Christmas Comes Early and Bittersweet for Ukrainian Refugees in Prague

Many of the millions of Ukrainian refugees in central and eastern Europe plan to mark Christmas early this year in solidarity with their hosts, learning carols in new languages to generate holiday cheer despite fears for relatives back home.

Ukrainians generally celebrate Christmas on January 7 in common with Russians, but the country’s Orthodox church has gradually shifted from Moscow’s orbit in recent years.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, the church has said congregations can now also celebrate on Dec. 25 — something many refugees said they would embrace.

Vasil, 45, and Marina, 36, Khymyshynets who fled their village near Kyiv in March with their two children after a missile or artillery round exploded near their house, now live in a two-room flat in Prague.

The family — who could not afford a tree because they were saving to send gifts to relatives in Ukraine — baked Christmas cookies and taped pine branches and Christmas lights on the wall while the children practiced singing carols in Czech.

“We decided to just use some pine branches for the decoration so that it looks good and makes the children happy,” Khymyshynets, who was allowed to leave Ukraine after the military rejected him due to poor eyesight, said at the weekend.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine, now in its tenth month, has killed tens of thousands of people reduced cities to ruins and driven millions from their homes, with 4.5 million registered across Europe, data from the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR shows.

Many have been put up by states bordering Ukraine such as Romania, Slovakia and Poland – which has hosted the most — as well as nearby countries like Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.

Attacks on Ukraine’s power grid and heating plants mean few plan trips home for the holidays.

“We have not noticed many people going back for Christmas,” said Jakub Andrle, a migration program officer for Prague-based charity People in Need, which works in and out of Ukraine.

“The longer people stay here the more difficult it is to go back.”

Czechs who live near a Prague dormitory housing around 130 refugees, organised a party with cookies festive music and donated gifts laid out beneath a lighted Christmas tree.

“We are just trying to make it a little better for them,” said Hana Hillerova-Harper, who helped organise the event.

Children laughed as they played football in the snow and ran around snatching cookies from the table as their mothers — many holding babies or pushing strollers — chatted with each other.

Most of the children had only two things on their Christmas lists: For the war to end and for their fathers to be safe.

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