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Ukrainian family celebrates first Christmas in Canada

For Ganna (Anna) Byelikova and her family, the Ukrainian Christmas season is a time of reflection, gratitude, and celebration.

ELK POINT - For Ganna (Anna) Byelikova and her family, the Ukrainian Christmas season is a time of reflection, gratitude, and celebration.  

Less than a year ago, Byelikova and her husband were in Dubai. Byelikova worked as a flight attendant and her husband, Joel Pascua, worked in an office "in sales of like road and safety signs."

Byelikova and Pascua had been considering moving back home to Ukraine, but the country has been caught in a devastating war, “and we couldn’t move back.” When an opportunity to move to Canada came up, specifically for Ukrainians affected by the war, they took the opportunity to relocate to northeastern Alberta with their four-year-old son, William. 

The family is now living in Elk Point. 

Byelikova and her family were determined to make the best of their situation. They were grateful to have found a new home in Canada where they have been welcomed with open arms. They are also determined to keep their cultural traditions alive, despite living in a new country. 

One of those traditions is the celebration of Orthodox Christmas, which fell on Jan. 7, according to the Julian calendar. 

According to Father Peter Haugen, a local priest with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Jan. 6 and Jan. 7 are a “joyous and spiritual time for most Orthodox Christians and Ukrainians.” The days are a time filled with tradition, celebration and prayer that brings family together to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, he explained. 

Byelikova affirmed, stating that as committed Christians, holidays like Christmas and New Year are a time to come together as a family and remember “our Saviour Jesus Christ.” 

“What He did for us, and that He sacrificed His life for us, that’s what this Christmas is about, and that’s what we believe,” says Byelikova. 

This holiday season, her family celebrated a quiet Christmas, where they ate food, watched movies, talked about life, remembered “our ancestors,” and greeted each other with Christmas gifts. 

“This is actually our family tradition even back home,” she said. When asked if they had any other family in Canada, Byelikova noted that “Unfortunately, my parents are still in Ukraine,” and, “Because it’s not safe for them right now, we cannot take them here because of the war around them.” 

One day, she hopes to be able to reunite with her parents.  

“They don’t have anyone but me, and they’re getting older. [So], of course, they will need help in the future,” says Byelikova. 

“They’re always in my prayers that soon, and somehow, there’s going to be a way for them to come and live with us here, and spend the rest of their life with us,” she said. 

Byelikova thanked all those who have helped her family, including local resident John Yewchin, who has helped the family out with tasks such as driving to appointments because the family did not have a car or a driver's license yet.  

“He’s always helping us... giving us a ride and he’s always kind to us.” 

“I would say he’s like our father as well,” added Byelikova. So, “I would just like to express my gratitude to John and to other people who helped us here.” 

She said Canadians are “very kind and good people who are willing to help if you’re in trouble,” and “this is something to be grateful for.” 

When her family is able to stand firmly on their feet, Byelikova hopes to give back and help others, in return. She wishes to one day use her knowledge, talents, and education to help her new community. 

“I think I’m going to stay here,” she said. “I really like the town.”  

Currently, Byelikova is working a “rewarding” job at a daycare in Elk Point. 

“I really love what I’m doing.” 

A different celebration

Haugen says the Christmas season this year has been different for many Ukrainian families, especially those who fled the war in Ukraine. 

“We have found them temporary or even permanent homes here in the Lakeland area and so this is the very first nativity they'll be celebrating outside of their homes, potentially away from the majority of their family,” he explains. 

Traditional Ukrainian customs on Christmas Eve often include a meal held with as many people and family members as possible, around the table. 

“We [also] have a tradition that we leave an empty place setting empty to honour all of our departed loved ones that are no longer with us,” he says. The intention of the tradition is that should anybody be wandering about on Christmas Eve and need a meal, then there is a place ready for them. 

Thus, the idea that many refugees are separated from the families in Ukraine, he said, certainly had an impact on celebrations. Despite the challenging circumstances that exist, Haugen prayed that families would find joy this holiday season. 

As a priest for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Haugen wanted to express to people affected by the war the importance of prayers. As much as many people “scoff” at the idea of a prayer, Haugen believes it “really is a way that we connect ourselves not just with God but with each other.” 

“I pray they’re also able to find the trust, faith, and comfort in our Lord, that he will see all of us through these darkest times... My sincere prayer is that Ukraine will find strength, and it will return to the Ukraine that we know, and we love.” 

Haugen noted, “I’ve experienced the war through a TV screen and through my phone, I haven’t experienced the war firsthand,” which is why he believes it’s important to hear from those who have been directly affected by the war.