Ukrainian Optimism: Stefan Romaniw in Conversation
Stefan Romaniw OAM is the co-chair of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations and the first vice president of the Ukrainian World Congress. Stefan recently returned from Ukraine and joined me to share his optimism for Ukraine in 2023.
Victor Perton: Stefan, what makes you optimistic, personally?
Stefan Romaniw: "It's got a lot to do with upbringing. For me, it's having strong faith and trying to understand God's plan. That gives you optimism, especially when you're down; you can reflect, turn around, and say, "Well, okay, we've taken one step or two steps back."
"Faith and my family: My father and mother were very optimistic people, especially my mother. My mother never saw bad in anything. On the contrary, she would always try and spin a good story.
"And the other thing that gives me optimism now is my own family. I have a lovely wife, two lovely children, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, and five grandchildren. And they give you a purpose in life.
"So you say, "Okay, this is what we're living for, so let's create a better tomorrow for them," I think that's where the Ukrainian bit comes in as well.
"And I think the other, to finish off on optimism, the Ukrainian community played and continues to play a significant role in my life. I've been blessed with a community that has given me the skills to be able to move forward in life.
"I chaired the Victorian Multicultural Commission and was very optimistic about what we did then. But when I think about how I got from point A to point B, boy, if it wasn't for the Ukrainian community that always gave me opportunities, I don't think I'd ever get there.
"And also, that optimism, one other thing I'd like to say is somebody gave me this little saying the other day "When you drink a glass of water, don't forget who dug the well."
"So there are people who were before you, and they also instilled a lot of optimism. For ourselves, in life, don't get ahead of yourself. Ultimately, you didn't create history, history created you, and you're a custodian.
"I like to be optimistic, I like to smile, and I like to joke because it creates a good atmosphere wherever you are.
Victor Perton: What makes you optimistic for Ukraine for 2023?
Stefan Romaniw: I think it's funny, people say to you, "Well, you've gone to a war-torn zone, you've seen all this destruction, you continue to see it, so how can you be optimistic?" And I think if you understand the Ukrainian psyche in Ukraine, people in Ukraine, historically, have been able to look after themselves in sad times; whether it be the '32, '33 famine that Stalin created, the genocide, the Holodomor, somehow people shared what they had. If it was only one apple, it was then divided amongst many so that people could have things. So if you see Ukraine through the war and through Soviet oppression, they continue to at least understand who they were.
And we are now in a situation where Ukrainians, whilst they're cautiously optimistic, they're cautiously optimistic because nobody knows what's going to happen tomorrow.
"The optimism is that we, as a nation, will stand strong and win this.
"Victor, I'll give you two examples from my most recent visit.
"I went to a shelter in Irpin, one of the places which have been blown up where we are working with Rotary maintaining shelters. Amongst other things, we provide them with bedding. A 92-year-old woman showed me her tiny room. She said, "When I was born, my parents dropped me very quickly. In other words, I've been an orphan most of my life. I have lived through World War II. I had an apartment." She pointed in the direction where the apartment was, and it was no longer there. In her room, she took my hand and put my hand on the bed, the flannel bedding, and said, "Look at this, look how warm this is. Look at the pillow I have and look at the mattress I've got." And she finishes off by saying, "It'll all be good."
"I'll give you another example. In Lviv, when the missiles were flying, I called friends of ours, and this was the day after, and I said, "How are you?" And the man told me, "My wife's outside. This is the day she is washing the house windows."
"I said, "Why are you washing windows?" And he said, "Yesterday she decided that she was going to wash windows on Tuesday, and told me "no Russian missile, no bomb is going to stop me doing that."
"And the optimism in Ukraine comes from people thinking in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term.
"Short-term, a lot of pain.
"Medium-term, a lot of rebuilding.
"Long-term existence for a country that is free and democratic. The shackles have been broken, and the country has become an international and European leader - a leader internationally about what life's all about.
