Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Canadians of ukrainian descent answering call of the homeland

Toronto resident Krystina Waler, left, with Ganniday, a Ukrainian soldier who was wounded in the current conflict with Russia, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Torstar News Service
Marko Suprun of Winnipeg joined the Maidan uprising more than a year ago in Ukraine, and he’s never left.

Sunnybrook surgeon Dr. Oleh Antonyshyn led a team of 25 physicians, nurses and medical professionals from across Canada to Kyiv last month to operate on people burned and disfigured by injuries.

And Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Ottawa Senators and supporter of orphaned children in Ukraine for two decades, couldn’t say no when he was asked to lend a hand to support Antohyshyn’s work.

From fancy dinners attended by the likes of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and hockey great Wayne Gretzky, to online fundraising campaigns and bake sales, the 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian heritage have opened their hearts and wallets, donating money, time and ingenuity to help win a war in another land.

The conflict began in November 2013 and has now caused at least 4,707 deaths and 10,322 injuries, according to United Nations figures.

With Ukraine bracing for the long haul as winter sets in, its government is nearly bankrupt, the currency is sliding and the army is woefully underfunded.

Since the Maidan uprising, Ukrainian-Canadians have raised nearly $2.4 million for medical training, equipment, sleeping bags and even kids’ Christmas presents.

Krystina Waler, the Canada Ukraine Foundation’s director of humanitarian initiatives, has made 10 trips to Ukraine from her Toronto-area home since the fighting began. The graduate student never expected it would consume as much of her life as it has over the past year.

Waler, 29, was on the trip to Kyiv taken by Foreign Minister John Baird along with Paul Grod, head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, to visit the Maidan protest. She was also there in February in the aftermath of Maidan protesters being shot by snipers and in desperate need of care; many had their eyes shot out or other severe facial injuries.

Working with Marko Suprun’s physician wife, Ulana, Waler put together a needs-assessment mission, along with Sunnybrook’s Antonyshyn, head of the adult craniofacial program and a plastic surgeon.

Waler, along with sister Laryssa, was also a driving force behind the “United For Ukraine” dinner last fall that raised $250,000 to help fund Antonyshyn’s medical trip to Ukraine. The foundation also funds brigades of 30 Ukrainian psychologists specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder to work with front-line soldiers.

“I truly believe the people in Ukraine have this spirit; they are the sweetest, kindest people always fighting an uphill battle . . . it is a never-ending fight. It is so unpredictable,” she said.

Suprun and his wife volunteered on the Maidan front lines last year. Suddenly, Ulana, a radiologist from Manhattan, found herself using her medical training to tend to the wounded.

“My wife and I arrived in Kyiv in November, last year when the Maidan started and we are still here,” said Suprun. “We always dreamed of moving to Ukraine. Ukraine is where my parents came from. You always fall in love with certain places, and once you fall in love, it is hard to fall out of love,” he says.

Ulana quickly became head of the Ukrainian World Congress’s humanitarian initiatives, organizing funding drives for prosthetic limbs and compiling databases of dead and wounded fighters.

Shaped by their experiences and the horrors they saw first-hand, the couple have turned their attention to starting Patriot Defence, an initiative to supply at least 10,000 trauma first-aid kits to Ukrainian soldiers.

“This isn’t a standard first-aid kit like the kind you would have in your car,” Suprun said. The $100 kits are equipped to handle catastrophic bleeding, collapsed lungs and breathing obstructions. They contain combat tourniquets, nasopharyngeal air tubes and special needle decompression devices.

Suprun and Ulana bought 3,000 kits, an anonymous donor 5,000, and the rest came through online donations from Canada, the United States and even Russia.

Sunnybrook’s Antonyshyn, a plastic surgeon, said his work in Ukraine is the most personally gratifying thing he has ever done. Last month, he took a team of 25 doctors, nurses and anesthetists with him to Kyiv to operate on post-traumatic defects and deformities caused by war wounds.

The trip was largely organized by Waler on behalf of the Canada Ukraine Foundation and Operation Rainbow Canada, a non-profit that normally operates on children in developing nations with cleft palates.

“This took on a life of its own. It was like a second job,” said Antonyshyn.

The need was overwhelming the local medical system. The foundation had information that 1,700 civilians had been injured after February. “Some were being treated in the Czech Republic, others in Germany and some not treated at all,” he said.

Because Antonyshyn had “never done anything like this before in my life,” they partnered with Operation Rainbow Canada. Founder Dr. Kimit Rai, of Vancouver’s False Creek Healthcare Centre, not only provided his experience in handling such a mission, he went along.

“We saw so many skull, facial, upper-extremity injuries,” he said. The most devastating were from explosive blast wounds and high-velocity missiles.

The team saw 64 patients in Ukraine last month, but had to be selective with surgery. “We needed each of those surgeries to be a home run. We didn’t want to leave problems for other surgeons,” he said.

They performed 37 surgeries, including seven skull reconstructions, 10 bony reconstructions of the facial skeleton, nine soft-tissue reconstructions of the eyelids, nose and lips, and burn surgeries.

For Melnyk, 55, owner of the Ottawa Senators, it is all about paying it forward. The businessman said he’d long heard stories of hardship from his parents, who told him Ukraine had never been a free country.

Yet a generation of Ukrainians has grown up with freedom, since the collapse of the former Soviet Union. He wants to see that continue.

“I’m all about the children and the elderly. Someone else can go save the whales,” Melnyk said.

Melnyk has been donating time and money to help orphaned Ukrainian kids for 20 years through the Help Us Help the Children charity. That’s where he first met Waler, years ago at a camp for orphaned children in Ukraine.

This summer, when Waler asked Melnyk to help her with a fundraiser she was holding for a medical mission to Ukraine, he was more than willing to help.

Melnyk got out his Rolodex and made calls to friends in the hockey and business community, including Wayne Gretzky. “She needed star power,” Melnyk said, adding that even the prime minister’s presence wasn’t going to be enough.

The United for Ukraine gala sold out. The money raised funded the first medical mission and is helping to pay for a follow-up visit in January.

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