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Update from Chrystia Freeland in Ukraine

Posted on March 8, 2014

ChrystiaFreeland_cropsquare Like Canada, Ukraine is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country, and it was important for me to speak to some of the leaders of the country’s minority communities.

I talked to Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, chief rabbi of Ukraine and Kyiv, over a delicious kosher lunch at the Serebro restaurant (he had pizza, I had spaghetti arrabiata). Rabbi Bleich is a very well-known leader in Ukraine – he has been working in the country for more than two decades. I was also pleased to learn he has strong connections to Canada’s Jewish and Ukrainian communities.

Rabbi Bleich told me: “ethnicity didn’t play a role on the maidan and it doesn’t now, and I think that is very nice. The Jewish leaders I’ve spoken to, including rabbis and community leaders of eastern regions, all say it is important for Ukraine to remain united.” Rabbi Bleich said that three Jews died fighting for the maidan, that there was a Jewish “sotnya”, or hundred, the name for the self-defence units, and that an IDF veteran led one of the sotnyas.

(In between making important political points, Rabbi Bleich showed off his terrific cufflinks, which combine the Star of David with the Ukrainian trident. Rabbi Bleich designed them himself. I asked him to come up with something similar for women, and promised to wear whatever he creates!)

I also sought out a leader of the Crimean Tatars. The Tatars have the strongest historical claim to the Crimean peninsula. Having been deported in the Soviet era to Central Asia, they are particularly troubled by the Russian occupation.

“We wanted our country to be integrated with Europe and not a colony of Russia,” Mustafa Dzhemeliev, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and Tatar leader, told me.

Dzhemiliev said his community’s women had been defending Ukrainian troops blockaded by Russian forces in Crimea, bringing them food, bearing Ukrainian flags and chanting, “Russians go home.”

“We are afraid Russia might punish the Crimean Tatars,” Dzhemiliev told me, recalling Stalin’s deportation of the community to Central Asia. “We have no reason to believe that if Crimea is part of Russia it will be better for us; we’ve been there before.”

I told Dzhemiliev about the Chechen community in my riding – which suffered a similar fate under Soviet rule – that is following events in Ukraine closely.

Chrystia Freeland

MP, Toronto Centre

Follow Chrystia on Twitter for updates on her fact-finding mission in Ukraine.

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Chrystia with Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, chief rabbi of Ukraine and Kyiv

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Rabbi Bleich’s cufflinks, which combine the Star of David with the Ukrainian trident

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Chrystia with Mustafa Dzhemeliev, member of the Ukrainian parliament and Tatar leader

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