"And in your space, where we're talking about optimism, why are we fighting? We're fighting for values; we're fighting for sovereignty; we're fighting for independence; we're fighting for freedom.
"And going back to what I said before about optimism in your own family, isn't that what we're all fighting for? We want an optimistic future for our children.
'And the only way you build an optimistic future involves good overcoming evil.
"So if you look at optimism in Ukraine, I think people have probably got in there, parked in their brains "no pain, no gain".
"And at the end of the day, what is the result? The result is what we see: it's a very optimistic look at being Ukrainian, where Ukraine sits and the future of Ukraine.
Victor Perton: President Zelensky is the world leader for freedom and democracy. Last year he was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria, who said, "How can you be optimistic in the face of such evil?" And Zelensky said, "It's because I believe in people, the people of Ukraine and the people of the world."
The Ukrainian people have gone through so much suffering in czarist Russia, in Soviet Russia, and after the soviet collapse, establishing their freedom. Would you say the Ukrainians are optimistic, persistent people?
Stefan Romaniw: " Definitely. Zelenskyy is right: You would've seen a lot of the video footage of their courage.
"In real-time, you see exactly what's happening. You see, in real-time Christmas Eve in Ukraine, missiles flying, sirens sounding, and people in bunkers or their apartments celebrating Christmas.
"You see soldiers in bunkers at a table, not much on the table, but celebrating Christmas. You see soldiers on the battlefield celebrating Christmas with a small table in the snow.
"It's all about people. Nobody would've anticipated the resilience of the Ukrainian people.
"If you watch some TV footage and see a Russian tank towed by a farmer with his tractor.
"You see a courtyard, and the Russian soldiers have walked in. An elderly woman and a gentleman stand barring their way and say, "Just get out of here because this is ours, so go away."
"Some might say, "That's crazy; you could get a bullet in your head." But it showed ordinary Ukrainian people very, very resilient and brave.
"And when Zelenskyy talks about people-inspired -optimism, anybody who knows a little bit about what happened on the 24th and from the 24th to early March, it was people power; it was people power, people power.
"If you go in the main streets, you find barricades with stockpiled tires and wood. The importance of those tires is the fact that if there's a Russian onslaught, in other words, tanks and troops coming down the street, what you do is you put these barricades up, you start a big fire, you throw tires on there, and that pushes the soldiers back. Now that's people-power.
"We now have an army, a reasonably sophisticated Ukrainian army. However, one of the wise initiatives was to create territorial brigades. So if you lived in the Ukrainian equivalent of Melbourne's St Albans, Toorak, or Mornington, you would've formed a territorial brigade.
"Who were the territorial brigades? They were the people. That was people's power.
"Run-of-the-mill men and women came out and said, "You know what? I'm not going to stand for this. I'm going to fight." They didn't have arms, and some had never held a gun. The fact is that's people-power.
"And where Zelensky comes from regarding people; is people power.
"You see, Kherson, you know how that people-power pushed the Russians out.
"You see the jubilation of those people who have been, in inverted commas, "liberated."
"People live in hope; they live in hope. They would've put their arms down if they didn't have hope.
"In the first days, the US and other countries offered an out for Zelenskyy and his family: "We'll give you an aeroplane to get out. You can run your country in exile."
"That would've been the beginning of the end.
"People-power comes in different shapes and forms. When Zelenskyy became president, people were unsure about the future. He was an unknown quantity and had a big agenda, basically wanting to avoid war.
Traditionally, Independence Day marches were always the tanks, troops and flyovers. But, instead, Zelensky went for a different peace model - a beautiful stage and music.
"Parallel to that, people from the armed forces supported by people-power, organised another rally parallel, not to interfere, all done in a very orderly fashion. But it was people-power saying, "Hey, we are in war. Yes, we want peace, but you know what? We're just sending you a message that we're not going to go for the lowest common denominator." And that was one of the turning points where Zelensky's administration understood that people power was with him. People wanted to aspire to something higher.
