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Late in February, on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Stepan Hevak of Castlegar, British Columbia, tried to celebrate his daughter’s fourth birthday. It was nearly impossible to feel joy, as he and his wife Iryna are Ukrainian and were deeply saddened by the news of war.

“Her birthday was February 23rd. That’s when they attacked us. That’s when we tried to eat birthday cake.” 

Stepan knows firsthand how living through instability in Ukraine feels. This uncertainty pushed him and his wife to move to Castlegar six years ago from Ukraine. 

“After 2014, we saw that economically Ukraine will not have peace. We knew there would be no peace for many years ahead; there would be unsettled times for an uncertain period.”

Stepan Hevak (first from the right) and fellow Castlegar residents rally in support of Ukraine.

The couple moved to Castlegar, where Stepan’s wife studied at Selkirk College. After she completed her studies, they stayed.

“We totally love it here,” says Stepan. 

Stepan has worked for over three years for the Castlegar branch of a Kelowna company restoring houses after flood, wildfire, and wind damage. He is also trained as a drywaller, painter, and finish carpenter. 

Stepan took part in a rally to support Ukraine at Castlegar City Hall on February 27th. 

“I was surprised that quite a few people showed up in such a small community. It’s such a small Ukrainian community in the area. I’m grateful to the Dukobour community. They understand what Putin’s regime is and what he does. That’s what their ancestors escaped. They take it seriously,” says Stepan. 

Stepan learned about the rally from Olga Hallborg, a Ukrainian also living in Castlegar, who organized the event.  

“She contacted me the day before. I never knew Olga before. She asked me if I wanted to do something. She did the main work; I just called a few people. I thank Olga for stepping up.”

It meant a lot to Stepan to connect with other local Ukrainian folks at the rally, where approximately fifty people turned up. Olga was impressed by the turnout too. Olga says: 

“I knew a few people, but many I had never met came because of my post on Facebook. Although we met for this extremely negative reason, there were lots of positives out of this. To connect with people; I met other Ukrainian people in this community. I didn’t have time to connect with Ukrainians, and some came recently.”

Olga Hallborg and daughter Elizabeth (15) were instrumental in making the rally at Castlegar City Hall a reality.

At the rally, Stepan gave an impromptu speech.

“I had to apologize to people. Anger took over my whole being. Now, after good hours of sleep, I realize I have to let my anger go,” says Stepan. “My biggest love and prayers go to those people who came to support us, and my biggest thanks are to those people who showed up.” 

Stepan is afraid for his family and friends back in Ukraine. His sister and nephew spent two nights near Kyiv in a bomb shelter before driving 650 km to their parent’s house. Once his sister, a very inexperienced driver, arrived, Stepan felt better although he is still worried.

“It’s not only your family, it’s also all the people and my friends in very hot spots right now; they are trying to defend their cities,” says Stepan.

Especially upsetting for him is the damage that war does to people.

Rally attendees stand in support of Ukraine.

“We’re not worrying about infrastructure and stuff because that’s all material. But human lives. It’s hard. I feel sorry because many, many good people are scared to death of that regime.”

Olga sees things very similarly.

“I don’t know how long it will take for this wound to heal,” she says.

Stepan intends to stay involved in local efforts to support Ukraine. He will keep in touch with Olga too. 

“Since we don’t know how long this war will go on, we might have to organize another rally. My biggest wish is that we didn’t have to do that at all. I would love to meet every Ukrainian in the area but not under these circumstances,” says Stepan.

Both Stepan and Olga say that many reputable humanitarian organizations are supporting Ukraine such as the Canadian Red Cross, UNICEF, and the Maple Hope Foundation, Foundation–a group that has been helping Ukrainian veterans and their families since 2014. 

Both also encourage people to get information about the war from reputable news sources and to be wary of what they read and share on social media.

“In the waterfall of information, it’s really hard to get accurate information,” says Stepan.

For his part, Stepan is trying his best. 

“I’m trying to calm down so I don’t pass my negative energy to (my child) and my wife. She’s at that age where she asks a lot of questions. It breaks my heart that I can’t explain everything to her. I don’t want to pass that anger and hate to her that’s right now inside of me.”

He tries to remain hopeful and see the good.

“There are more good people in the world than evil. People step up when humanity faces some critical moments, and that is incredible to observe and see happening. I hope everybody will have some peace eventually.”

The message that day was clear: stand with Ukraine.