TORONTO/WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - The small gilded chapel at the Ukrainian Canadian Care Center, a retirement residence in suburban Toronto, is usually shuttered and dark midweek. But on Thursday, dozens of elderly immigrants and their caregivers gathered to pray for protesters and family back in Kiev.
At a mid-morning service, a priest from Toronto’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, Jaroslaw Buciora, told people the best thing they could do is pray for those back home. He and many others in the Ukrainian-Canadian community, which is estimated to number 1.2 million, are doing more than that, however - everything from sewing ribbons to sending cash in support of the Kiev demonstrators.
Among those who showed up for the service, sandwiched between bingo and waffle making, was Antonia Wasyliw, 84, a resident of the multistory senior center. She and another resident have been sewing yellow and blue ribbons to raise money for medical supplies for the protesters in Kiev.
“It’s a very simple thing to do; we bought the ribbon and did it. How can we help them? It’s winter. They need warm clothes. They need medical supplies,” said Wasyliw, who came to Canada in 1948 and worked in a shoe factory to make ends meet as she struggled to master English.
Ukraine suffered its bloodiest day since Soviet times on Thursday with a gun battle in central Kiev as President Viktor Yanukovich faced conflicting pressures from visiting European Union ministers and his Russian paymasters.
In Canada, sympathies lie almost exclusively with the pro-European demonstrators and in opposition to Yanukovich.
By last week, residents at the Ukrainian Canadian Care center had raised C$750 ($680), a sum that was hand-delivered to Kiev last week by Nika Goutor’s cousin, a Canadian resident who traveled to Ukraine to visit his family and bring money to the protesters. Goutor, the center’s recreation assistant, still has many family members in Ukraine. She said the death of more than 50 people in the violence this week is impossible to grasp.
The violence, in which both sides used firearms, has traumatized many Ukrainians and has heightened concerns that Ukraine could descend into civil war or split between the pro-European west and Russian-speaking east.
In the 2004-05 Orange Revolution for democracy, Ukrainians staged nationwide protests, but those events were largely peaceful.
“For us, it is still a shock, how you can shoot people. It could be my own son. It is impossible to watch. That’s why we all cry,” said Goutor, 46, who is still waiting for word that her cousin has returned safely to Toronto from Kiev.
At the reception desk, Natalia Soldaeva, 50, stopped mid-conversation to check her Facebook feed, scrolling through Cyrillic script and images of bodies and barricades for news of family. She said her cousin’s son is with the demonstrators in Kiev’s central plaza, known as the Maidan or “Euro-Maidan,” every day.
“Thank God, he’s safe, but I couldn’t stop crying yesterday. They’ve killed 50 people. Peaceful people.”
Soldaeva, who came to Canada in 1994, marched on the Ukrainian consulate in Toronto on Tuesday, as did Buciora, the parish priest.
“If I won’t be there, if others won’t be there, who are we?” Buciora said. “We cannot stand on the side and say this does not involve us.”
But Buciora, who came to Canada 25 years ago from his Ukrainian village in Poland, said the uprising happening half a world away is draining and emotional for Ukraine’s diaspora, many of whom still have family back home to worry about.
“The first thing I do when I come home is click” onto the Internet, said the priest, red-eyed and exhausted in his black robes after the prayer service.
Across the country this week, Ukrainian Canadians they gathered in community centers, senior residences and churches, riveted by the violence in Kiev.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) organized several protests in Canadian cities this week. Since December, Ukrainian Canadians have raised funds with borscht cook-offs and other events to buy medical equipment and help orphans in their home country, said UCC Executive Director Taras Zalusky from Ottawa.
Zalusky said he knows of dozens of Ukrainian Canadians who have returned to Kiev’s Maidan during the past three months to help where they can, though not necessarily to man the barricades.
In the farming and mining province of Saskatchewan, Ukrainian Canadians have gathered to pray in a Ukrainian Catholic monastery in Saskatoon every evening since the protests started in Kiev, and have raised funds for humanitarian aid to the protesters.
“We were very careful that the money wasn’t going to go to any particular political party,” said Danylo Puderak, executive director of Saskatchewan’s provincial council of the UCC. “It’s meant to support the protesters and their basic needs.”
Nataliia Petryshyn, a university student in Saskatchewan, moved to Canada 2 1/2 years ago from western Ukraine, where her family still lives. A family friend who was protesting was killed in the Maidan this week by a police grenade, she said.
“When I heard he was dead, I couldn’t believe it, I started crying,” she said. “I couldn’t work today.”
In Winnipeg, Manitoba, where a large population of Ukrainian descent has lived for several generations, the violence is no less shocking. Winnipeg lowered flags at City Hall to half-mast this week to acknowledge the violence.
“It’s painful, it’s heartbreaking to see a country that is struggling and has struggled throughout its history,” said Eugene Maximiuk, the priest at Winnipeg’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Ivan Suchavsky.
“To see half of the country rebelling against what it sees as wrong and to see this government standing there and saying, ‘No, you’re wrong, we’re right,’ it just doesn’t fly,” he said.
“It brings tears to the eyes.”
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Douglas Royalty