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A Canberra theatre group is uniting Ukrainians who have fled war, and helping create a community

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 13/08/2022
Valeriia Demianenko believes it's more important than ever to keep Ukrainian language alive. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty) © Provided by ABC NEWS Valeriia Demianenko believes it's more important than ever to keep Ukrainian language alive. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

When Yaryna Yablonska asks her daughters, aged four and 11, what they want for their birthdays, their answer is simple yet consistent: they want their father.

Yaryna fled Ukraine with her family in March as war broke out, but the men in her family stayed behind. 

"When war began, we came with my family. With my daughters, with my sister … and with my mother," she said.

"We came to Poland first and then we decided to come to Australia." 

To stay connected to her culture, she has joined a theatre group, known as the Motanka theatre, which performs traditional Ukrainian plays in their native tongue. 

The actors — including some refugees, migrants and others who have lived in Canberra for many years — meet three times a week to rehearse, preparing to take the stage. 

The play is set in eighteenth-century Ukraine, with performers wearing traditional costumes and singing traditional Ukrainian songs. 

Oksana Yablonska tells a similar story to Yaryna.

Her husband told her to leave Ukraine while he stayed behind. 

"It was absolutely terrifying, we didn't know what to expect, we didn't know what the future holds for us," she said through tears. 

But she could not bring everyone with her.

"It was extremely difficult to leave our home, our land and it was not an easy decision," she cried.

"I have my mother behind there in Ukraine, which breaks my heart."

War more reason than ever to promote language, director says

With the current war in Ukraine, the importance of keeping the country's culture alive is all the more important to the play's director, Valeriia Demianenko.

"One of the missions it is to give a voice to other refugees, to other migrants," she said.

Her father has just joined the army at the age of 54, and his positivity has inspired her to find joy through directing.

"It is very hard … when we call to each other I hear he's laughing still, he's still smiling, he's still trying to find something good — and better — in the life which he's living now. In [the] army," Ms Demianenko said.

"Theatre is what I found for myself, it is what heals my wounds, I guess." 

The play is not just a way for the troupe to connect to their culture back home. It also allows them to connect with other Ukrainians in the community. 

"It's one of the reasons that we are here in the theatre because we speak with Ukrainians … we met a lot of Ukrainians — friends now," Yaryna said.

And while the performance helps bring her a little closer to home, Yaryna is hopeful to one day to return.

"I miss Ukraine, I miss my relatives, my husband," she said.

"I hope that this war will end and we can go again to Ukraine. Because I find Australia very great, a very nice country, but Ukraine is my home."

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