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'What can YOU do?': Ukrainian-Americans meet 'an SOS moment' for their homeland

Tana Ganeva   

'What can YOU do?': Ukrainian-Americans meet 'an SOS moment' for their homeland
  • New York's Ukrainian Village is mobilizing to fundraise for Ukraine's defense and organize protests.

On Saturday morning, as Russian forces battered Ukraine for a third straight day, students at the Self Reliance Saturday School of Ukrainian Studies filed into the sunny auditorium in New York's East Village.

The younger kids held up blue and yellow flags almost as tall as they were. Almost everyone wore shirts emblazoned with vyshyvanka traditional Ukrainian embroidery. When the assembly kicked off with a prayer for Ukraine – "Ghospodi pomili" (God forgive) and "Slava Ukraina" (Glory to Ukraine) – even the littlest kids stood straight-backed at somber attention.

"The fact that you're here in school, learning your Ukrainian history, your culture, your tradition, your religion, everything about you shows the world that we will not let this happen," Ivan Makar, the school principal, told the assembled students. "We will not disappear."

"Putin is trying to tell us that we don't have the right to exist. Mr. Putin is trying to tell us that we're nothing. That we are the same as Russia," he added. "We were never Russia."

Write to your congresspeople and senators, raise money to aid the Ukrainian Army, and educate other Amerians about the conflict, he beseeched them. "We've got bullies that push into our lands. We will not let Ukraine die," he said.

Like many Ukrainian-Americans in this community, Makar was born in the U.S.

The school, attached to the majestic St. George Cathedral, was founded in 1949 by professors and teachers who were part of a major migration to New York in the years before and after Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union in 1922. Roughly 60,000 Ukrainians lived in the East Village after the Second World War, and they busied themselves ensuring that their culture would survive: they opened restaurants, like Veselka, dishing out pierogies since 1954; Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical churches, bars, eateries, grocery stores, sports clubs.

The area, just east of New York University and anchored along Second Avenue, is still known as the Ukrainian Village. Here, they speak Ukrainian, not Russian. At school, more than half a century later, kids learn the language, culture, geography, traditional dances of Ukraine and, of course, are kept abreast of current events – like the brutal invasion this month that virtually no one expected. "It's important to keep culture alive," a female student told me earlier that day. "It's our identity, passed down by our grandparents during World War Two and I want to make sure it's passed down to my kids."

That Ukraine is again at war is almost unfathomable to Makar. "This is a 1940s thing," he said. "This is absurd. It's shattering and it should not be happening."

'He's costing people their lives'

Earlier on Saturday, students struggled to make sense of what was happening. Second graders in class – all born in America – expressed great concern for Ukraine. A little girl in a Beauty and the Beast mask explained that it's not Russians who are bad, "just their president." They all admitted they'd be scared if they were in a bomb shelter in Ukraine. "In a basement, hiding from bombs, it's very scary and dark," one child said. "Stop the war!" one boy chanted.

In an 8th grade classroom, most hands shot up when asked if they have family or friends in Ukraine. "My uncle and aunt are in Kyiv," said one girl. Another has family in Kharkiv, the city in the northeast where residents hunkered down in the underground metro to escape Russian bombs. A 13-year-old boy challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin's claim that Russian forces had come as "peacekeepers" and were shelling Ukrainian cities to protect Russians in the breakaway provinces, saying "What BS!" Another girl shared that, although born in the US, she traveled to Ukraine every year and she's worried about her friends.

Their teacher broke into tears at the front of the class. "He's sick! No one believes it's about NATO, he wants our land!" she bawled. "And for no good reason, he's costing people their lives."

'An SOS moment'

At Razom, a Ukrainian-American human rights group that's housed on the second floor of the Ukrainian National Home, the last week has been "an SOS moment". They're now laser-focused on fundraising to buy tourniquets, bandages, combat gauzes, sterile pads, and satellite phones in the current conflict, which they ship by way of warehouses and points of delivery in Poland and Ukraine. They've also organized large-scale protests in Washington D.C. and New York.

Razom's office sits adjacent to Veselka, the around-the-clock diner that's been extra busy this week as diners have lined up to show their solidarity with Ukrainian-Americans (and chomp on special edition blue-and-yellow cookies that celebrate the Ukrainian flag). Across the street, long kielbasa hang from hooks in the Baczynsky meat market. In the same general area, you've got Catholoic, Orthodox, and Evangelical Ukrainian churches. The once-concentrated diaspora has geographically spread far and wide, and now the Ukrainian restaurants sit alongside wine bars and sushi joints.

The area still brings together Ukrainian-Americans from all over, and that gravitational pull escalates in times of upheaval back home. In 2004, when the Orange Revolution broke out over a rigged election and the attempted murder of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko – he survived being poisoned with dioxin – many first, second, and third-generation Ukrianian-Americans traveled to Ukraine to volunteer as election monitors and organized lobbying campaigns geared at Washington officials.

