The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. grieves, pleads for peace as conflict escalates in their homeland

Dozens of pro-Ukrainian activists and Ukrainian Americans rally outside the United Nations in New York City as world leaders gather there to discuss the increasing tension with Russia on Feb. 17, 2022. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

CHICAGO — The screen inside the Ukrainian National Museum flashed with images of gunfire, helmeted young protesters and bloodied bodies. In one massive photo propped against a wall, a lone Ukrainian protester waves the country’s blue and yellow flag as fire burns around him.

The scenes shown to the packed museum crowd in Chicago late Saturday were not from Ukraine’s eastern border, where a growing mass of Russian military forces has sparked fears of a full-on invasion, but from 2014, when more than 100 anti-government protesters were killed in the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv.

Hailing from a country where past conflict is often a prologue, Ukrainian Americans were commemorating one conflict while being mired in another.

“I’m concerned and honestly I’m scared,” Halyna Parasiuk, 47, an archivist at the museum with two adult sons in Ukraine. “When President Biden said it could be war, I was like, ‘Oh my God. Can you imagine how many people could be victims? Millions and millions.’”

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

In recent days, the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States has been holding vigils, praying and protesting in hopes of persuading Congress, Biden and other Western leaders to aid Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia. The mounting tensions fall around the same time each year that Ukrainians commemorate those killed in the 2014 protests.

With each new sign of war, a wave of grief and worry ripples across the Atlantic, reaching Ukrainian enclaves in the United States, like the roughly 100,000 who live in the Chicagoland area and are densely settled in Ukrainian Village, a historic neighborhood on the city’s West Side. There are over a million Ukrainians living in the United States — one of the largest populations in the West outside Ukraine, second only to Canada.

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

Many are like Parasiuk and have either immigrated during the past eight years of conflict, or put down deep roots in America while immediate relatives still live in Ukraine. While some are grateful that much of the broader public is starting to recognize the situation in Ukraine, there is wariness — and frustration — that Western leaders may be doing too little, too late.

“We are a country that just wants independence, but we keep getting repressed,” said 26-year-old Ukrainian Tanya Fernandez, who came to the United States last year to live with her Mexican American husband in Chicago, but whose family remains in Ukraine.

“A lot of people got the idea that the conflict is new, but it’s not something that just appeared. Ukraine has been having bad times, but we’ve been living with it: Kids are still growing up, people are still going to work,” Fernandez said. “At the same time, you always feel uncomfortable.”

The Ukrainian American population is scattered across the country but heavily concentrated in robust communities around Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio. Some trace their arrival to early waves of immigration that immediately followed the end of World War I and Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Russian Republic in 1918. Decades later, after Ukraine broke from the Soviet Union, many in the less economically-developed western part of the country moved to the United States for more opportunity.

No matter the wave of migration, however, many keep close ties to their homeland.

Inside a Russian disinformation campaign in Ukraine in 2014

“It’s almost like it could be any moment that you wake up, and you find out that your home country does not exist anymore,” said Marianna Klochko, the president of the Ukrainian Cultural Association of Central Ohio. “That’s the level of fear we’re facing and it’s a surreal experience.”

Throughout her life, Klochko, 47, has witnessed different iterations of Ukraine’s history. She was born in the Soviet era, grew up amid the Iron Curtain’s fall and left Ukraine as it developed into an independent democracy. The past two decades of escalating tensions with Russia are ones she has witnessed from afar — and that by itself brings its own distinctive type of pain, she said.

Most days, it’s like having her body in the United States but her heart and head firmly planted some 5,000 miles away.

“You’re observing it, but you’re not there, but you also feel what your own people are feeling,” she said. “The worst part is the frustration of knowing there’s nothing you can do to help.”

President Zelensky declared a national day of unity as the U.S. warned of Russian military escalation. For most Ukrainians, it was just another Wednesday. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming, Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post, Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Ukraine has been defending itself from its northern neighbor since 2014, when unmarked Russian troops moved in to occupy Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The conflict erupted into a war between Russian-backed forces and the Ukrainian military in the eastern region of Donbas, now held by separatists. The ongoing attacks in the area have claimed thousands of lives.

For many Ukrainian Americans in the United States, the Budapest Memorandum remains a point of contention. Under the 1994 agreement, Ukraine gave up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees that the signatories — which included Belarus, Great Britain, Kazakhstan, Russia and the United States — would respect Ukraine’s territorial and political sovereignty. Many feel that if the United States and others had honored the accord, they would have stopped Russian troops in 2014 from invading and prevented future conflict.

“It’s like somebody breaks into your house, you call the police and the police doesn’t come. That’s basically the metaphor for what’s happening right now,” Klochko said.

Biden reiterates U.S. commitment to respond ‘swiftly and decisively’ to a Russian attack

Andrew Nynka is the editor in chief of the Ukrainian Weekly, a nearly 90-year-old English-language paper for the Ukrainian diaspora based in New Jersey. He said many in the diaspora feel “something is owed to Ukraine” for yielding the best leverage it had to protect itself in the service of greater peace.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Nynka said. “I’m not going to lie and say Ukraine doesn’t have problems and difficulties. But let’s not overlook the fact that millions of Ukrainians have said in the face of violence and aggression that they want to be a democracy and that they want to be a peaceful society.”

The reluctance to intervene in Ukraine on the part of some Western leaders, including a vocal minority of Republicans, has confounded Ukrainians.

“We have no dog in the Ukraine fight,” Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) tweeted on Jan. 22. “Not one American soldier should die there. Not one American bullet should be fired there.”

Inside a Russian disinformation campaign in Ukraine in 2014

Ukrainian Americans contend supporting Ukraine is not only the morally right thing to do, but it is in the interest of any democratic country to support Ukraine as a bulwark against an autocratic Russia.

“Ukraine wants to stand up to autocracy, and they have a democracy and want to keep it,” said Askold Kozbur, a Ukrainian American who gathered at the memorial in Chicago Saturday. “We should care, because if Putin gets his way, he’s just going to keep going.”

Oleh Kotsyuba, manager of publications at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute, pointed back to the commitment the United States made with the Budapest Memorandum. The United States backtracking on its promise to help Ukraine protect its sovereignty would weaken the incentive for other nuclear countries to disarm, he said.

“If the U.S. is trying to encourage Iran or India not to develop weapons, they should be very careful about not protecting Ukraine; if that happens, everyone will try to get nuclear weapons because it will appear to be the only way to protect your sovereignty,” Kotsyuba said.

“On the human level, if the U.S. were dealing with something, they would want their friends and allies to come and help,” Kotsyuba added.

Kotsyuba, who has immediate family in Ukraine in the south and west, said his relatives are “extremely concerned” and have begun to prepare for the reality that no one comes to Ukraine’s aid. Some are gathering provisions, stocking up on supplies, making evacuation plans, taking self-defense classes and learning to shoot a rifle.

“What else are you supposed to do?” he said. “A lot of people haven’t realized Ukraine has an extremely robust, well-organized civil society. People aren’t going to wait for someone else to tell them to do something. They’re going to get ready.”

Parasiuk, the museum archivist in Chicago, is hopeful it doesn’t come to that.

“Peace in the world is what we need,” she said. “Maybe it’s just the small message of a Ukrainian mom, but I would like to say to all politicians: Please, just think about the little babies and what they need. It’s peace.”

Paúl reported from Lakeville, Minn.