As people flee war in Ukraine, some Canadians are traveling there to help fight the Russians


VANCOUVER—The specter of a war on the other side of the planet haunts this storefront where young Ukrainians are packing up suitcases full of boots, gloves and other protective gear, as well as drones, to be sent to Ukraine to aid the fight against Russia’s invasion.

Those organizing the load stuff the bags, breaking into English every so often, and the mundane snacks on the tables — pizza and donuts — cannot distract from how serious the situation is. Spirits seem high but the energy comes from a different place: urgency.

The equipment is desperately needed in Ukraine as Russian forces continue their assault, which began Feb. 24.

Standing in the middle of the floor full of bags, steeled and mostly silent as he looks over the gear, is 26-year-old Oleh Hlyniailiuk. His plan for him: to take up to 10 of these suitcases with him on a March 2 flight to Austria and then on to Ukraine by car.

“This is surreal,” the svelte Hlyniailiuk told the Star. “I can’t even fully understand what’s happening right now with me. It’s just got a different reality.”

Having just arrived in Vancouver in November to work remotely and take an online course with plans to leave in late April, he’s going back home to Ukraine now to help his country.

With no prior military training, he said he’s likely to join a territorial defense force upon arrival, unless he’s called to the army, which he will join. He said his mother of him, who has a business in Kolomyya, asked him only twice to reconsider and stay in Canada before accepting his decision of her.

Hlyniailiuk is just one of many returning to Ukraine to fight, or heading there for the first time, or trying to help in other ways from Canada. Sources in a Ukrainian territorial defense unit told the Star they have heard of at least one group of people arriving from Canada in their area, but had yet to meet them.

Others haven’t yet left, but are making plans. Bryson Woolsey, a 33-year-old man from Powell River, BC, said he couldn’t tear himself away from news coverage of the invasion and felt a sense of helplessness watching from afar.

So I have decided to quit his job as a cook and go to Ukraine to offer military assistance.

British Columbia's Bryson Woolsey has quit his job as a cook and plans to go to Ukraine to offer military assistance.  He said he has no combat training or experience but feels he cannot stay in Canada and do nothing.

Woolsey has no connection to the country, doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t have any combat experience — but he said he can’t stand by and watch.

“I think it’s a great injustice and it doesn’t feel right for me. Like, I’m sitting around watching things happen on the internet and I just felt really uncomfortable… I’ve been weighing it in my head,” he said.

“Then, when the president (of Ukraine) announced that he was forming an international brigade for foreign volunteers, that was the moment for me.”

He said he experienced a “reality check” watching footage from Ukraine and contemplating how safe and sheltered his life is in Canada.

The second reality check came after he realized the huge undertaking he had committed himself to.

“I definitely jumped the gun a little bit. I underestimated the cost for supplies and the ticket,” Woolsey said, adding he has started a GoFundMe to raise the roughly $3,000 to 4,000 he expects he’ll need.

“If it ends up taking off I’m going to use that money to donate directly to Ukraine or to other people to help them get their supplies over there,” he added.

Woolsey said he hasn’t purchased his ticket yet but flights to Poland cost about $1,500. He’s hoping to tie up some loose ends and depart this week.

He said his parents aren’t keen on the idea.

“I didn’t expect them to react the way they reacted … They understand why I want to go but they aren’t happy about it,” Woolsey said.

He said he has come across offers from Poles to provide rides from Warsaw to the Ukrainian border, and he understands there is basic training available for foreign fighters upon arrival in Ukraine. He said he’s nervous but determined to go.

“I don’t think a person would be sane going over there without any kind of fear… lives are on the line. But I feel like that provides a very good excuse for me to say ‘I’ll just let someone else do that,’” Woolsey said.

Meanwhile, Hlyniailiuk is being helped by a Metro Vancouver church which has raised money for gear. At the Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in New Westminster, another collection of suitcases sits in the front entrance; soon they’ll be loaded up with medical supplies and safety equipment to be sent to Ukraine.

Sitting in a pew waiting for an interview on a Vancouver radio station is Father Mykhailo Ozorovych, the only person here at noon on a Tuesday. Across the cathedral, next to where candles have been lit for prayer, is a painting depicting the new martyrs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, who resisted the Soviet Union’s oppression decades ago.

Ozorovych isn’t surprised by Hlyniailiuk’s desire to return.

“Magnanimous souls; you can know it is them among the crowd right away,” Ozorovych said. “I would put Oleh in that category.”

Hlyniailiuk is not going out of despair or fear, Ozorovych said, but out of love for his people. Many of Canada’s 1.4-million-member Ukrainian community have families and responsibilities here and simply cannot return to aid in the fight; people like Hlyniailiuk go because they can.

“That’s the example of doing what one can do the most,” Ozorovych said. “He’s much more able to serve in that role than the majority here.”

David Perry, a defense analyst and president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said he’s not surprised to hear of Canadians wanting to go to Ukraine to offer military assistance.

He said based on his analysis of “a couple different news conferences, successive cabinet minister’s and prime minister’s statements,” it seems the government is “tacitly” supporting Canadians going to Ukraine, which he noted is different than in previous recent conflicts.

“I think we’re probably going to be seeing a lot of that especially since the Canadian government seems to be tacitly endorsing people doing exactly that… Just a few years ago, during the fight against ISIS, the government had a very different kind of tone,” Perry said.

He pointed to a Twitter thread by urban combat expert John Spencer that highlights some ways people with no combat experience can contribute to the defense effort, such as building physical obstacles and barriers.

“There are lots of things people can do and the Ukrainians, I think, would be happy to take anybody given the situation that they’re in,” he said.

Spencer also mentions Molotov cocktails, which Perry pointed to as the kind of tactic conventional military forces wouldn’t be trained in; such weapons are being utilized in Ukraine.

“It would seem that there’s sort of a semi-professional effort now to manufacture Molotov cocktails on large scale,” he said.

Leah West, an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University, said there’s no real legal risk to Canadians going to fight in Ukraine, provided they are compliant with the laws of armed conflict. However, West, who served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 10 years, noted that someone with no military experience may not be familiar with those laws.

“We engage in a lot of training to be able to effectively participate in armed conflict, to understand what the laws of armed conflict are, to ensure that we abide by them and also to mentally prepare for armed conflict,” West said.

She added there’s normally a heavy selection process in a regular military to ensure people are joining for the right reasons. She questioned the value of sending untrained people into a war.

“I think when you just kind of encourage people who are untrained, without really understanding their motivations, to go and take up arms in an armed conflict zone, that creates a lot of second-order risk that could have implications for Canadian security and the individual security of those people,” West said.

One development Perry is watching closely is to see if Russia starts sealing off borders to Ukraine to prevent defense supplies from coming in. That would make it considerably harder for foreign fighters to get in as well.

He said he would “absolutely commend the personal courage and the desire to help,” but notes they’re in for a difficult journey.

“What that person can expect? In a word? Carnage.”

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