Ukrainian students Arthur Shtoiko, left, and Arthur Ivov take in the Crossings Toronto exhibit, all the while bearing their own crosses for their homeland immensed in war. Photo by Michael Swan

Young Ukrainians have cross to bear

  • March 20, 2022

The Way of the Cross can be and has been explained in many ways, but before the theorizing, theologizing and prayers there is fear and there is pain.

Young Ukrainian students Arthur Ivov and Arthur Shtoiko don’t talk about their fears as they walk station to station across the University of Toronto’s downtown campus taking in the Crossings Toronto exhibition of contemporary artists’ interpretations of the Stations of the Cross.

It’s the last bitterly cold day of a long winter and the weather discourages deep conversation. But behind a few jokes, idle chat and a lot of silent trudging through slush and snow the Arthurs are thinking of the uncertainty and the unknowable suffering back home.

As we settle on a park bench next to Colleen McLaughlin Barlow’s sculpture of Jesus taking up His cross, Shtoiko reveals some of his dismay over what’s happened since he left Ukraine to study supply management at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont. Over the last eight years Ukrainians have adjusted to the war in the eastern Donbass region of their country and occasional Russian sabre rattling on their borders, he explained.

“For eight years, each year — you don’t really expect this,” Shtoiko said.

The evening of Feb. 21 Shtoiko was just killing time when he decided to scroll through the news.

“So I was just getting on my laptop and thought, let’s scroll the news. I was like, ‘Oh, oh.’ I wasn’t sleeping much for a time,” he said.

The Russians were no longer rattling a sabre on the border. They were inside Ukraine with fighter jets, tanks and rocket launchers.

Ivov brushes aside a question about how hard it must be to be stuck in Canada watching Ukrainians, including his family, flee their homes. His girlfriend, aunt and a cousin have just managed to make it across the border into Poland. His parents remain in Zaporizhzhya, a 10-hour drive south of Kyiv on the Dnipro River.

“It’s much harder for people in Ukraine than it is for us,” he said. “We don’t know what they feel right now. We don’t know what it means to wake up at night and go to the shelters because you could die in a moment. It’s much scarier for the people in Ukraine than it is for us. We’re just worried for our families and the people close to us.”

Thanks to their Kitchener hosts, the Mischuks, the young men hope to eventually turn their student visas into permanent residency, Canadian citizenship and a new life in Canada. That was the plan long before the war. Now, they both would like to bring their families, to keep them safe. But it’s not so simple, points out Schtoiko.

“But most of my family, they don’t speak English,” he said. “It’s totally more expensive to live here, with no possibility of work if you don’t know English. My father, he’s in his 40s. He won’t really learn English. I don’t think he can.”

Ivov fears for his mother and sisters and wants them all out of Ukraine, wherever they go.

“They need to protect themselves. They are women and have nothing to do with this. It’s better for them to move out,” he said.

Behind the students, McLaughlin Barlow’s sculpture is not at first glance an image of fear or pain. A confident, clear-eyed young Jesus stands tall holding above His head a strangely shaped, clear crystal. The shape, however, is a human sacrum — a bony structure in the shape of a shield found at the base of the spine and connected to the pelvis. Every human sacrum contains an image of a cross. It turns out humans are engineered that way. The artist here has drawn attention to the cross with a woven, golden cross embedded in the clear, crystal shape above Jesus’ head.

When we part, Shannon and Dave Mischuk are taking the two Arthurs to a Ukrainian restaurant in Toronto — a taste of home and the comforts they left behind just seven months ago. Dave’s brother Benton in Victoria, B.C., is an immigration lawyer working on a visa for Ivov’s girlfriend and residency for the two men.

“If they need more help, like sponsorship or a place to live, we will do whatever we can,” said Shannon Mischuk.

The Mischuks are very committed Evangelicals. The Arthurs are more Orthodox than anything else, but not really attracted by religious talk or practice.

“Crossings Toronto is designed to engage people of all backgrounds — from those deeply faithful to those simply pondering spirituality,” said Imago executive director John Franklin, who brought together the outdoor exhibition.

The Mischuks and the Arthurs hold in common their humanity in the face of fear and pain, the humanity Jesus carries up that hill.

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