By Pam Wright, The Chatham Voice Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Ed Dickson and his friends never believed Russia would make good on its threat to invade Ukraine.
“Everybody I was with did not believe there would be an all-out invasion,” Dickson said. “The idea was too insane.”
But on Feb. 24, Russian president Vladimir Putin did just that, putting the lives of millions of innocent people in peril.
Dickson, who has lived in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv for the past 25 years, was in his adopted country only three weeks ago.
At the time, there were widespread reports a Russian attack was imminent, Dickson said, but people just went on with their normal lives, not believing it would happen.
The idea was too outrageous.
Ukrainians continued their routines, he said, going to school and work and drinking coffee in cafes.
Then the bombs began to fall.
Dickson, who is married to a Ukrainian national, said his neighbours are now “hiding in basements.
“They were completely caught off guard,” he said, adding he’s encouraging everyone to have faith “Jesus is with them” and to pray.
As the overseas director with Loads of Love, Dickson has spent most of the last 25 years in the Ukraine, working for the Chatham-based charity.
The agency, which has an extensive network in the Eastern European country, employs 50 people full-time.
As of Friday, the communication infrastructure was still intact and Dickson was still able to speak with staff and friends and family.
He said, that while many are fleeing, Loads of Love employees have vowed to stay to continue their work.
“Our staff are the real heroes,” Dickson said. “They have told me they want to stay and continue to be a light for the people around them.
“Right now I’m just thanking God we still have open communication.”
The Ukrainian diaspora in Canada is large with 1.5 million people connected to the Eastern European country.
Dickson’s own grandparents, who were Mennonites, left the Ukraine in 1925, emigrating to Leamington.
That’s where Dickson grew up before making his way to university where he earned a Masters degree in Agricultural Economics.
Dickson was associate director at the University of Guelph’s George Morris Centre where he was working on international programs when he decided to go Ukraine.
Dickson was affiliated with the Evangel Community Church in Chatham, which founded Loads of Love.
Going to Ukraine was divinely inspired, he said.
Dickson said he awoke one night in 1996 and decided right then go to the Ukraine.
“You have that time once in your life when you decide to follow your heart or follow the money,” Dickson explained.
When he arrived, he worked in an orphanage for kids with special needs where he was “overwhelmed” by the experience.
From there it just “grew and grew and grew,” Dickson noted.
He married Natasha seven years after moving to Ukraine and the couple has four daughters. They returned to Canada so their eldest daughter could finish high school in Chatham, prior to heading to university.
Dickson likens the current conflict to the biblical story of David and Goliath, adding Ukraine has always been the underdog.
The country of 44 million was formed in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Dickson said the country suffers from “ a hangover” from communist Russia, but citizens were beginning to understand freedom and democracy.
Ukrainians have lived in the shadow of war for many years. A major revolution took place in 2014 when citizens kicked out the Soviet-affiliated leader.
Dickson said Ukraine wanted to join the European Union, which infuriated Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An issue is an ongoing war in the rebel-controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.
That led to three million people fleeing the country.
Dickson said Russia has been “building the narrative” that Ukraine is a threat for the past eight years, propagating lies that Ukrainians are responsible for genocide.
While some Russians support the invasion, many do not.
However, the truth has been muzzled as journalists are threatened with $60,000 fines is they report anything outside of the state’s party line.
And Russians who speak out against the invasion are being jailed, Dickson said.
“Anyone who protests or even looks like they are going to protest, they put them in jail immediately,” he added. “It is mindboggling to think that in this day and age things like that are still going on.”
In the meantime, Loads of Love will continue to collect goods. However, Dickson noted it’s going to be “tough” logistically to get shipping containers to Ukraine, even though there’s a great need for items such as winter coats and hats.
However, Dickson said financial donations are welcome and will be distributed by Loads of Love through churches.
Anyone wishing to donate to help the Ukrainian people can access the agency at loadsoflove.org.
People can continue to ask the federal government to put pressure on Russia to halt the invasion, Dickson said, but notes the Canadian government has “done a lot more than many other countries.”