May 24th, 2024

Montreal launches cruise season with ship that protected 1,500 Ukrainian refugees

By Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press on May 4, 2024.

MONTREAL – Cruise ship Staff Capt. Rakesh Prasad can’t forget the traumatized expressions on the faces of hundreds of Ukrainians who boarded Holland America’s Volendam in April 2022.

The 1,500 refugees, who had fled their homeland two months earlier after Russia’s invasion triggered an ongoing war there, boarded the ship with their scant possessions largely packed in plastic bags. The ship they boarded at the Port of Rotterdam would be their home for the next six months.

“You looked at the kids, you could feel how afraid they were, there was no happiness,” said Prasad, standing by the Volendam’s indoor pool after the ship docked at the Port of Montreal on Saturday.

The Volendam, now back to ferrying vacationing travellers, was the first cruise ship of the 2024 season to arrive in the city. The port authority held a ceremony aboard the vessel to celebrate the occasion, with invited guests including diplomats from Ukraine and the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Metres from the pool area, toward the entrance of the dining hall, some of the Volendam’s crew members hung a large frame filled with drawings from refugee children who lived on the ship in 2022. The art is now a permanent exhibition on the vessel.

Looking around the ship’s wood-panelled interior, Eugene Czolij, honorary consul of Ukraine in Montreal, pointed to the picture frame and said the refugees were “clearly hosted in a very friendly manner.” He thanked the Dutch authorities for their help.

The refugees’ stay aboard the Volendam turned the ship into a Ukrainian village.

“Families were giving out haircuts for free, old ladies were taking care of the kids,” Prasad said. “It became a community, and when it came time to leave, the majority wanted to stay.”

Volendam Capt. Rens Van Eerten said the Netherlands has a long history of helping refugees flee violence, including during the Second World War when the country helped people escape the Nazis.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, he said, the Dutch government approached the Volendam’s owner, Holland America, asking to hire a ship.

“We had one available,” he said. “We hosted (the refugees) and looked after them and made sure they could have a relatively normal life at that time.”

But while the Netherlands was eager to help in April 2022, the honorary consul of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Montreal lamented what he described as a sense of “Ukraine fatigue” that has taken hold in some Western countries.

At the start of the war, Michael Polak said everyone was “gung-ho to help Ukraine fight the Russian aggression.” But in the last six to 12 months, he said, “some of the allies have become a little bit reticent, doubting their commitments, not wanting to spend money.”

“But the fact is that this war is ongoing and far from being resolved,” he said.

United States President Joe Biden approved sending Ukraine $1 billion in military assistance on April 24, the first instalment of a roughly $61 billion aid package. It also includes air defence capabilities, artillery rounds, armoured vehicles and other weapons to shore up Ukrainian forces who have seen morale sink as Russian President Vladimir Putin has racked up win after win.

Czolij said the U.S. aid package was very helpful, adding he thought it would help Ukraine win the war. He said the only people who have “fatigue” over Ukraine are those who don’t understand that the country is not only defending its territorial integrity but “defending the whole of Europe.”

“If Ukraine, God forbid, loses this war,” he said, “we will be witnessing world war three.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2024.

– With files from The Associated Press.

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