"We've seen plenty of older people, seniors who live on a fixed pension, come in and make very generous donations," Genya Kuzmowycz Blahy, C.E.O. of the Self Reliance Federal Credit Union, told the Villager newspaper at the time. "It's like what's going on now in Ukraine is the chance these older people have been waiting on for 50 years." Reverend Bernard Panczuk of St. George's told the Villager that the moment was " an awakening" for Ukrainian-Americans born in the U.S. "that they need to stand up for their country if they want it to be free."

A similar moment came again in 2014, when a revolt on Kyiv's Maiden, or central square, once again rocked Ukraine. That year, President Yanukovych – who had lost to Yushchenko after the Orange Revolution but then took power soon after – reneged on a deal with the International Monetary Fund, pivoting towards an economic agreement with Russia and triggering mass protests known as Euromaidan and Revolution of Dignity. The revolt—which would come to include a minority of unsavory far-right characters—toppled Yanukovych's administration and forced him to flee the country, but not before dozens of protestors were massacred by police in February of 2014.

Putin, a former KGB officer who in 2005 called the collapse of the Soviet empire the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, responded by annexing the Crimean Peninsula, in southeastern Ukraine.

'What can YOU do?'

It was those events that first politicized Maryna Prykhodko, one of Razom's volunteers.

On a blistering cold Friday, a few days before the Russian assault began and as media and world leaders tried to mind-read Putin to no avail, I walked down 2nd Avenue toward Razom's office to meet with Prykhodko.

"We're just young people saving the world," quipped the bright-eyed young woman when I entered.

Razom's office overflows with the standard accouterments of busy nonprofits: passionate young people, more than one coffee maker, papers in chaos, poster boards outlining strategy ("What can YOU do?" in pink marker) and, in this case, stern portraits of Taras Shevchenko, a poet, artist and political activist who memorialized the Ukrainian people's struggles under Tsarist Russia. The nonprofit runs a multitude of ventures aimed at improving conditions in Ukraine, from an initiative helping Ukrainian children with spinal atrophy, to toy drives for the kids of Ukrainian military veterans killed or hurt in battle.

Born in eastern Ukraine in 1995 – four years after the Soviet Union's demise and the prematurely proclaimed "end of history" – Prykhodko immigrated to Florida with her parents when she was 11. She admits she was embarrassed of her heritage. "I tried to hide my parents because they still had accents," she tells me ruefully. That all ended in 2014, when she was a student at NYU, and witnessed the events in Ukraine from abroad. "My life changed forever," she says. Young Ukrainian-Americans, inspired by the protests, built a shrine to the dead.

With all of this going on, Prukhodo felt she needed to find a community that understood what she was going through. "I was emotionally distraught," she says. It didn't help when Russian friends she'd made in college casually labeled her a "fascist" or when a college professor ("How do you say it … 'tankie?'") wrote on his personal blog that an NYU student was spreading U.S. and NATO imperialist propaganda. "Ukraine is a lie," she says she was told.

She had aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews potentially in harm's way. She describes the funeral processions for the young men who came back from fighting the Russian separatists. "When someone dies in Ukraine there's a whole procession, everyone kneels down. Then when the dead bodies of young guys were brought back…. [the processions] were happening constantly. It was overwhelming."

'Do you call America post-British?'

Days before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin waxed nostalgic about the Soviet Union and asserted that modern Ukraine sprung forth from Soviet Russia. "Let's start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, more precisely, by the Bolshevik, communist Russia," he said in a televised address.

For young Ukrainians in the Diaspora – including those who are now rallying help for their embattled homeland – defining the conflict through the prism of Cold War politics is absurd. "Do you call America post-British?" asked Mariia Khorun. Khorun, who's a lawyer, and her husband, Vasyl Khodkhla, a CPA, were both one-year-olds when the last Cold War ended. Now, they both volunteer with Razom.

Putin's Soviet nostalgia and a reboot of the Cold War doesn't interest them. They don't in their own lives remember a time when their country was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. "With Ukraine, Russia is an empire," Khodkhla says. "Without Ukraine, Russia is just another country."

This sentiment is shared widely. A teacher I spoke with at the Self Reliance Saturday school who works as a social worker during the week, told me that her co-workers—Jamaican-Americans, Dominican-Americans, Korean-Americans—raised $1,000 to give her to send to the Ukrainian army.

Khodkhla, sharply dressed in a navy blazer and sporting a pin of conjoined Ukraine-US flags, noted with satisfaction that now people actually know what Ukraine is. Before, Americans assumed, based on his accent, that he's Russian. "They finally realized Ukraine is a different country opposed to Russia's imperialist goals," he said.


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