Chicago's Ukrainian Village can't look away from Kyiv



Richard Mertens

CHICAGO — When business ended Thursday afternoon, employees at the Selfreliance Ukrainian American Federal Credit Union gathered in the lobby to remember the dead in Kyiv.

Two dozen stood with their heads bowed as CEO Bohdan Watral, a short man in glasses and a gray suit, led the mournful singing of “Vechnaya Pamyat,” or “Memory Eternal,” a Church Slavonic funeral chant.

Ogla Yakymets, a 48-year-old bookkeeper with the credit union, wore a black dress. She looked on the verge of tears.

“I feel like black,” she said. “I want to cry. It’s the color of death. It’s my feeling now.”

Yakymets has lived in the United States since 1999, but most of her family is still back in Kyiv. She was thinking especially of her 44-year-old brother Dmytro, an opposition protester whom she says was beaten by security forces three weeks ago and taken to a prison hospital. He is well now, but under house arrest, she said — his future as uncertain as that of his country.

Saturday morning, that sentiment rang truer than ever. Protesters laid claim to Kyiv and scrambled to fill the power vacuum after President Viktor Yanukovych fled to eastern Ukraine.  

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“I worry because people don’t know what we can do,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen in our country.”

The credit union is in the heart of Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, a neighborhood that’s home to one of the largest Ukrainian communities in the United States.

One million Ukrainians live in the US, according to the US Census Bureau, the second-largest diaspora community outside the former Soviet Union behind Canada. Of the one million, 46,000 are officially counted in the Chicago area — though local Ukrainian-Americans estimate the real number is closer to 150,000.

Many interviewed in the community expressed the same sense of helplessless and uncertainty, mingled with horror and anger, as extraordinary violence erupted in Kyiv this week. Conversations inevitably veered to anxious talk about “Maidan,” as Ukrainians call the capital’s Independence Square — where the bulk of anti-government protests, and deaths, have occurred.

The first Ukrainian was said to have sailed to America with Capt. John Smith on the Mayflower, but most have arrived over the last century. Many came after World War II, fleeing the Soviet occupation of their country. Even more arrived in the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell.

Ukrainian-Americans own or manage many of the businesses in Ukrainian Village, on Chicago’s west side; signs are printed in both English and Cyrillic. Cultural institutions like the Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago and schools where Ukrainian children go on Saturdays to learn their mother tongue are also here. (Mike Ditka, the former Chicago Bear and himself one of Chicago’s most beloved cultural institutions, is of Ukrainian descent. He was born Michael Dyczko.)

Residents here have for three months been focused on the unfolding crisis in Ukraine.

On Thursday, half a dozen men sat on barstools at the Ukrainian American Club, transfixed by the scenes of chaos playing out on a TV screen flanked by broadcasts of soccer and Olympic hockey. Wasyl Abramiuk,70, said it’s been impossible to keep his mind off the grave developments 5,000 miles from here.

The bar at Chicago's Ukrainian American Club on Feb. 20, 2014. (Richard Mertens/GlobalPost)

“I’ve been following it from the very beginning” months ago, said Abramiuk, a retired construction worker. A beer which he hardly touched sat in front of him as he stared at the television. “You can ask anyone here. Most people have been watching.”

For many Ukrainian Americans, especially the older ones, the events in Kyiv this week have been painful reminders of past suffering, much of it at the hands of the Soviet Union. Those earlier traumas include the great famine that Stalin inflicted on Ukraine in 1932-33, which killed millions, and the dislocation of many Ukrainians toward the end of World War II. There’s little love in Ukrainian Village for Russia, whom most believe was working behind the scenes to aid this week’s brutal crackdown.

“During the war, we were running from the Russians,” said Abramiuk. His parents fled Ukraine with their son at the end of World War II, moving first to Austria, then Brazil, and finally, in 1959, to the United States.

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Most people interviewed Thursday said they want Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to go — violently if necessary — and hoped fervently that the European Union and the United States would successfully intervene.

“They just need to make pressure” on Yanukovych, said Vladimir Zeleni, 48, a construction contractor who came to the United States from Ukraine in 1993. “It would make a difference.”

By Saturday, it seemed Zeleni had all but gotten his wish. Yanukovych was said to be in Kharkhiv, close to Russia, and protesters entered his Kyiv residence after it was abandoned by police. Change appeared to be taking hold swiftly.

For 21-year-old Olga Smetaniuk, the bartender at Chicago's Ukrainian American Club, it was painful not to be back home. She was the only woman in the room on Thursday and the most recent immigrant. She won a green card lottery and arrived in Chicago just six months ago.

“It’s awful what’s going on,” she said. “I can’t help because I’m here. I just pray for everyone there." She had just heard that her father, a doctor from a city in western Ukraine, was travelling to the capital with a group of physicians to help treat the wounded.

“I’m worried,” she said. “He could die.”

Plenty of people here, however, are finding small ways to help. At the office of a local shipping company, Ola Shumska, 57, who works as a cleaner, came in from outside, rain dripping off her jacket.

Ola Shumska. (Richard Mertens/GlobalPost)

“I couldn’t sleep  all night,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything. I wanted to know if these guys were doing anything for the people in Ukraine.”

Three weeks ago, the company run by Ukrainian-Americans sent a 12,000-pound container of donated clothes, medical supplies and other goods to Ukraine. Now, concerned the shipments will be blocked, manager Maria Iwanec says they’re instead collecting money. A coffee can sits on her desk with “MAIDAN” hand-printed in capital letters on the side.

So far she's collected $30,000 to send to opposition groups.

“When I was little, Ukraine was under Russia,” said Iwanec, who asked that her company not be named for fear it would hurt her business. “My parents were always saying Ukraine will one day be free.”

George Mycyk, a cameraman for a local television station, was coming home from a long night Thursday covering flooding in around Chicago. The American public is only now beginning to pay attention to a conflict that most Ukrainian-Americans have been worrying over for a long time, he said.

Mycyk said his wife spends her days mostly at home on the computer, compiling information in Ukrainian about events from social media. The couple recently made a video montage of Ukrainian vigils in Chicago to send to protesters in Ukraine.

“It energizes them to know that people in cities across the world care about them and are paying attention,” Mycyk said.

At the Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago, curator Maria Klimchak, 52, was following the news closely. But she also was thinking ahead to next month, when the museum celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko.

Born a serf in 1814, Shevchenko is “like an icon” to the Ukrainian people, Klimchak said. The time is ripe, she said, to honor a poet who wrote often about the yearning to be free.

“Every word he said about freedom applies now.”

Maria Klimchak, curator of the Ukrainian National Museum. (Richard Mertens/GlobalPost)