‘Very emotional’: Ukrainians in Brussels plead for more support on independence day

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The city of Brussels celebrated Ukraine’s 31st independence day Wednesday by dressing the famous Manneken Pis statue in a traditional Kozak costume and unfurling the Ukrainian flag at Grand Place.

Hundreds of people — mainly Ukrainian women and children — gathered for singing, dancing and chanting, in a sea of blue and yellow. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, also decked out in Ukrainian colors, even made an appearance.

But despite all the pomp and ceremony, Ukrainians in attendance found it hard to forget that the day also marks six months since Russia invaded their country. 

An ‘overwhelming day’

“It’s an overwhelming day today,” said Svitlana, who has worked for the EU’s Erasmus+ student exchange program for more than 10 years in Kyiv. She had to move to Brussels to flee the war. 

However, Svitlana said she felt a sense of solidarity, gathering in central Brussels with other Ukrainian refugees. “I’m sure that since we are all so united, victory is coming soon.

“Everybody is contributing to the victory in their own way, in their own front line, where they can do the most,” she added.

In May, estimates said around 78,000 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in Belgium, of which 30 percent went to Brussels.

An attendee waves a sign during the celebration of Ukraine’s Independence Day at the Grand-Place, Brussels | Luanna Muniz/POLITICO

Anastasiia, 19, from Kherson, said: “I have wanted to cry the whole time today.” A journalism student in Belgium since April, she added that the sight of people on the train with Ukrainian flags made her “very emotional” but also “really proud of all we have done as a nation.”

But the sense of solidarity that came from the rally in Brussels also served to further highlight how tough things now are at home. “People in Ukraine have to stay in their houses and can not celebrate like people here in Brussels,” Ruskin and Alika, young students from Luhansk now living in Brussels, said.

Kyiv banned independence day mass gatherings, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned citizens to be alert to possible Russian strikes.

We need more

In a recent message to the diaspora, Zelenskyy asked them to “remind [the world] of Ukraine, be there with the Ukrainian flag and spread the truth about the crimes of the occupiers” on independence day. 

Alika Gugnin, from Odessa and Ruskin Fedorenko, from Luhansk, moved to Brussels to study before the war | Wilhelmine Preussen/POLITICO

The Ukrainians in Brussels’ main square delivered a clear message to European leaders: Thanks for the help, but we need more support.

“We need more, especially when it comes to military aid and weapons deliveries,” said 17-year-old Alika.

Katerina Kuz, who came with her mother from the central city of Dnipro, also expressed mixed feelings. “Europe has done a lot, but support has to continue.” 

Anastasiia, the young student, pointed out, “the more weapons we have, the less people will die.”

She added: “We left our home, my parents left their jobs. Now, with occupation, there are new rules, new people that came from Russia to my hometown. They captured my school, my hospital, my music school.”

At the last count, the EU had given a total amount of €2.5 billion in financial support to Ukraine’s military.

Yearning for home

While the Ukrainians interviewed expressed appreciation for the welcome they had received in Belgium and the efforts to integrate them, they emphasized that their presence is temporary. 

“Spending independence day here feels like I’m physically here, but my heart and spirit is in Ukraine,” said Svitlana. She stressed she hopes to go back soon. 

Katerina shares this sentiment, but said her father had warned her to stay in Belgium for now. “The situation at home in Dnipro is worse than when I left. There are sirens every day and often there are explosions and rockets.”

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