The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Praying and protesting in Washington, they wait for news from Ukraine

Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans in D.C. area fear for their families as Russian threat looms

Tamara Woroby, parish council president at St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, at her home in Silver Spring, Md., on Jan. 27. “Everybody’s praying,” she said of the local Ukrainian community. “I guess that’s all we can do now.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Worry. Worry. And more worry.

For the past few weeks, Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans in the Washington region have been glued to the news, anxiously assessing developments in their homeland, where more than 100,000 Russian troops have amassed just across the border.

They wake up wondering what happened while they slept. They monitor the mood in Ukraine through daily Skype chats and emails with family and friends. And they read competing coverage from Ukrainian and Russian newspapers to decipher hints of what might come next. Invasion seems possible at any moment.

“Everybody’s waiting for the other shoe to fall,” said Tamara Woroby, 68, who serves as the parish council president at St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Silver Spring, which has hosted an annual Ukrainian festival for the past 18 years. “Everybody’s praying. I guess that’s all we can do now.”

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Some have turned to protest, too. In the past two weeks, supporters of the country have gathered in front of the White House and the Russian Embassy to condemn Russia’s actions and to ask the Biden administration and Congress for additional U.S. assistance for Ukraine. Organizers are planning a larger protest Saturday afternoon at Lafayette Square Park, where they are asking the United States to levy sanctions on Russia.

Woroby, whose parents were Ukrainian refugees following World War II and found asylum in Canada, puts the blame for the current situation squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces annexed Crimea in 2014. That same year, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine began a conflict with Kyiv’s armed forces that has claimed nearly 14,000 lives.

“This is one person, one dictator, who has an inordinate amount of land, fantastic resources, a highly educated population,” Woroby said. “He’s got so much to work with. Why would he not focus on creating a thriving, happy, growing economy? Why would he be behaving this way? It’s beyond me.”

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on Feb. 20 to show support to Ukraine amid fears of a Russian invasion. (Video: Reuters)

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While many Ukrainians in the Washington region are from families who moved to the United States two or three generations ago, others, such as Oleh Vretsona, a lawyer who lives in Virginia with his wife and two teenage children, are more recent arrivals.

Vretsona, 46, was born in Ukraine and moved to the United States in 2002. He makes regular trips back home to see his parents and friends and family. On his most recent visit, just a few weeks ago, Vretsona noticed a decidedly different atmosphere.

“I saw amongst my friends and relatives more concern because there’s more discussion of a broader aggression,” he said. “This has changed the dynamic and how people are thinking about it, and worried about it. Many Ukrainians are prepared to defend the country, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not worried.”

Vretsona, who called himself an optimist by nature, said he is hopeful the current standoff can be resolved diplomatically. “I just hope for the best and pray for the best,” he said.

The Ukrainian population in the Washington region is not as large as it is in some other U.S. cities, particularly Chicago or New York, but there are several Ukrainian churches, a Ukrainian school, and a number of social and activist groups that bring Ukrainians together in the area.

Tanya Murza is the principal of the Taras Shevchenko School of Ukrainian Studies in Bethesda, which offers Saturday classes in Ukrainian history, culture and language to children from across the Washington region. The past few weeks “have been full of worrying,” said Murza, 44, who was born and raised in Ukraine and moved to the Washington area about 15 years ago. She’s in regular contact with friends and family here and back home about the crisis.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Murza said. “We all are hoping for the political solution to this versus actual war.”

Murza said her fear is that the ongoing conflict on Ukraine’s eastern border will turn into a large-scale battle.

“The worry is for an even more active war to come into the bigger territory of Ukraine now and all the casualties and all of the problems coming with the war,” she said.

Ken Bossong isn’t Ukrainian, but he spent three years there in the Peace Corps beginning in 2000. And Bossong, 71, said he fell in love with the country and its people immediately.

Now living in Maryland, he sends out a weekly email newsletter to Ukrainians and friends of Ukraine around Washington about upcoming events such as lectures, festivals, mixers and, these days, protests, prayer services and fundraisers.

“The number of events has exploded in the last two weeks,” Bossong said. “There’s a lot more concern about what is happening.”

While he was living in Ukraine, and during his return visits, Bossong said he was struck by the push for a freer and more open society. “It was very clear that there was a great desire to see their country evolve democratically, especially among the younger people,” he said. “I’ve been very impressed with the dedication to moving the country forward. The common theme is that people are moving away from the Russian mentality and more toward a European, Western mentality.”

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Many of the people interviewed for this story said their relatives and friends in Ukraine are staying calm and, at the direction of Ukraine’s leadership, trying not to panic. But they are also preparing for the worst. Some have plans to flee. Others will stay and fight.

“From the friends that I speak to, everybody says that in case of invasion, they’re going to fight till the end,” said Kate, 35, a school administrator in Washington, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used because her parents live in Ukraine and she has relatives in Russia. “Even my father said, ‘Yeah, I’m almost 60, but I will still go and fight,’” she said.

She, too, keeps a close eye on the news and tries to determine whether Putin will pull back his troops. Whatever the Russian leader decides, she knows, will be monumental for her country.

“I really hope he’s bluffing,” she said. “Because if he’s not, I mean, Ukraine probably is not going to exist as a country if he decides to take it.”