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One year on, Galway is home to 4,000 Ukrainians displaced by war

It is one year since Russia invaded Ukraine, starting a war that has killed over 40,000 people, severely injured multiples more and displaced millions from their homes.

Galway has become the safe haven for over 4,000 of those who fled the war-torn country over the last twelve months and with no end to the hostilities in sight, many are coming to terms with a longer stay than they could ever have imagined.

An Spidéal-based Archee Kvashyn, who arrived in Galway with his wife and three children last March, says what he and his family have gone through over the past year was beyond anything they could have imagined.

“Absolutely not, I could not have imagined I would be here for one year. Even on February 23 last year, I couldn’t have imagined what happened the next day,” he says, referring to the invasion.

“It’s crazy. I do not have words to describe it.”

Despite huge support from locals and the Irish Government, the last few months have been tough.

“Sometimes, you get very depressed. When you read the news, it’s just very upsetting.

“My sister is still in Ukraine. She didn’t want to leave. Her and her daughter are volunteering in Kyiv, helping with collecting food and clothes,” says Archee who travelled to Ireland from Bucha, a town west of Kyiv where mass graves were discovered in April following a massacre of Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war.

“The situation in Kyiv is of course very difficult right now. The people only have electricity for three to four hours, maximum five hours per day. They have no other form of light, no heating, no internet,” he continues.

Archee says his thoughts are occupied by friends and family at home, and the concern that the war could escalate rather than end.

His family is settled in Ireland, he says. His eldest daughter attending GTI and his son is enjoying learning Irish at Inverin National School.

His youngest daughter was just an infant when they left home, and having recently turned one he says he’s glad she doesn’t understand the gravity of their situation.

“My son is okay. He’s young enough that once he has sweets, he’s happy. My older daughter, she is 17. She was depressed sometimes but she has friends now and is working and studying, so she is busy,” says Archee.

The protests against refugees and asylum seekers stoked by Far Right have not changed his opinion that the majority of Irish people understand the difficulty of their situation, he says.

“I understand that for Ireland, this is difficult. This is a challenge for everyone. But 99 per cent of the Irish people want to help. They understand the situation.

“We are people in a very stressful situation. Stressed people make mistakes but usually, the Ukrainian people who come here are very grateful and kind. I would just ask people to be patient because this is very difficult,” says Archee.

The Irish Georgian Chamber of Commerce welcomed some of the first Ukrainian refugees to Galway last year, securing accommodation for the new arrivals and supporting them in finding schools and work.

Chairman of the city-based organisation, Giorgi Peikrishvili, says Georgians know all too well the impact of a Russian invasion, their own country having been subjected to one in 2008.

He says it was important for him to reinforce the message that the vast majority of Irish people understood that the Ukrainians here did not want to leave their home, but were forced to flee for their safety.

“These protests, and thankfully there haven’t been any in Galway outside hotels, they are damaging to everyone. They are also quite insulting for the Irish people and businesses who have done so much to help.

“The Ukrainians that have come here have so much respect for the Irish people and their hospitality. You ask for one blanket and you get five – that’s just how Irish people work,” says Giorgi.

Over the past year, many of those who have arrived here have had to resign themselves to a longer stay than they every could have anticipated, he adds.

“The big problem now is that even if the war stopped tomorrow, peoples’ houses are gone.”

Loughrea resident Val Sokur, a Ukrainian national who has called Ireland home for the past 20 years, says the end of the war lies in the hands of the international community, and in particular those countries supplying weapons to the Ukrainian army.

Val Sokur

Val spoke to the Connacht Tribune in April about travelling to Ukraine three times to bring members of his family to safety in Loughrea, but his son was one of those who stayed behind.

“My son is in the Ukrainian army. He has spent the past two weeks in hospital with a good few injuries – he’s been injured twice in the last two months.

“My worry is when it does end, how it will end. Even if the Ukrainian army secured the border, I feel like Russia could still be firing missiles over,” says Val who works as a mechanic in Knocknacarra.

He said the visit of US President Joe Biden to Kyiv this week, and visits like that of former Taoiseach Micheál Martin last July do have a positive impact and the support of the international community is bolstering Ukrainians.

“Ireland is a small country but it has taken so many refugees, and that is not easy.

“Ukrainians will remember all the European countries, including Ireland, for generations to come. They looked after them and put up the money to do it,” says Val.

“How are things a year on? It is still a war and people are still dying every single day.”

Main photo by Joe O’ Shaughnessy: Archee Kvashyn (front, in blue hoodie) and some of his Ukrainian colleagues at Westside Community Centre

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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