Ukrainian refugee children enjoying a Christmas party at Columb Barracks last week.

Bittersweet Christmas for Ukrainian people

For Tatiana Kopanystia, her first Christmas in Mullingar was a bittersweet experience.

While relieved that her family have been housed in one of the modular homes recently constructed at Columb Barracks, her thoughts were never far away from her family in Ukraine.

The mother of two hasn’t seen her parents for the best part of a decade and the pain of separation is particularly acute at this time of year.

“Our parents live in Luhansk, which was annexed at the same time as Crimea in 2014,” she said.

“My son is five years old and my daughter is three but our parents have never seen them.

“From 2014 we have only been able to contact them through messaging and video calls. We think about them a lot this year.”

Speaking to the Westmeath Examiner at a Christmas celebration for Mullingar’s Ukrainian community held in Columb Barracks last week, she said that her first impressions of the town are positive.

“It’s a very nice town because we can get everywhere we want,” she said.

“We don’t have a car but we can get anywhere by walking or cycling, so that is very helpful for us.

“We like our new homes; they are private and good for family. They are warm and comfortable too so we are very happy.”

Still finding their bearings, the Kopanystias’ first Christmas in Ireland was a quiet affair.

“We celebrated it by having a special dinner and had some presents for our kids.

“It was just family because we don’t know any people here in Ireland yet – this is all new for us.”

Tatiana, her husband Ivan, and two children are one of 20 families that have moved into the modular homes in the last month. The remaining 40 homes are expected to be filled by the end of February.

More than 100 members of Mullingar’s 500-strong Ukrainian community attended the even in Columb Barracks. They came together to share song, dance and memories of home.

Svetlana Osadchuk, a journalist from Ukraine who is living in Mullingar with her husband and two children, said it was a difficult time of year to be away from home.

“Our family is living in occupied territory in the Kherson region,” she said.

“This year Russia, as a tactic, turned off the phone signal in Kherson at Christmas so that people couldn’t contact their families.

“Russia didn’t want us to celebrate Christmas on this day, so they closed off the signal. It was turned back on the next day.”

Ms Osadchuk said she worries for her parents.

“My mother cried when she looks at my daughter growing and getting smarter because she can’t meet her in person or give her a hug,” she said.

“They hear rockets being fired from near where they live, in occupied territory, into other parts of Ukraine.

“Each time they hear it, they know people could be drying and it is not nice for them to think about this all of the time.”

Christmas is a time for family, added the Ukrainian journalist.

“Every year we usually celebrate with family, our parents, grandparents – we cook and eat together,” said Ms Osadchuk.

“We talk to each other; we sing songs and watch different shows on TV.

“The children play, we play music and it’s usually a very happy day for everyone in Ukraine.”

Ms Osadchuk said her family was grateful to have been invited into the home of an Irish person this Christmas.

“We have a brilliant Irish friend of ours who invited us to his home for the day,” she said.

“He let us use his house to cook some food that we usually eat back in Ukraine around Christmas time.

“This was special for us because we live in a hotel where we can’t normally cook for ourselves and sometimes you want to cook what you want!”

Viktoriia Sereda, another Ukrainian refugee living in Mullingar, said this was a particularly strange Christmas for her country.

“We usually celebrate Christmas on January 7 but Ukraine has changed the date to December 25 this year so we are the same as the European Union,” she said.

“It was unusual, but it’s because we don’t want to celebrate Christmas on the same day as Russia any more.”

Ms Sereda said her thoughts were also with family back home this festive season.

“My parents are back in Ukraine and they sent me pictures but it wasn’t enough. I missed them and wanted to hug them,” she said.

“Here in Ireland, we met with friends to spend Christmas together and cooked Ukrainian food. Everyone cooked a Ukrainian dish.

“We were surprised that everything was closed so early in Ireland on Christmas Eve and nothing was opened on Christmas Day!”

Obi Ojimadu, who lives in Mullingar with his wife and three children, said the Christmas party in Columb Barracks was an important event for the local Ukrainian community.

“This time of year, especially, it is an important thing to do, to be around fellow Ukrainians,” he said.

“We had lots of people here and there was a real festive spirit; it was mainly for the kids but it’s nice for the parents too.

“We couldn’t do it without Westmeath County Council also, so we must thank them for their grant.”

Mr Ojimadu, a football coach by profession, said it was an important event for Ukrainians already living in Mullingar to meet the new arrivals to Columb Barracks.

“There are lots of new Ukrainians living in Mullingar now in the modular homes, our community is getting bigger,” he said.

“We wanted to mix with them and it was a great opportunity to do that.”

Mr Ojimadu said he really enjoyed spending Christmas in Ireland this year.

“I really enjoyed my Christmas in Ireland this year. It’s a different atmosphere than I’m used to, but it’s been great,” he said.

“For many it was their first Christmas here so it was fun to get everybody together and do something nice.”

He noted how others have been struggling.

“A lot of people are missing their families this time of year, especially people who come from occupied regions,” said Mr Ojimadu.

“They needed this party, especially as it’s not good to be alone at Christmas – we are in this together.”