Ukrainians mark independence in heart of Europe
To mark their independence day, Ukrainian refugees crowded into Brussels' historic Grand Place and unfurled a 30-meter-long Ukraine flag among the opulent Baroque buildings in the heart of Europe.
"We are celebrating this day here, because it's not possible back home," Olga Sklyir told DW.
Authorities in Kyiv, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) to the east, had called off independence day festivities there out of fear of Russia attacks. Ukraine's independence celebrations, on August 24, fell exactly six months after Russia launched its invasion, and the mood on Grand Place was more subdued than usual.
"There is not much jubilation. Instead, many here are remembering the many dead, the victims and families in Ukraine," said Sklyir.
Sklyir fled the embattled eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in March, where she used to work at one of the city's universities. It took her four weeks to reach Brussels — first fleeing to Poland, then Switzerland and finally Belgium. She now lives with her daughter and granddaughter, who left the country in 2014 when Russia first attacked Crimea and eastern Ukraine. She remains in close contact with her sister, who stayed behind in Kharkiv.
Sklyir decided to come to the Grand Place with her friends to express her gratitude. "Europe helped us a lot, we are thankful, but we need more support," she told DW. At the moment, some 9,000 Ukrainian refugees are registered in Brussels. About 3,8 million are registered across the entire EU, most of them in Poland, the Baltic states and Germany.
The EU has pledged funds to boost Ukraine's state budget, and has also helped Ukraine buy weapons and assisted refugees both within and outside Ukraine. Since the start of the war, Brussels-based EU institutions provided some €20 billion ($19.8 billion) in grants and loans to Ukraine.
"The European Union has been with you in this fight from the very beginning," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a video message on Wednesday. "Europe is with you, today and in the long run. Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine!)"
Von der Leyen, dressed in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, was also in attendance on the Grand Place. Later in the evening, EU institutions were also bathed in Ukraine's national colors — but there was no official ceremony to mark the occasion.
Ukraine was granted EU candidate status in June. One day, it aims to join the bloc — and Russia's invasion has just accelerated this process. Von der Leyen promised to help rebuild the country once the war was over, "brick by brick."
Olga Sklyir wants to be part of this postwar effort, and she wants to return home as soon as she can. For now, though, she can't say when that may be.
But this time next year, she hopes to be parading though the streets of Kharkiv waving a Ukraine flag. "We need to stay strong," she said.
This article was originally published in German