Growing up in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine, Vasyl Mykhaylyk and his cousins would always ask their grandfather to share stories from his days of fighting in the Second World War. His grandfather, however, was never forthcoming with war stories, and ‘he would cry and just walk away,’ said Vasyl. There is one story, however, that Vasyl learned through his grandmother, one which has stayed with him ever since.

‘She said that when grandpa went to the war, his own father told him: “Prockp, when you see in front of you your enemy, and you’ve got your gun pointed at him, just think about your family. This guy has probably got the same family at home. And don’t try to kill.”’

Vasyl said this story remains in the front of his mind as he watches the current war unfold in his home country. ‘When I see what’s happening to my country right now... it’s basically history repeating itself, you know. It’s just surreal,‘ he said.

I’ve been following this war very closely and I seriously feel for the Russians, for those young boys. Thousands of them were sent out there for no reason, just from one person’s demands. It just makes me very, very angry. I really feel for them – all of them belong to families. I just can’t believe it’s happening in the 21st century in the middle of Europe.’

Vasyl and his wife migrated to Australia in 2005, after completing their university studies. ‘We worked for a few years back in Ukraine then an opportunity came up to work in Australia at that time so we decided to try. We came here, to this beautiful country, with its beautiful people, and we just stayed. And here we are 17 years later, with two kids. I’m blessed to be here.’

The Mykhaylyk family are regular parishioners at the Ukrainian-Greek Catholic Church (Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral) in North Melbourne where, earlier this month, the Catholic bishops of Victoria joined Bishop Mykola Bychok (Eparch of the Ukrainian-Greek Church in Australia and New Zealand) for a special prayer service for peace in Ukraine.

These days, Vasyl begins his mornings by checking on his parents and extended family back home. ‘The whole of my family and my wife’s family is in Ukraine, in the Cherkasy region,’ which is in central Ukraine, around 200km from the capital of Kyiv, he said.’

‘My parents have not travelled anywhere. They’re just in their house trying to keep themselves busy because it’s dangerous to travel anywhere. My wife’s parents are also back home and in a similar situation. My wife’s brother joined the army and he’s out there too.’

Since the Russian forces invaded the country, the province of Cherkasy has been bombed twice. ‘We have a cellar in the house [in Ukraine]. About two to three times a day they get a notification on their phone that they have to go to that cellar to make sure that if they get bombarded, they’ll be OK,’ he explained.

‘All my cousins, they sent their wives and kids to the west of Ukraine or overseas,’ Vasyl said. ’And all of them just took weapons in their hands and are ready to defend.’

We got attacked for no reason at all – no reasonable reason. And all we need, all we want … our country needs freedom, you know, just leave us alone,’ he said. ‘We have a very terrible neighbour who is invested in destabilising our economy, our politics… our lives in general.’

‘Every major conflict in Europe has gone through Ukraine because we are in the middle of Europe, and we know the devastating effects of the Second World War. Life is changed in the blink of an eye. Yesterday you live your life and the next day you have to move somewhere else and you don’t know when you can come back.‘

Vasyl explained that while none of the men were forced to join the army, many have chosen to remain in Ukraine to defend their families and land.

We’re angry not because we hate our enemies. We’re angry because we are defending what’s behind us: our families, our kids, our women, our values and life.’

Vasyl’s sister is also back in Ukraine, and her sons recently tried to sign up for the army. ‘They live in a village – they’re farmers – so they just built a barricade near the entry to the village. They went to the local army office to sign up but [the officers] said that they were too young. One is 18 years old, and another is 16. So young. They’re just boys.

‘Basically, it is boys like my son [who is 18] who are fighting out there. I said to my wife one day, “Why are they going to fight? It should be people like me, not these young souls.”

It’s really tough for all of us, for all the community,’ Vasyl shared. ‘You feel helpless and it’s hard to talk… I am a 42-year-old male and I’m crying. I sometimes go to the car because I don’t want my kids to see this but you know, I feel it in the bottom of my soul. I was just in Ukraine two years ago and now those cities are destroyed and we need to rebuild them.’

With millions of Ukrainians now displaced and cities in ruin, Vasyl shared how heartbreaking it has been to try and explain the situation to his kids.

‘My daughter, she’s in Year 8. One day she came home and she said the teacher tried to explain to the kids what is happening right now in the world, and they started talking about this war. And, the poor girl, she said she started crying, so they had to close the topic.

My kids, they think, “how can we live with this happening? How we can hate each other so much and destroy each other’s houses and lives?”’

‘And can you imagine young kids who experienced the bombarding of cities? After this [war], I really feel for them. It will be in their minds for the rest of their lives.’

Vasyl Ukrainian Catholic
Vasyl and his family Supplied

Despite the anguish of what is happening in his homeland, Vasyl said that he and other Ukrainians have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the Australian and international community. ‘People I didn’t talk to for like 10 years sent me messages and just tried to cheer me up and ask how they can help. “Are your parents OK? Is your family OK?” This makes such a difference, you know.

‘Caritas Australia is doing a terrific job and collecting donations for humanitarian aid. I think this is the easiest way to help. The Australian government also announced the humanitarian package for refugees. Myself and my son, we’re spreading the word to our friends in Ukraine and making sure that they know. We have attended a few rallies here in the city and we are also in the church regularly praying for peace in Ukraine.’

Vasyl also reflected that he has been pleasantly surprised by the sense of unity that Ukrainians have shown locally and abroad. ‘Mr Putin and Russia tried to destroy us but the opposite is happening – it just reunited us.’

‘In the face of difficulty when, you know, today you live and tomorrow you can die, you realise the value and importance of belief,’ reflected Vasyl.

‘The biggest values for us in Ukraine are church and family. God and family. Those are the two biggest things in life. We don’t want anything from anyone. We’re hardworking people and we’re peaceful people,’ Vasyl said.

‘I’ve no doubt that we’re going to win. And that the light is going to beat the dark. God will help us.’