Over 2,000 miles away from their war-torn country, some Ukrainians have spent months working in the United Arab Emirates to showcase the best of their homeland with their nation’s dedicated pavilion at Dubai’s Expo 2020.
But with just weeks before the World Expo – a global fair of peace and tolerance – closes its doors on March 31, these Ukrainians are now living in fear of the country that is waiting for them back home. In many cases, they have shelved plans to return to their homeland as the fighting with Russian troops intensifies.
The Ukrainian pavilion is staffed with nationals from the Eastern European country, many of whom have traveled from their home country to the United Arab Emirates to represent their country during the six months of the Expo.
Kateryna Viarvilska said on Wednesday that she had planned to return home after the Expo concludes. Now, her plans are uncertain.
“I had planned to go home. But not now, the country is closed. I can’t go back,” she told The Media Line.
Speaking about the Russian invasion now in its seventh day, Viarvilska is visibly shaken by the recent events.
“We have had a lot of deaths,” she said. “We have had murders. It is absolute hell.”
Her family lives in western Ukraine far from Kyiv, the capital. However, Viarvilska still fears for their safety.
Some 15,000 Ukrainians live or work in the UAE, according to the Ukrainian embassy. They include fellow Ukrainian pavilion worker Adriana Marta Shevisiv who also has family in western Ukraine.
“They (my family) are safe compared to those in Kyiv, but is anyone safe?” she said. "They hear sirens. They have shelters to hide in. But they are scared.”
Shevisiv says that her sister, 18, has signed up to help collect donations of food for the army.
"It is nice what she is doing but she is young. In my opinion, I want her to be safe. I want her to be thinking about easy things, not about the war,” she said.
Like Viarvilska, Shevisiv’s plans for after the Expo concludes are uncertain.
“I had planned to return home, but now? I don’t know,” she said.
Both Viarvilska and Shevisiv said they are “heartbroken” about the events that have unfolded in their country and have expressed thanks to the residents of the UAE and visitors to the Expo who have flocked to the Ukrainian pavilion to offer messages of solidarity, support and hope for the embattled country.
Amid the growing ferocity of missile and artillery attacks on Kyiv and Kharkiv on Wednesday, which signal that the feared full-scale siege of Ukraine’s two biggest cities had begun, crowds thronged the Ukrainian pavilion at Expo where they offered their support by writing messages on colorful Post-It notes.
The visitors have added their messages of solidarity to the people of Ukraine by sticking the notes on special walls of hope – an idea first initiated by pavilion staff on Monday when the bombardment of a residential area of Kharkiv signaled a potentially intensification of the conflict on the fifth day of Russia's invasion, which has sparked a nationwide resistance in Ukraine and forced more than 600,000 refugees to flee the country.
Thousands of messages have since lined the walls, each expressing that the writer stands with the Ukrainians amid the Russian invasion.
“Stay strong, God is with you all,” one message said. Another read: “Sending all the love and support to the people of Ukraine.”One simply said: “Peace.”
Located in the Opportunity District, the pavilion was intended to showcase how future technologies can help create a more balanced world. Instead, it has become a symbol of war.
Minutes away from the Ukraine pavilion stands the colorful Russian pavilion, promoted as a showcase of the visionary ideas of Russian inventors and scientists who have changed the world.
Russia is currently a candidate for the World Expo 2030, with plans to host the world fair in Moscow. Inside the pavilion, visitors are taken on a “Mechanics of Wonder” journey leading to a giant brain suspended in the air.
Messages of a world united fill the pavilion’s walls, with slogans reading “Empathy is a bridge between different selves; Emotions are about the validity and about ambiguity. They may separate but they also unite,” and “Empathy is an effort of moving oneself into the realm of someone else’s experience.”
Inside the pavilion, Russian nationals who have traveled to work at the Expo were conflicted about the ongoing turmoil, but said they want the fighting to cease.
One Russian citizen at the Expo, who asked not to be named, told The Media Line that “I only know what I see on the news. But of course, I don’t want fighting.”
Another, who also asked not to be named, said that while he believes “Putin had a point,” he doesn’t want a conflict.
“I see it as 50% right, 50% not right. The western side is also not so good. You can’t just blame Putin. He has a right to defend his point. But not this way,” he said. “My fear is we will have a civil war. We don’t want this.”
On Monday, a statement from the UAE's mission to the United Nations said the country “deplore[s] the ongoing violence in Ukraine” and has publicly called for an end to the violence since the start of the invasion. However, the UAE has held back from denouncing one side or the other.
On Tuesday, the UAE suspended its visa-free regime with Ukraine that allowed Ukrainian citizens to stay in the country for up to 30 days without the need for a visa.
The news, announced on the Facebook page of the Ukrainian Embassy in the UAE on March 1, stated that “the United Arab Emirates will temporarily suspend the action of the memorandum of mutual understanding between the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and the Government of the United Arab Emirates on mutual cancellation of visa requirements."
“From today, citizens of Ukraine – passport holders of Ukrainian citizen for going abroad – should receive a suitable visa for visiting the UAE,” it said.
The suspension does not apply to Ukrainian citizens who were already in the country at the time of the announcement, it also said.