Children who fled Russian invasion find community in Ukrainian scouting organization in Canada

ABC News

(SQUAMISH, British Columbia) -- Ukrainian Plast, the country's largest scouting organization, is becoming another center of gravity for Ukrainian families who fled the Russian war against their homeland.

Maria, 9, and her family were forced to relocate to Canada from Ukraine in 2022, several weeks after Russian armed forces invaded the country.

Although they lived in a western city of Lviv, relatively far from the Russian border, her parents considered the situation to be too dangerous to let it threaten their children's lives and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Maria's mother almost immediately found the local Plast branch to join it.

"This year Spring Festival was about power, and under power I understand not only physical strength, but also mental strength -- the ability to stand your ground firmly and survive," Maria said.

Since their arrival, Maria has already got four camps in her aggregate and is very proud of the new badges she earned.

"As you can see, I have over ten skills for now – much more in comparison to the number I had back in Ukraine," she said.

But Plast is not only about gaining badges -- it is more about communication, learning and uniting young people before they enter the bigger world with its challenges.

That is why, this year the Spring Festival in Squamish, a town north of Vancouver, gathered dozens of participants not only from British Columbia but also from the US.

"My father was a Plast member, so I joined the organization when I was a little child and my first camp was at 4 and I have been doing camps since then," said Kalyna Durbak, 37, Seattle Plast branch leader.

Her grandparents were from Ukraine, but her father was born in Argentina and her mother in the U.S. Her parents met in Chicago.

Although Kalyna was not born in Ukraine, she knows the language very well because of Ukrainian school in Chicago, which she attended every Saturday for ten years, up until she was 15.

"It was like I lived two lives at a time: from Monday till Friday, I was American but at home and at the weekends, I was Ukrainian," she said.

Now, the school experience, in particular the knowledge of Ukrainian language, geography and history partially helps in her work with young Plast members.

Kalyna agrees, that more and more new members have joined Plast in the U.S. and Canada for the last two years.

On the one hand, she is glad that the organization is growing. But, on the other, she said she feels sad that the reason for that is the war: "These feelings are bitter-sweet as I am grateful for being able to help and support our sisters and brothers in Ukraine," Kalyna said.

Due of the growing number of Plast members in Canada, Seattle branch refused to organize the Spring Festivals by themselves and join the neighbors so close to celebrate the start of the camping year all together.

"Of course, we could do it in Seattle, but it would be joylessly – I love to see Plast members from Vancouver and they love to see us," Kalyna said.

That is why she describes Plast as some kind of brotherhood – one great family without any borders: "Plast has no borders, I like it very much as I have friends all over the world – I know scouts from Austria, Australia, Ukraine, Poland, Argentina, obviously from Canada."

Anastasia, 39 and her children had no experience in scouting in their native city of Odesa in southern Ukrainian. Five months ago, the family moved to Canada to find peace. So, 9-year-old Sofia and her five-year-old brother Lev joined Plast in British Columbia.

"We want our children to remain in Ukrainian community, study Ukrainian culture and support it at the proper level, communicate with other Ukrainian children," said Anastasia.

According to her, children are still trying to adapt in Canada, as it is completely new country for them, a new world, a new language: "They used to live in their own world but now they live in a new one, they used to have their own surrounding, friends and activities, and now they have to start everything from the scratch."

Anastasia's and her husband's parents are staying in Odesa, a city that is a near constant target for the Russian missiles and drones, and they are sorry for not being able to see their grandchildren.

"But the security is above all -- the most important for them is to ensure that our children are safe and Plast is important for us as it is connecting us with our Motherland,” said Anastasia.

"When we moved to Canada from Ukraine many years ago, there was no any hesitation regarding the continuation of the scouting traditions on the new ground,” said Lida Slobodian, this year’s camp commandant, recollecting the great experience from her youth when she was just a common member of Plast.

She has been the Plast member for over than 30 years and her elder children were attending Plast meetings back in Ukraine.

"Therefore, I wanted my youngest child, born in here, to be able to join the organization and that is how we have created a branch in Vancouver," she said.

According to Lida's analysis, approximately half of the branch’s current members were scouting back in Ukraine or are local Plast members in Canada. The other half knew nothing about the organization in Ukraine and joined it already in Canada to preserve and evolve their connection to Ukraine and to the local Ukrainian community.

Normally, Plast serves as an opportunity to preserve Ukrainian identity, Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian spirit, but Lida also considers it to be a great school of life, developing leadership and other soft skills.

For children it is an opportunity to become a member of Ukrainian circle, to find new friends and to establish new connections, she said. In her opinion, the opportunities provided by Plast are very important in the Canadian multicultural society where Ukrainian children can rarely meet other kids from Ukraine in their classes at school, practice Ukrainian language in order not to forget it in new surroundings.

In particular, such camps as this Spring Festival one serves as a good chance for children to play some games, to sing songs together, to present some skit performance, learn something new – and everything in Ukrainian language.

"Besides, children learn a lot about nature, wildlife, how to act when you meet a bear, for example, surviving in the forest and in the mountains," added Lida.

In her opinion, this camp was mostly oriented on teaching children such skills as time management and leadership, as some tasks are oriented on the proper estimation of the problem and children's ability to take responsibility for decisions and proposing some ideas or solutions in tight schedule. There were also some games that teach developing strategic thinking and teamwork.

Kalyna shares the opinion, that Plast gives young people an opportunity to become a leader and sometimes it is the first time for them to try themselves as leaders, to bear responsibility.

"It gives them a lot of leadership skills and self-discipline – they learn how to present themselves in the world, how to become a better teacher for others and a better person," she said.

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