"People power? Have a look at the international community and the impact of people-power. Nations are supporting Ukraine.
"There is the unexpected: I chair an international committee to recognise Holodomor as genocide through the Ukrainian World Congress. We started an activity in 2008, "Ukraine Remembers; the World Acknowledges", getting countries to acknowledge Holodomor as genocide.
"In 2022, Germany's Bundestag voted to recognise the Ukrainian Famine as genocide. It was people-power, not just members of the Bundestag. People-power is very important.
Victor Perton: During your recent visit to Ukraine, you visited some of the cities and towns that were most damaged with undoubted proof of war crimes. And you've met with local people, your 92-year-old lady, who've suffered greatly. How would you sum up their Stoic resilience, and what underpins it? Is it their faith? What underpins that Stoic resilience?
Stefan Romaniw: "That resilience is the people on the ground and the diaspora. Ultimately, it's the people on the ground in Ukraine.
"We go there because we want to learn from them what their needs are.
"Take Irpin - you would've seen coverage of the horror - 400 bodies buried and a lot of destruction. I visited a child's library when I was in Irpin with Australian Prime Minister Albanese. So imagine there's a war, you look around, and there's destruction all around. And here, there was a children's library. The schools were closed. The children's library brings children together, reading and doing artwork. So they're trying to reduce the effect on children and young people. This bit of normality also gives an upbeat to people.
"In one of the shelters, I played St. Nicholas. We gave the children little boxes of chocolates.
"Despite the horrors, the children retain their sense of humour. And I had a girl who's probably about 10, and she said, "St. Nicholas, I'm so happy to see you. I'm so glad that you're here." We'd already given them a present each. And she says, "Can I hug you?" And I said, "Yeah, sure." So I hug her. And she whispers in my ear, "Do you have any more presents you might be able to give me?"
"But if you watched some of the clips two days ago after the shellings, one of the houses was shelled and ruined. The owner of that house stood outside very upset yet said, "Well, today it was me; tomorrow it's going to be somebody else. So what I need to do is clean up outside my house here because it's very, very important."
"What would we do? You'd sit there and cry, and God knows what you do. And this is what they do. And when I go there, I'm so buoyed by the fact that people are so resilient.
"And also, if you go to the major cities like Kyiv or Lviv or some of those other places, Drohobych, where I was, to see a rehabilitation centre that we're helping fund, it's life, as usual, it's like here. And often, people say, "Well, how come?" And I say, "Well, it's like here, we know COVID's around, we know we might get it, but we're still out there. And in Ukraine it's a bit about the same; we know we might get shelled, but what are we going to do?" And I think that they have now understood that this is something they're going to have to live with, there is going to be more of this, but as I said to you before, I think if you look at long-term, long-term, people are saying, "Well, what sort of Ukraine are we going to have when this is finished? We are going to be the champions of the world."
"Victor Perton: Thinking of 2023, it's the second day; what message would you like to share with people who support Ukraine and would like to help?
Stefan Romaniw; "To keep on topic optimism, we must be careful we don't get Ukraine fatigue. In other words, this is not all done and dusted.
"We can continue if we are optimistic. But, of course, the optimism will rely on us winning and keeping freedom, democracy, and all those values we need to support Ukraine.
"Zelenskyy, in his presentation to the US Congress, was very clear about what we need is support, and we need it now. And the call-out to governments in the first instance is we need speedy support. So we don't need statements; we need fewer statements and more delivery.
"So that's very, very important.
"Secondly, how do we help? Through the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations, Ukraine Crisis Appeal, we have delivered about $25 million worth of donated humanitarian aid. We have raised about eight and a half million through the Ukraine Crisis Appeal. We are supporting the shelters and the rehabilitation.
"When discussing optimism, something good might come out of bad. I went to a rehab centre called Nazareth in Drohobych in Western Ukraine. We're working with Caritas to fund part of it. So I call it Jesus work. "I was hungry; you fed me. I was in jail, and you visited me."
