Ukrainian-Americans feel effects of Ukraine turmoil in everyday lives

Ukrainian-Americans in the U.S. reflect on the conflict and political turmoil back home.

On most Saturdays since February, 22-year-old Carrie Tkacz has walked past the stately rounded spires of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church and back into school, this time to study Ukrainian language. The words from class, like vegetables and colors, brought her closer to not only her heritage, but specifically her Ukrainian-born grandmother, who would giggle when she got the phrasing wrong.

Photo: Nathan McAlone
The Ukrainian Federal Credit Union promotes a humanitarian aid fund for the Ukrainian army.

Tkacz and two friends started taking language classes this year to show support for the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine, which succeeded in ousting President Viktor Yanukovych in late February.

“Those people were saying, ‘I’m Ukrainian, don’t take that away from me,’” Tkacz said. “I wanted to learn the language and help preserve our culture.”

Most of the sizeable Ukrainian-American community in Syracuse speaks Ukrainian, and the new threat posed by Russia convinced a few of the stragglers to find the time to formally learn it, she said.

The conflict in Ukraine has had an expectedly bittersweet effect on Ukrainian-Americans, said 53-year-old Lida Buniak, a scoutmaster in the Ukrainian scouting organization Plast. While Buniak said it has been painful to watch family members struggling in Ukraine, especially from afar, the perseverance of ordinary Ukrainians has led to a resurgence of pride in Ukrainian culture, and a greater engagement by young Ukrainian-Americans with tradition. The fight to preserve Ukrainian culture can lend a sense of purpose to small acts like donning clothes decorated with “vyshyvka,” traditional Ukrainian embroidery, or larger ones like donating money to the Ukrainian army. 

Plast encourages its scouts, who range in age from six to around seventeen, to speak in Ukrainian 80 percent of the time, Buniak said.

“They used to ask, ‘Why am I learning Ukrainian again? Why are you imposing this on me?’ Now they don’t. They seem to understand the significance of the language," Buniak said. 

But the increased resonance of their Ukrainian identity comes at a price for many Ukrainian-Americans. Buniak, who has family spread all over Ukraine, said there is a constant sense of worry. Tkacz said she feels the shadow of guilt, a sense of how spoiled she is to enjoy the trappings of Ukrainian culture in the safety of the United States. 

Some have bridged this disconnect between the Ukrainian and American sides of their identities by getting involved directly in aiding Ukraine, especially the army. The Ukrainian Federal Credit Union, whose Syracuse branch sits emblazoned in Ukrainian yellow and blue next to where Tkacz studies Ukrainian, facilitates and promotes a humanitarian aid fund for the Ukrainian army run by the nonprofit Ukrainian American Freedom Foundation.

The fund was set up in December to assist protesters in the Euromaidan uprising, but later expanded to the Ukrainian army, said Helen Turyk, a Buffalo resident who helps coordinate the fund.

The fund donates Celox, a product that stops soldiers from bleeding out in the field, which volunteers traveling from the United States to Ukraine deliver directly to the army. The fund also purchases Kevlar vests capable of stopping the armor-piercing bullets used by pro-Russian separatists (“terrorists,” adds Turyk), normally from the Czech Republic where they are cheaper than in the United States, along with night vision goggles and other miscellaneous items. Donations to this fund are tax-deductible and Turyk said over $26,000 dollars has been collected to date. But this fund is just one of many that have sprung up since the political turmoil in Ukraine began.

Larissa Kyj, the president of the United Ukrainian American Relief Committee, an organization which has run various aid projects to Ukraine since 1944—including a current fund for the Ukrainian army—said there is always a “disaster bump” when natural or man-made troubles hit Ukraine.

She estimated that total donations have nearly tripled since the Euromaidan, and that donations have reached close to $1 million in that time period. This money has come from some areas of the country that have never donated before, Kyj said.

“An example is Boston. Boston doesn’t have many Ukrainians. We’ve never really gotten anything from there, but by March a priest was able to collect $65,000,” Kyj said.

Aid money, whether it comes through a nonprofit like the UUARC or through more informal channels, is then usually funneled to Ukraine through either Ukrainian aid organizations or through volunteer couriers from around the world.

Roman Volytskyy, a 54-year-old resident of Syracuse, is one of many independent volunteers who have donated their time and safety to bring supplies over to Ukraine. Irina Dobyuk, translating for the Ukrainian-born Volytskyy, said that on a trip in late June, Volytskyy carried four bags filled with night vision goggles and binoculars on a plane from the United States to Ukraine. Once there, he met up with an aid truck loaded to its 25-ton capacity with supplies and made his way to the city of Izyum, about a dozen miles from the front lines.

“They were risking their lives for sure,” Dobyuk said of Volytskyy and the other volunteers.

But traveling so close to the fighting meant Volytskyy was able to deliver items in person to Ukrainian soldiers, who he said were demonstrably thankful for the support. Volytskyy said he plans to return soon.

The fighting in Ukraine and the plight of the army is intensely personal not just for immigrants like Volytskyy, but also for Ukrainian-Americans like 28-year-old Syracuse University doctoral student Christina Bobesky. The Ukrainian army recently drafted her cousin, who is married with two children, and sent him toward Donetsk, a hotly contested city in eastern Ukraine, she said. Her cousin said they are very underequipped, she added.

However, there are limits to the ways Ukrainian-Americans can fund the Ukrainian army. American nonprofits can’t donate ammunition or weapons, and humanitarian aid might not be enough anymore, Lida Buniak said.

“We are at the point where it doesn’t seem like Russia will back down.” Now Ukraine needs to be better armed, Buniak said. 

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