 million refugees, the most of any European Union nation, with millions more crossing its borders.
Serhiy Berezhko, a 64-year-old actor from Kyiv’s Lesya Ukrainka National Theater arrived in Poland in March with his mother, wife and two children and said he would use Christmas as a time to thank his Polish hosts.
“This holiday is a moment when people look into each other’s eyes and thank each other, hoping that things will be better in the future,” said Berezhko, whose family shared a holiday meal with the locals they helped when they arrived. “Everything we have now is thanks to Poland.”
In Bulgaria, where nearly 50,000 refugees have registered for temporary protection, refugees supported by UNICEF offer Ukrainian dishes and cookies and sell handmade bags, decorations and toys at a Christmas market in Sofia.
In Romania, refugees queued to receive packages at their Bucharest shelter where children decorated a Christmas tree.
Czechs living near a hostel in Prague that houses about 130 refugees organized a party with festive music and presents laid out under a lighted Christmas tree.
“We’re just trying to make it a little better for them,” said Hana Hillerova-Harper, who helped organize the event.
Children laughed as they played soccer in the snow and ran around grabbing cookies off the table while their mothers – many holding babies or pushing strollers – chatted with each other.
Most of the children had only two things on their Christmas lists: For the war to end and for their fathers to be safe.
“My biggest wish is for Ukraine to win,” said eight-year-old Kira Bezrebra.
Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia and Luiza Ilie in Bucharest, Writing by Michael Kahn, Editing by Philippa Fletcher
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.