IN a crowd draped in the blue and yellow of Ukraine which assembled on Wexford’s quay front, two young kids stand out. As adults all around them speak in their native Ukrainian, the children look all around them clutching a sign with a powerful message – “Ukraine Wants Peace”.
t’s been exactly one year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent millions of people fleeing war, chaos and devastation all over Europe. Across Co Wexford, crowds, many among their number displaced Ukrainians, gathered to “Light For Peace”, lighting candles, remembering those lost and singing songs of hope.
A notable difference between Friday’s events and those which took place in solidarity with Ukraine in the early weeks of the invasion was the presence of a lot more Ukrainian accents. They are people who’ve left their whole world behind them and are now living in hotels, guesthouses and are sharing people’s houses wherever they can.
Julia Stortenko, Community Integration Officer with Wexford Local Development and organiser of the Wexford events said that Friday was a milestone.
“February 24, 2022 changed and divided our lives into ‘before’ and ‘after’,” she said. “Although in some ways the year has gone fast, it’s been the hardest year in our lives. Today, everybody from Ukraine gathers in each town and village in Co Wexford to say we want victory and we want peace.”
Having lived in Wexford for years in advance of that fateful day one year ago, as her country men and women began to arrive on our shores, Julia immediately threw herself into the efforts and helping in any way she could with translations and reaching out to those arriving, before taking up the role with WLD.
“There’s currently two and a half thousand Ukrainians in Wexford and each family has a heart-breaking story,” she says. “So many people lost part of their families in this war. It’s very hard for them. That’s the reason why so many gather here today to light (candles) for peace and remember everyone who has died.
“My phone never stops ringing. There’s constantly messages coming in. Often, it is what Irish people would imagine are simple questions, but it’s so hard for Ukrainians who do not speak the language. It’s not my job or my role, but I absolutely feel I have to do everything I can to help them. It’s so hard to hear all these stories. It’s heart breaking, but together, we are strong and we have to help each other.”
The circumstances which Ukrainian people find themselves living in Wexford currently are mostly far from ideal. While a weekend hotel break is nice, living in one full-time with a family is a different thing entirely.
“I cannot say that absolutely everybody is sad or everybody is happy,” Julia says of the siuation. “It’s really hard. I always think when I meet people in hotels etc, how I would be in this situation. I’m telling you, I cannot find the answer. It’s so difficult.
“You leave everything for a few minutes and run away with your kids. You left all your life and you have to survive in a different country with a different language, a different mentality, everything is different. It’s very hard.”
Glancing across at the children clutching their home made banner, Julia reflects:
“It’s very hard for kids as well. They are still thinking it’s temporary. The little kids they still don’t understand why. Why they have to move. Why they have to learn this new language. They understand nothing. That’s very hard.”
Taking place across the county in Wexford, including Rosslare, New Ross, Gorey, Enniscorthy, Bunclody, Kilmuckridge, Courtown and Hookless Village, the events were quite powerful and poignant. People draped in the blue and yellow lit candles bearing messages of peace. On the quay in Wexford, the Ukrainian crowd spontaneously burst into song, followed by shouts of “Slava Ukraini” or “Glory to Ukraine”.
At the ceremonies across the county, people from the communities which these displaced people now call home stood shoulder to shoulder with them, calling for peace and an end to Russian aggression.
“I always say that the best people are the Irish people,” Julia says. “We’ve had a big hand from Irish people and it’s really, really helpful. That’s everywhere. In each town in Wexford. They’ve been so helpful and amazing and all Ukrainian are very thankful.”