Ukrainian refugee from Bosnian war relates her struggles in a new book

Sudak speaking at the presentation. Photo, Marco Levytsky

Marco Levytsky, NP-UN Western Bureau Chief.

As an 18-year-old girl living in former Yugoslavia, Luba Sudak was thrust into the maelstrom of war as her Bosnian village of Trnopolje (named after Ternopil in Ukraine) was occupied by Serbian “Chetnik” forces in 1992.

Unlike her Muslim neighbours, who were taken away to concentration camps, her Ukrainian family survived, but lived in constant terror.

“Due to our family heritage, we were not taken away from our home,” she recalls in her recently published book ‘In the Life of a Refugee: Finding the light at the end of the tunnel…’

“However, we were exposed to constant psychological pressure and abuse. My dad was in a state of relentless fear and in hiding so he would not be forcibly recruited and sent to fight for something that we did not believe in. He was physically sick as is, and on top of it, a disabled man, but that did not seem to matter.

“The psychological abuse was hard to endure. Being exposed to constant lies by the media was impossible to listen to. I was once a happy young individual who had suddenly become so bitter and unhappy. l lived in constant fear of being raped. Every nightfall became my worst enemy. l would lay in bed thinking of every possibility of escape that would come into my mind as I did not know what each night might bring.”

Sudak read this and other excerpts from her book at a presentation hosted by the Canadian Society of Ukrainians from former Yugoslavia, and co-sponsored by the Alberta Foundation for Ukrainian Education Society, the League of Ukrainian Canadians, Edmonton Branch and the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association of Edmonton. It was held on World Refugee Day, June 20, at the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex in Edmonton.

Sudak managed to escape from Bosnia, becoming a refugee in Austria, before ending up in Canada as a new immigrant.

The first Ukrainians to settle in former Yugoslavia came from Transcarpathia in the 18th century, but considered themselves a separate nationality (Rusyns).

Ukrainians who identified themselves as such, first came from Halychyna in 1890 and numbered about 10,000. Like those who emigrated to Canada at the same time, they came to seek a better life.

They settled mostly in Bosnia, but also in Serbia and Croatia and created a thriving community. However, when Yugoslavia broke up in 1991 and war erupted, they were caught in the crossfire.

Many came to Canada. Under the leadership of the Late Bill Diachuk (then President) and Luba Kowalchyk (then Executive Director) the Ukrainian Canadian Social Services (UCSS) Branch in Edmonton sponsored and helped over 370 refugees from the former Yugoslavia (mostly Ukrainians and also Croats, Serbs and Muslim-Bosnians). Of these 370, 300 settled in Edmonton.

A number of sponsorships were signed by other community organizations but UCSS provided settlement services. Others assisting included Ukrainian Catholic Clergy and Ukrainian Catholic Parishes, Edmonton Eparchy organizations, the Ukrainian Catholic Brotherhood, the Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Provincial and Edmonton Branches, the Ukrainian National Federation, the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex and its Organizations.

Because they were sponsored by churches, organizations and private individuals, the Ukrainian refugees from former Yugoslavia were classified as independent immigrants and not as refugees. Thus, they were not eligible for any government assistance and even had to pay back their airfare. UCSS had funds available but accessing them would have meant delaying the arrival of other Ukrainian refugees still in Austria, so they all opted to find jobs immediately and support themselves instead of tapping the funds.

Sudak describes her stay at the refugee camp as a period of desperation and deprivation.

“Most of my days there, I was very hungry. It was painful not to be able to eat when you want to… Washing our clothes, or taking a bath was another struggle as we did not have a proper bathroom. We did not have a washing machine or a bath in the building.”

After many months, she found out that she was accepted to come to Edmonton, a place she had never heard of before, but was ready and willing to meet her destiny and start a new life. After landing at the airport, she was introduced to the gentleman whose family she would be staying with.

“I was confused and almost at the edge of tears. Why was it that every time I got to one destination, something happened and made my life more and more complicated? At least that’s what I thought.

“Initially, I assumed that l would be residing with my cousin and was not prepared for this unexpected change of plans. It was the evening when we arrived, and the car took us down the darkness of a highway… I was shy and quiet during the ride. My cousin accompanied me and spoke during our drive. That was a relief for me as I was tired and somewhat afraid of the unknown.

“Upon arrival at the gentleman’s place, we came into a nice and warm house. I was shown to my room to leave my luggage and I met his thirteen-year-old daughter. Later, the lady of the house arrived from work and she approached me with a warm hug. She cried. I started crying too. It was an emotional meeting with an unknown family who had accepted me as one of their own. I was a total stranger to them, yet they accepted me with an open heart and without any hesitation,” she recalls.

Within time she started working, adjusted to life in Canada, learning English and within time the rest of the family joined her. She started to feel better about herself, to feel part of Canadian society, gained new friends and colleagues and, after eight years, returned to her former home. But it was not the same.

“The reality of war was lingering in every corner by the sight of the ruined buildings and the mentality of the people still there. The home I once knew would never be the same again. I still miss the warmth of it to this day and my happy childhood memories, but that is all that is left. Just a box locked up in the attic.”

Twenty fire years later, she feels that life quickly passed her by. “During the struggling times, I simply stopped enjoying life. I had been deprived of my inner peace due to the way my young adulthood had occurred, and this made me fall behind in everything. Growing up and maturing very quickly made me feel old and worn out even though I am currently only in my mid-40’s. I live with depression, anxiety and PTSD. I have a young body but a head full of gray hair. Sad but true,” she says.

“I am not proud to admit that I hated once before. But now I see everyone as a beautiful form of existence regardless of their skin color, nationality, sexual orientation or religion. We are all the same and none of us is superior to another. We all shed the same color of blood. We all pray to the same higher power. Religion is man-made and none of it is better than any other. No religion tells you to go kill and hate, but rather to spread joy: and peace on Earth. Fighting in the name of religion is wrong — do not use God’s name in vain. Love. Love is everything. Love unites everyone,” adds Sudak.

Ward 3 City Councillor Jon Dziadyk attended the presentation and noted that Edmonton has always opened its arms to refugees from around the world and the city has benefitted from the influx of cultures from all over the world.

Fr. Julian Biliyj, pastor of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic parish, who attended elementary school with Sudak, introduced her at the event.