Yaroslav Hrytsiuk went to his high school on Tuesday morning to say goodbye. Then, the 18-year-old went home to pack for an afternoon flight to Europe in hopes of joining volunteers travelling to his native Ukraine to take up arms against Russia.
“Today, I’m going to Ukraine to stand with my family and fight for my country,” the teenager said at the doorstep of his Toronto home. A Ukrainian-Canadian who arrived in Toronto only last year, he said he considers himself lucky for having had a birthday in January that officially makes him of age to fight. He said he hopes to join his father, who is preparing to fight Russians invading their home city of Lviv.
Mr. Hrytsiuk proudly displayed a fluorescent, bristol board card his Grade 12 classmates had just given him scrawled with magic-marker messages such as “everything is going to be fine.”
“It was signed by every single person in the class. That was really cool,” said Mr. Hrytsiuk, wearing a traditional vyshyvanka embroidered shirt.
“Eighteen-year-olds in Canada, they’re still kids,” he said, adding that the teenagers he knows in Ukraine are making Molotov cocktails. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m 18 or 60, or a man or a woman, or whatever. I got to go there.”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week, President Volodymyr Zelensky has ordered all Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 in the country to stay and fight, and has called for the formation of an international legion of volunteer fighters. Stories have emerged in Canada, which has the biggest Ukrainian diaspora population outside Europe, of people heeding those calls.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has publicly said the federal government has no issue with Canadians looking to join the conflict. “We understand that people of Ukrainian descent want to support their fellow Ukrainians,” Ms. Joly told reporters on Sunday. She said it’s an individual decision and that “we are all very supportive of any form of support to Ukrainians right now.”
Some prospective volunteers in Canada say they don’t quite know where to go or what to do. In Victoria, 43-year-old Mark Preston-Horin said he has been writing his will and completing his taxes in anticipation of getting on a flight overseas to volunteer for Ukrainian forces in whatever capacity he can.
But Mr. Preston-Horin, who is Ukrainian by heritage, says he doesn’t have a network awaiting him. So he has been calling both Canadian and Ukrainian officials in Canada to ask how to join the cause.
“It’s tough when you don’t have a clear picture of what you’re getting into,” he said, adding he wants to know what the federal government would do to support any Canadians who are hurt or captured.
Toronto optometrist Richard Hareychuk spent years after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea conducting drives for goods to be shipped overseas to help supply Ukrainian soldiers with sleeping bags, non-military drones and winter clothes.
He said Toronto’s Ukrainian community is holding meetings to discuss how to organize people from Canada who are willing to fight in Ukraine.
“There’s a group that is asking people if they are interested in going, instead of going alone,” he said. “So that they are fully equipped. So that they are properly stationed when they get there.”
Others are staying in Canada and finding ways to help. On Tuesday night at the Ivan Franko senior’s home in West Toronto, people of Ukrainian heritage were dropping off food and medical equipment.
“We should do everything we can,” said Sergey Yursal, who brought a box of Advil, Benadryl and baby formula. “You open the internet and you see the pictures of thousands of women and children suffering. I hope it gets to the children.”
Mr. Hrytsiuk said he was bringing only carry-on luggage aboard his flight to Berlin on Tuesday. He plans to take a train to Warsaw and make his way to the Ukrainian border, where he expects that he will be picked up by friends living in Ukraine who have joined a territorial defence militia.
He said his mother, who is Canadian and fled to Poland after the Russian attacks started last week, had implored him to stay in Toronto.
“The hardest thing was to convince my mother that I should go. As any mother, she says: ‘Are you nuts? Why are you going there? It’s war and you’re young,’ ” he said. “But then I thought about my home. Imagine if, for example, America invaded Toronto, and you were in France. And Toronto was shelled. And every single place you knew is in danger of just being destroyed.”
Born in Ukraine in 2004, Mr. Hrytsiuk said he has been battle trained. He learned how to use Kalashnikov assault rifles and bayonet knives as a younger teenager in Ukraine before he came to Canada in 2021 to stay with relatives and pursue a better education.
Now in Grade 12 at St. Oscar Romero Catholic High School in Toronto, he said he has been accepted to Ryerson University to study business next year. “I want to be a commercial pilot,” he said. “My dream is to have my own small air fleet.”
But now, Mr. Hrytsiuk said all his plans are on hold as he prepares to fight the invading forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He said he does not believe he will die fighting in Ukraine. Like millions of teenagers in his homeland, he always suspected this day would come. “Because Putin took Crimea and started a war in the Donbas eight years ago, kids – like me at the time – knew what is the face of evil,” he said. “Now I’m 18. And full-scale war is out there.”
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