"But when you see the rehabilitation centre - drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and the children of people who are addicted. And these rehab workers and volunteers are working with these people to try and give them a new life.
"We have people who are displaced. Millions of Ukrainians are displaced in Ukraine and moved from the east to the west or the centre. That's all being bombed now; they've got nothing there.
"So, for example, there's a room full of people who are on dialysis, so they have to be taken into Lviv every week for dialysis.
"There are elderly people with nowhere to go; everything's lost, they spent nights on the street, and now they are picked up and brought to shelters.
"When you see this sort of activity, the optimism is that there is a problem, and how do we fix the problem?
"Albert Einstein said, "Some people, you give them the solution and they give you the problem."
"So, we're trying to understand the problem and fix the solution.
"Are we going to fix the war situation? I don't think we're in a position to do that. But if you talk about optimism for 2023, the ultimate is Zelensky's 10-point peace plan. And it's all very straightforward. Putin can negotiate, and the UN can talk about it in any way it wants to about mediation.
"The facts are straightforward: Ukraine is a sovereign country, sovereign state, and has its borders, get out of Ukraine, and we can then work through what must be done. There's a lot to be worked through.
"And Putin doesn't want to go through this peace plan because he doesn't want to get out of Ukraine. But also, his premise that he's defending Russians in Ukraine is completely false, completely false. And I'll give you a couple of examples of why it's wrong. Often, Western commentators talk about Russians in Ukraine. There are Russians in Ukraine; there are Ukrainians who are Russian speakers, two different things. Nobody in Ukraine is being penalised because they speak Russian. So his argument that Russian speakers are Russian, well, they're not. Putin was giving away free passports; people didn't jump at that. A majority of people in Donetsk, Luhansk, those places, as soon as those guys, the green-uniformed men, came in, they left because that wasn't the Ukraine that they wanted. And this peace plan is about how we deal with this situation.
"And we only have one problem, and that's Putin. And in diplomacy, as you know, you've been around in that space, diplomacy is about a win-win, you get a win-win situation. You got a give and take. But, unfortunately, in Putin's world, Putin's world is, "I win, you lose." So it's not a win-win; you lose.
"We can be optimistic that the people in Ukraine are optimistic.
"The world, what can we do? First, we can continue to support Ukraine. Second, we can make sure governments continue with the sanctions. Third, we can make sure that military aid is speedy. Finally, we can help with humanitarian aid in terms of the programs we're running.
"I'm absolutely buoyed by the way that the community has responded.
"And not just the Ukrainian community but also the broader Australian community. This morning, for example, I went for a run, and a guy stopped me and said, "Oh, you were on TV yesterday. Look, I want to tell you that we support you."
"We've just had the two youth organisations that we have, Ukrainian Youth Association and the Ukrainian Scouts Plus, one in Sydney, a national camp; the other one is in Melbourne. Collectively, close to 600 people, young people. We haven't had that for years.
"And people are now also very optimistic that, given the new arrivals here, we've been working with them. If people want to help, we can continue to do that. Still, they've also been an injection, they've been an injection into the community. And again, they want to be with their families. But the positive and optimistic part about this is that they have now populated our Ukrainian schools and churches. So there is a resurgence, there is a revival. That's also something to be optimistic about.
'So to finish, one, most optimistically, we want to see the war finish, two, we want to make sure that people who have come through this war have the support that they need; and three, we continue to support Ukraine the way that we can, and four, that we continue to help those that have settled here, who have made Australia home, that they ultimately also feel very much part of this community and understand how important they are. And we need to make sure that the issue of mental health and related topics are being addressed.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel.
"And again, in the long-term, there will be a stronger, better Ukraine, an integral part of Europe and the international community and far more revived local Ukrainian communities worldwide.
Victor Perton: As you know, the refugee and the migrant are amongst the most optimistic of people, and you, as the son of refugees, I think, epitomise it both for Australia and the world. Stefan Romaniw, thank you,