Migrants watch Ukraine's struggles

UKRANIAN ORIGINS: Greg Serhijenko feels the situation in Crimea has been manufactured by Russia.
UKRANIAN ORIGINS: Greg Serhijenko feels the situation in Crimea has been manufactured by Russia.

"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."

East And Bays Courier