Montreal begins the cruise season with the ship that protected 1,500 Ukrainian refugees

MONTREAL – Cruise ship staff captain Rakesh Prasad cannot forget the traumatized expressions on the faces of hundreds of Ukrainians who boarded Holland America’s Volendam in April 2022.

The 1,500 refugees, who had fled their homeland two months earlier after the Russian invasion sparked an ongoing war there, boarded the ship with their meager possessions packed largely in plastic bags. The ship they boarded in the port of Rotterdam would be their home for the next six months.

“You looked at the children, you could feel how scared they were, there was no happiness,” said Prasad, standing next to the Volendam’s indoor pool after the ship docked in Montreal’s port on Saturday.

The Volendam, which is now transporting holiday travelers again, was the first cruise ship of the 2024 season to arrive in the city. The port authority held a ceremony on board the ship to mark the occasion, with guests including diplomats from Ukraine and the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Meters from the pool area, towards the entrance to the dining room, some members of the Volendam crew hung a large frame filled with drawings by refugee children who lived on the ship in 2022. The art is now a permanent exhibit on the ship .

Taking a look at the ship’s wood-paneled interior, Eugene Czolij, Ukraine’s honorary consul in Montreal, pointed to the photo frame and said the refugees were “clearly received in a very friendly way.” He thanked the Dutch authorities for their help.

The refugees’ stay on board the Volendam turned the ship into a Ukrainian village.

“Families gave haircuts and old women took care of the children,” Prasad said. “It became a community and when it was time to leave, most wanted to stay.”

Volendam captain Rens Van Eerten said the Netherlands has a long history of helping refugees flee violence, including during World War II, when the country helped people escape the Nazis.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, he said, the Dutch government approached the Volendam’s owner, Holland America, asking to rent a ship.

“We had one available,” he said. “We took in (the refugees), took care of them and made sure they could have a relatively normal life at that time.”

But while the Netherlands was eager to help in April 2022, the honorary consul of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Montreal lamented what he described as a sense of “Ukraine fatigue” that has gripped some Western countries.

At the beginning of the war, Michael Polak said everyone was “excited to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression.” But in the last six to 12 months, he said, “some of the allies have become a little reticent, doubting their commitments and not wanting to spend money.”

“But the fact is that this war continues and is far from being resolved,” he said.

US President Joe Biden approved sending $1 billion in military assistance to Ukraine on April 24, the first installment of a roughly $61 billion aid package. It also includes air defense capabilities, artillery shells, armored vehicles and other weapons to shore up Ukrainian forces who have seen morale decline as Russian President Vladimir Putin racked up victory after victory.

Czolij said the American aid package was very helpful, adding that he thought it would help Ukraine win the war. He said the only people who are “fatigued” by Ukraine are those who don’t understand that the country is not only defending its territorial integrity but “defending all of Europe.”

“If Ukraine, God forbid, loses this war,” he said, “we will witness World War III.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2024.

– With files from The Associated Press.

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