Ukrainian expats in UAE celebrate ‘Independence Day’ differently this year

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Across the United Arab Emirates, Ukrainian expatriates told Al Arabiya English that this year would be a very different Independence Day as the war-weary country marked 31 years since breaking away from the Soviet Union and six months since Russia’s invasion.

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‘Not just a holiday anymore’

Maria S., 31, a Dubai-based Communications specialist, said that the Ukrainian Independence Day is no longer “just a holiday” for her.

“To be able to call yourself independent as an individual and as country, you need to pay a big, horrible and painful price,” she said. “But on the contrary, it shows that people are willing to fight as much and as long as it’s needed, in order to breathe with fresh air on own lands.”

She continued, “My understanding of independence and freedom is not to give up and not to be afraid of what is coming next, until you do the right thing, which is helping others and protecting what belongs to you.

Independence is disciplinary resistance to totalitarian actions, until it is needed.”

The 31-year-old said her best way of celebrating Independence Day is communication.

“Telling people what is happening right now in Ukraine, the challenges we have to pass to get this full independence from another country-aggressor,” she explained. “In the evening we will have a call with friends and parents, as usually during this day we used to gather and do some activities in the city center, but since now we are spread around the world, we will try to make the best out of it the way we can.”

‘Meaning of being Ukrainian’

Dmytro, a 37-year-old Dubai-based business analyst in the pharmaceutical industry, said this year, the “meaning of being Ukrainian” has changed following Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his wife Olena lay flowers at the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, during marking the Independence Day in Kyiv, Ukraine August 24, 2022. (Reuters)
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his wife Olena lay flowers at the Memory Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, during marking the Independence Day in Kyiv, Ukraine August 24, 2022. (Reuters)

“The feeling of being independent has changed... you understand the price everyone has to pay to be free, feel safe and fearlessly look [towards] a bright future,” he said. “To be independent for me is to be strong, fight for your rights, love and care about your motherland and for sure, to stay together as a nation.”

Methods of celebrations have changed due to the change of mindset, he said.

“I do not have any plans for rowdy party, gathering to have fun as it was before... before the war.” Dmytro told Al Arabiya English.

“Chatting with parents, stay with my family and maybe watching some Ukrainian movie tonight I think [will be] the right way to celebrate Independence Day.”

‘Independence should never be taken for granted’

Anna Soloviova, a Dubai-based business setup advisor, also spoke to Al Arabiya English.

“Motherland is not only a place of birth, but also a state of mind, which translate values and beliefs,” she said. “Living abroad makes you seek to feel and see home everywhere, not to lose those deep settings impacting our whole life and which make us who we really are.”

She also says she sees “the colors of the Ukrainian flag where anyone else would see nothing.”

“This year especially, this day means a lot to every Ukrainian, since we were reborn as [a] nation and are reminded, to ourselves and whole world, that independence should never be taken for granted.”

Soloviova also said because Ukrainians “know the price of freedom” they would not let anyone take it away from them.

“It’s terrible and hard, but most importantly, it is an honor to be Ukrainian for the past six months, since the terroristic state of Russia started a full-scale war against the Ukrainian nation, because we remember and will keep being reminded every day with courage to the whole world the real values of being free and independent,” she concluded.

‘We will not give up our independency’

Daria Bakshenova, a Dubai-based personal trainer spoke of empowerment on Independence Day.

“[Independence] Day is when all Ukrainians are going to feel united no matter where they are; it’s the day when we can show the world that no matter of power of [the] enemy, we are not giving up and fighting for our independency,” said the 30-year-old.

“Well, honestly, I used to celebrate it many years ago in Ukraine, it used to be always a special day for us, with concerts, live music and food feasts. But this year most probably I’ll just watch some Ukrainian old movie and cook Ukrainian food.”

Zeleniuk Alona, a 33-year-old expat in Dubai, also said this year’s occasion would be a markedly different one.

“Now the Independence Day of Ukraine has become a special holiday in the life of all Ukrainians after the invasion of the Russian Federation on the territory of our country,” she said. “This day unites all Ukrainians living both on the territory of the country and abroad.”

She continued, “This day makes us understand how much we value the independence of our country and that we should support and help each other around the world. We love our country and want to return to our home and see our relatives and friends happy.”

Ukrainian expat and Dubai-based cabin crew Alina Sporysh, 32, who has lived in the UAE for eight years, said that she was in Ukraine on the day of Russia’s invasion.

“I can’t describe what I felt that moment realizing that my country has been attacked and invaded by one of the strongest armies in the world. My biggest fear at that moment was that it’ll be taken by Russia,” she explained, adding that she was worried the “meaning of independence” would be lost for Ukraine.

“Ukrainian surprised the world [by] being that united and well organized, we kept our independence through the [past] six months of horror.”

She said that the last six months were weighing heavily on her mental health, especially because she had to leave her country behind to come back to her country of residence, the UAE.

“I live in Dubai [for] eight years already and I consider this place as a second home. I made a decision to come back and to help my family, friends, my country to defend from here, the same as other people do from our big Ukrainian community living in the UAE.

“For the last couple of years, myself and other Ukrainians, saw our national colors on Burj Khalifa on this day. Today we hope to see it as well. Somehow to feel our holiday here while we are so far away from home in this difficult time for each of us.

31 years of independence

Ukraine broke free of the Soviet Union in August 1991 after a failed coup in Moscow and an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians voting in a referendum to declare independence.

Ukraine’s Independence Day falls six months after Russia’s February 24 invasion and is being marked by subdued celebrations under the threat of attack from land, air and sea.

Public gatherings are banned in the capital Kyiv and a curfew is in force in the front-line eastern city of Kharkiv, which has weathered months of shelling.

The government laid out the carcasses of burnt-out Russian tanks and armored vehicles like war trophies in central Kyiv in a show of defiance.

People attend an exhibition displaying destroyed Russian military vehicles located on the main street Khreshchatyk as part of the upcoming celebration of the Independence Day of Ukraine, amid Russia's invasion, in central Kyiv, Ukraine August 21, 2022. (Reuters)
People attend an exhibition displaying destroyed Russian military vehicles located on the main street Khreshchatyk as part of the upcoming celebration of the Independence Day of Ukraine, amid Russia's invasion, in central Kyiv, Ukraine August 21, 2022. (Reuters)

Zelenskyy warned late on Tuesday of the possibility of “repugnant Russian provocations.”

“We are fighting against the most terrible threat to our statehood and also at a time when we have achieved the greatest level of national unity,” the president said in an evening address.

The war has killed thousands of civilians, forced over a third of Ukraine’s population of 41 million people to leave their homes, left cities in ruins and shaken global markets.

It is largely at a standstill with no immediate prospect of peace talks.

In addition to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, Russian forces have expanded control to areas of the south including the Black Sea and Sea of Azov coasts, and chunks of the eastern Donbas region comprising the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Ukraine’s armed forces have said almost 9,000 military personnel have been killed in the war.

Al Arabiya English’s Jennifer Bell contributed to this report.

Read more:

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