Mi­grants watch Ukraine’s strug­gles

As the cri­sis in Crimea deep­ens, Ukraini­ans in Auck­land watch on ner­vously. Ju­lian Raethel speaks to two with very dif­fer­ent sto­ries.

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS -

‘‘Look at how green it is.’’

Va­syl Ser­hi­jenko turned to his 5-year-old son Greg as they ap­proached Me­chan­ics Bay for the very first time on a So­lent fly­ing boat.

It was Fe­bru­ary 17, 1952 and their new home of New Zealand proved a world away from the hor­rors of a post-war refugee camp in Ger­many.

The Ser­hi­jenkos were just one of many Ukrainian fam­i­lies dis­placed af­ter World War II who set­tled in West Auck­land, lucky to avoid be­ing snapped up and taken back to the Soviet Union.

More than 60 years have passed and Greg now lives in Pt Che­va­lier.

He shakes his head in won­der at the tur­moil in Crimea and feels sad with what has hap­pened to his coun­try of ori­gin.

‘‘You’ve got to un­der­stand the his­tory be­fore you can know what’s right and what’s wrong,’’ he says.

‘‘It’s a sad sit­u­a­tion when you look at it from both the peo­ple on the Ukrainian and Rus­sian sides.

‘‘It should never have hap­pened and it’s sour grapes on Vladimir Putin’s part.’’

Greg was born in 1946 in a refugee camp in Mun­ster­lager, north­east Ger­many, which was si­t­u­ated in the Bri­tish-oc­cu­pied zone af­ter World War II.

He was the youngest of three chil­dren and his mother Olga and fa­ther Va­syl had been pre­vi­ously re­united in a labour camp.

‘‘I’m pos­i­tive Dad had ended up in the gu­lags be­fore the family was re­united but he would never talk about it,’’ Greg says.

‘‘He was the head of our camp and could see the Rus­sians tak­ing peo­ple away.

‘‘An ill woman was kid­napped by the KGB so Dad or­gan­ised some young men to res­cue her.

‘‘They crawled un­der the hos­pi­tal fence, climbed through the win­dow, wrapped her in the bed linen and car­ried her back to our camp.

‘‘That family even­tu­ally em­i­grated firstly to Brazil and then to Amer­ica where the sur­viv­ing daugh­ters now live.

‘‘The mem­bers of the camp would rather fight than be taken away by the Sovi­ets.’’

The Ukraini­ans in the west were treated as Pol­ish cit­i­zens and cen­tral and eastern Ukraine were seen as part of the Soviet Union.

The screen­ing process was con­ducted by ei­ther a Pol­ish or KGB of­fi­cer.

‘‘The Pol­ish of­fi­cer asked ques­tions re­lat­ing to the west­ern part of Ukraine or Poland,’’ Greg says.

‘‘If you did not an­swer these cor­rectly you were then handed over to the Rus­sian KGB of­fi­cer for ‘pro­cess­ing’.

‘‘You knew what your fate was go­ing to be.’’

When it came time to be moved from the camp an Aus­tralian ma­jor who Va­syl had be­friended helped get them out of Europe.

A Ukrainian friend of Va­syl’s was liv­ing in Glen Eden at the time and had writ­ten to spon­sor them to help get them to New Zealand.

Af­ter stop­ping off in South Africa and Aus­tralia the Ser­hi­jenkos reached their fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, start­ing their new life in Ka­ian­garoa, near Ro­torua, then Mu­ru­para.

‘‘On my first day of school I could only speak Ger­man and Ukrainian. I cried and cried,’’ Greg says.

‘‘I also ac­ci­den­tally picked up the Pol­ish lan­guage from a Pol­ish boy who helped teach me English at the same time.’’

The Ser­hi­jenkos trans­ported their way of life to the green fields of Avon­dale when Greg was 9.

They set­tled on a life­style block on Rose­bank Rd.

‘‘At that time the land was cheaper be­cause it was seen as be­ing on the ‘out­skirts’ of Auck­land.

‘‘Many Ukraini­ans set­tled in Avon­dale, Glen Eden and Ora­tia.

‘‘The soil was lovely and Dad had tried to bring some seeds from Syd­ney to grow here but Cus­toms had stopped that.’’

Greg con­tin­ued to live in Avon­dale for most of his life, mar­ry­ing and raising three chil­dren of his own.

He has vis­ited his family’s home­town of Lubny three times since 1993, the first with his mother Olga.

‘‘If Mum died I knew I would lose any con­nec­tion with my family.

‘‘When we got in con­tact with her sis­ter, she al­most fainted. It had been so long.’’

An­other Ukrainian who watches the events around her home­land is Lana Veremiyenko.

The 37-year-old moved from Crimea to North­cote in 2008 and has just mar­ried her Kiwi fi­ance.

Her par­ents were not at the wed­ding.

The only travel out of Crimea is by train and then to fly in­ter­na­tion­ally from an­other city.

They say they are too scared to leave for fear of the un­known upon re­turn­ing.

‘‘No-one knows if they’ll al­lowed back in,’’ Lana says.

‘‘They’re too scared to even leave their house.

‘‘We wanted them to be a part of our wed­ding but un­for­tu­nately they couldn’t come.’’

Lana vis­ited her family last year be­fore the con­flict and says there was very lit­tle plat­form for un­rest.

‘‘There’s never been much ten­sion, it’s all po­lit­i­cally cre­ated,’’ she says.

‘‘Be­fore all this hap­pened peo­ple wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily iden­tify with any coun­try, they didn’t have strong na­tion­al­is­tic ten­den­cies,’’ Lana says.

As for Rus­sian oc­cu­pa­tion, Lana says it should never have hap­pened and the ref­er­en­dum held this week was clearly against in­ter­na­tional law.

‘‘My par­ents didn’t vote and noone else they knew voted.

‘‘But there is talk that Rus­sian sol­diers did – why are they vot­ing?

‘‘Ev­ery­one is scared. We don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen next.

‘‘There are no win­ners in war.’’


Cri­sis deep­ens: Anti-war protestors in Moscow.


Ukrainian ori­gins: Greg Ser­hi­jenko feels the sit­u­a­tion in Crimea has been man­u­fac­tured by Rus­sia.

Family sur­vives: The Ser­hi­jenko family. Clock­wise from left: Vic­tor, Olga, Lida, Va­syl and Greg in a Ger­man refugee camp, circa 1950.

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