Home / World News / Russia assaults: Australia’s Ukrainian community watch with fear and guilt as invasion begins

Russia assaults: Australia’s Ukrainian community watch with fear and guilt as invasion begins

Just a week ago, Nataliya Murad was getting ready to fly back to Brisbane.

But a warning from the US President stopped her in her tracks.

The Ukrainian-born Queenslander had finally managed to secure a flight out of Danylo Halytskyi International Airport when fresh rumours of a Russian invasion hit the headlines.

“It was when Americans announced about the imminent attack on (February 16) which was the day when my plane was up. So that was very, very stressful,” Nataliya says.

As it turns out, the invasion did not happen that day and Nataliya managed to get a plane to Australia.

But in the short time she has been back, the situation in Eastern Europe has escalated, with each snippet of news prompting fresh concern for Nataliya’s daughter, her nieces and her 87-year old mother.

“Here in Australia, I feel safe. But as I said, I feel very guilty, and I’m very worried about my family and about Ukraine.”

Nataliya, a retired public servant, is one of tens of thousands of Ukrainian-Australians watching anxiously from 15,000km away as years of heightened political instability and military showboating finally spills over the Russian border.

An increasingly aggressive campaign in eastern Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn fire from a number of Western nations, including Australia, with reports on Thursday coming through that shelling had begun at locations across the nation.

The US earlier on Thursday had warned Putin was finally ready to launch an incursion, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced he had signed an amendment that would allow Australia to target sanctions against “individuals and entities” supporting the Russian regime, echoing that of like-minded countries.

Ukrainians living in Brisbane, Queensland.
Camera IconUkrainian-born Queenslander Nataliya Murad. Credit: Supplied

Nataliya, meanwhile, considers the interference the latest flashpoint in a conflict that began long before she set off for Australia in 2000.

Her journey to Australia more than two decades ago came after her husband – a tropical horticulturalist – got a job in the banana industry in North Queensland, with the pair eventually settling in Brisbane.

“We had to go to an English speaking country because my English was quite good by then, and also somewhere they grow bananas,” she said.

“So Australia seemed like a perfect place to come.”

In September, having just retired from the Queensland public service, she travelled back to Lviv in western Ukraine to see her family.

Nataliya had been helping care for her elderly, housebound mother for several months when it became increasingly clear she would have a front-row seat to the latest volatile chapter in the nation’s history.

“You see, because Ukraine has been living with this situation for years and years … people have just adjusted to (the fighting),” Nataliya says.

“But a month, let’s say, after I arrived, people started worrying a lot.

“You go to a hairdresser and you can hear people talking about it.

“Some of us have friends in the eastern part of Ukraine coming over and they were travelling and trying to buy property in the western part.”

The situation deteriorated in early February and left Nataliya with a difficult choice.

“I feel a constant guilt that I have left my family … and leaving wasn’t easy.

“At the beginning (of the conflict) I said ‘I’m not going anywhere’. But then the situation changed significantly and I thought I might be better use here in Australia.”

She’s also very mindful that escape is not on the cards for most Ukrainians.

“You know, 45 million people can’t just move away. They have elderly parents, some of them are physically incapable.

“And where do you go? You need some means for existence, for God’s sake.”

There are about 13,400 Ukraine-born people in Australia and nearly 50,000 who have Ukrainian ancestry, with a network of community organisations, language schools, sporting clubs and radio stations further bolstered by the husbands and wives of Ukrainians, and those simply interested in the culture.

Like many Ukrainians living Down Under, most of Nataliya’s tight-knit Brisbane community can be traced back to the influx of displaced migrants who arrived during World War II.

Ukrainians in Brisbane and the state’s southeast gather under the banner of the Ukrainian Community of Queensland, a group based in the suburb of Holland Park West and headed by second generation Australian-Ukrainian Peter Bongiorni.

Peter, whose maternal grandparents came to Australia in the 1940s, says many Ukrainians in Brisbane were anxious for their relatives and friends overseas.

“This is a challenging time for us, with a variety of feelings throughout the community,” he said.

“As you can imagine, there’s also a sense of helplessness as there’s nothing we can do to stop this situation from happening.

“We focus on what we can do – draw attention to the situation.

“You will have seen this behaviour modelled by Ukrainian communities around Australia and the world through peaceful rallies, protests and via social media campaigns.

Ukrainians living in Brisbane, Queensland.
Camera IconAustralian-Ukrainian Peter Bongiorni is the president of the Ukrainian Community of Queensland. Credit: Supplied

“Any way we can shine a light on this important situation, to inform people on the situation that is unfolding.”

This week, Peter implored his community to support the Ukraine Crisis Appeal – a collaboration between the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations, Rotary Australia World Community Service and Caritas Ukraine – while a peaceful rally initially planned for next week has been brought forward to Friday afternoon.

The 3pm rally – as of Thursday afternoon – did not have a definitive location, but organisers said King Georges Square was being considered, as was the office of the Honorary Consul-General of Russia in Queen Street.

Ukrainian groups in Melbourne and Sydney have already held events to protest Russia’s recent aggression, while Ukrainian social media groups have been flooded with messages of concern and anger.

One source of relief has been news that Ukrainian citizens in Australia whose visas expire on June 30 will have another six months added to their stay, while the federal government says 430 outstanding Ukrainian visa applications are set to be addressed “as a matter of priority”.

Ultimately, Ukrainians want to see Russia withdraw its troops from annexed regions and from the border, Peter said.

“The removal of troops indicates that Russia has the message that Ukraine is an independent, sovereign country,” he says.

“From our involvement we would like to see broader awareness of these issues throughout the Queensland community, show a sign of unity to the people in Ukraine, as well as showing our local government that this is an issue that we support.”

While she too is hopeful of a resolution, Nataliya is not holding her breath.

“Look, I wish I could say something more positive,” she says.

“And I would like to hope with my heart … but I believe it’ll be rolling on, and how fast and how far, I don’t know.

“I wouldn’t presume of being of any importance or significance or stature in Australia, but my message to Ukrainians would be stay united and believe in yourself and believe in Ukraine.

“And Australians … please support our fight for freedom and democracy.”

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