NEW YORK – Sitting in a Brooklyn apartment last Thursday night, Ivan, Anton and Sasha – three Ukrainians in their 20s who moved to New York over the past five years – were switching between drinking gin, listening to techno, texting intensely and sending WhatsApp audio messages to their kin in Ukraine.
“My mom was supposed to come with my sister on Friday,” Anton said. “She has a green card, and my sister has a U.S. passport. They delayed the flight by a day, and now they’re stuck. It’s so frustrating.”
Ivan’s mother and grandmother live together in Ukraine, and getting out would be too difficult, he said. Sasha’s family, meanwhile, is staying with his grandparents in another part of Kyiv.
“A trolly ride that normally takes 15 minutes now takes three hours, and it would be too long and dangerous to go back home,” he said.
Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans in New York have watched the situation in their home country spiral out of control over the past week. To many, the invasion came as a shock.
“This has been going on for eight years,” Ivan said, referring to the period since fighting began between Russia and Ukraine in eastern Ukraine. “We got used to it, to this constant state of war. But I never thought it would escalate to this, and I never thought Russia would try to take over Kyiv.”
Almost all Ukrainian Americans have family in the old country, and even those whose ancestors immigrated to the United States over a century ago tend to maintain ties with distant relatives.
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For those who grew up in the Soviet Union, memories of a divided Europe are still vivid. But to Ukrainians who only know a post-Soviet world and a Kyiv that has been dubbed a new Berlin – a city of music, nightlife and food – the notion of a second Iron Curtain descending on Europe is shocking.
“We just organized an amazing lineup of DJs before the pandemic,” Sasha said. “It’s much easier to bring top talent to Kyiv than it is to New York. It’s hard to imagine what Kyiv will look like if the war continues. But now I’m just scared for my family.”
A day later, on Friday, at a small hall known as Ukrainian National Home, local elected officials and Ukrainian community leaders held a meeting seeking more military support from the West. The hall is near a major Ukrainian landmark in New York, Veselka, a 24-hour restaurant offering traditional dishes like borscht and stuffed cabbage.
The meeting was part of a weekend of action including a protest in Times Square, a demonstration in front of the Russian Consulate on the Upper East Side, and an LGBTQ solidarity-with-Ukraine event in front of the legendary Stonewall Inn.
Joining the home army
Ronya Lozynskyj, an East Village resident and head of the nonprofit group the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, is galvanizing the community to send a clear message to Washington.
“There has been such integration in the Ukrainian community. Yes, there are differences, especially those who recently came from Ukraine and grew up in different circumstances than I or people who lived in the Soviet Union did. But our basic essences are the same, and that makes it easy to come together to fight for the cause,” Lozynskyj said.
“What we’re focused on now is to get the world to understand we want to stop World War III, and to do that we need to let Ukrainians fight the war: air cover, supplies – to be honest, something like the Iron Dome.”
As we spoke, Lozynskyj looked at her phone and tried to hold back the tears. She showed me a text message from a friend, a singer who just joined the Terrestrial Defense Forces, a unit of the Ukrainian military. It’s a picture of him in an army vest holding a gun.
“Basically, what we need is the Israelization of Ukraine. We have to learn how to live under constant threat,” Lozynskyj said.
“I just sent to friends in Ukraine information from acquaintances working in Israel on how to deal with missile threats. People need to understand that this isn’t just about Ukraine. This could be on Europe’s doorstep very soon.”
On hand at the Ukrainian National Home meeting was Paul Patrick Chomnycky, bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the Northeast, who has been organizing through the church system both locally and nationally.
“Now we’re focused on raising money for what looks like is going to be a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, with over 100,000 Ukrainians having already crossed the borders into Moldova, Poland and Romania,” he said, mentioning a number that is now around 800,000, including Hungary, Slovakia and even Belarus.
He also maintains communication through the churches in Ukraine, whose priests have fled to the west of the country, which is safer for now.
“Make no mistake, for Putin and his allies the Ukrainian Catholic Church is something that needs to be destroyed,” Chomnycky said. “It’s not only a nationalist assault but a religious one.” Many of these Putin allies have Eastern Orthodox roots, the majority religion in Ukraine.
The religious communities came together last weekend at local churches and synagogues where rabbis offered a prayer for peace and security for Ukrainians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Local Jewish groups like Chabad are trying to organize supplies and safe ways out of Ukraine for Jews who need it.
In Little Odessa, a section of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, home to the largest ex-Soviet population in New York, there was an eerie silence as people ate their herring and borscht in local restaurants. For ex-Soviets, the distinction between Russian and Ukrainian feels artificial, with immigrants from Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and other countries from the bloc living in close quarters for over a century.
“The ethos of the Soviet Union was standing against fascism during World War II, and now Russia is acting like Germany did,” one Russian-born resident said. At a protest in front of the Russian Consulate, Mia, who came from Ukraine 12 years ago and declined to give her last name, said Ukrainians deserved better.
“We’re in the 21st century and this abandonment by the West is shocking,” she said. “My generation expected better, and we were promised a better future, a better Europe. We can do better, and I think if we come together – and specifically, if the Russian population begins to stand up – things can be different.”
Despite her worries and frustration, Mia and thousands of Ukrainians living in the diaspora are organizing.
Andrij Dobriansky, a community organizer and director of communications for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, has been trying to spread the word, not only in Washington but in his own community.
“We wanted to let community leaders from the whole country know how bad it could be. Basically, in the past weeks and months our task has been to prepare our communities to the shock and helplessness so many are feeling now. We’re their shoulder to lean on,” Dobriansky said.
“We’re organizing a huge rally on March 6 in Washington, D.C., to put pressure on Congress to pass legislation. Let’s get Ukrainians cover, let’s get them supplies. Despite the huge number of refugees, there’s an even greater number of people who have nowhere to go, whose parents are elderly, people who have no other option but to stay.”
As the situation in Ukraine changes by the hour, Ukrainians living in New York are keeping their phones on, closely following the news and trying to live with the prospect that in an instant everything can change.
Three days after I sat with Anton, Ivan and Sasha, I texted them to see how they and their families were doing. Anton texted back: “Family is fine. Spent the night in a subway car. Came back home. Made dinner. Business as usual.”