New York’s Ukrainians find sense of purpose amid distant crisis

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A memorial has sprung up honoring those who were killed in the Kiev clashes outside the Ukrainian American Youth Association in the East Village. Credit: Emily Johnson

When news broke two weeks ago that former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych had been ousted following a day of terrible bloodshed in Kiev, many people in New York’s Ukrainian expat community found themselves naturally gravitating toward Veselka.

The restaurant, which serves traditional foods like borscht and pierogies 24 hours a day, has been a mainstay of the Little Ukraine community in the East Village for nearly 50 years. It offers solace in comfort food and conversation with others who fear for distant friends and family during times of crisis.

With Russian president Vladamir Putin’s aggressive move to wrest control of Crimea from Ukraine, Veselka continues to be unusually busy of late.

Stanislav Motrenko, 20, has been working at the restaurant for nearly a year since he arrived in New York from Ukraine. His parents and sister are never far from his mind.

“I usually call them once a week,” he said. “But now I call every day, almost, because I’m worried.”

An anti-Putin sign stands outside of Veselka on 2nd Avenue in the East Village. Credit: Emily Johnson
An anti-Putin sign stands outside of Veselka on 2nd Avenue in the East Village. Credit: Emily Johnson

The diner is just one of several rallying points for a community that has found a sense of purpose in solidarity. Some are other well-loved brick-and-mortar establishments: the Ukrainian American Youth Association, where a memorial has sprung up honoring those who were killed in the Kiev clashes, and the Ukrainian Museum, which has also seen increased foot traffic in recent weeks.

Natalie Sonevytsky, 79, who came to the United States at age 14 as part of the “third wave” of immigrants after World War II, sat at the museum’s front desk on Wednesday. A large screen behind her played a slideshow of images from the latest standoff in Crimea.

“People come in just to talk to another Ukrainian,” she said.

Another woman entered and asked Sonevytsky in accented English if she’d heard the news that the European Union had offered $15 billion in aid to Ukraine. Together, they shook their heads over Vladimar Putin’s Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

“We kept saying, wait until the Olympiad ends, Putin will show his true horns then,” Sonevytsky said. “And that prophecy unfortunately came true.”

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Natalie Sonevytsky, 79, came to the United States from Ukraine at age 14. She volunteers at the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village and sits on its board of trustees. Credit: Emily Johnson

These conversations are what get Sonevytsky, who says she watches the news obsessively, through the day.

But some of the most productive dialogue is taking place digitally, as young, tech-savvy Ukrainians pour their energy into mobilizing online.

Mariya Soroka, who immigrated to the United States ten years ago when she was fifteen, is one of the founders of online activist group Razom for Ukraine, which translates to Together for Ukraine.

What began as an informal gathering of five people in early December, shortly after protests broke out in Kiev, has rapidly evolved into a nonprofit organization run by more than 100 volunteers around the world.

“In three months we accomplished so much, just being inspired by people in Ukraine,” said Soroka, who participated in the early days of the Kiev protests before returning to New York.

“We started collecting money for protesters in Maidan, which is the main square in Kiev, then money for medical assistance for the victims, for people who are still injured, and kids of the people who died,” she said. “Almost 100 people died.”

Sunday's demonstration drew thousands of protesters on a march from Bryant Park to the Russian consulate uptown. Credit: Razom for Ukraine
Sunday’s demonstration drew thousands of protesters on a march from Bryant Park to the Russian consulate uptown. Credit: Razom for Ukraine

Razom for Ukraine also seeks to provide an alternative to the western media, translating and posting stories by Ukrainian reporters to its social media accounts. It has been instrumental in organizing protests like the one on Sunday that saw nearly 3,000 people march from Bryant Park to the Russian consulate on 91st Street, where they were joined by Russian protesters who had taken up their cause.

Two buses will ferry protesters from the East Village to Washington, D.C. early on Thursday morning for an anti-Putin demonstration set to take place across from the White House.

“This is the beginning,” Soroka said. “There’s a lot of work to do. The true victory would be if a real uprising starts to happen in Russia.”

Follow Emily Johnson on Twitter @emilyjreports



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