Mariya Soroka, 25, is sitting outside a coffee shop in the East Village on a crisp, blue- skied Saturday afternoon. Although at this moment she’s 4,672 miles away from the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, her thoughts have rarely been far from there over the last three months.
She’s one of the founding members of Razom, a group of about 100 young volunteers spread between NYC, Kiev and other parts of the world. They work to support anti- Russian protestors in the midst of the volatile situation in Ukraine. So far they’ve collected about $150,000 US dollars, and used half of that to buy and send supplies to Kiev.
E. 14th Street, NYC — the Maidan, Kiev, Ukraine
Soroka grew up in Ukraine until she was fifteen, when she moved to the U.S. with her mother. Her father still lives in Kiev — he’s been taking supplies to demonstrators in the Maidan on a daily basis for the last few weeks. Though it worries her, she says she supports his decision to be actively involved.
“He’s in the epicenter of everything that’s going on. He’s been a volunteer at Maidan almost every day. I talk to him on Skype a lot and when the violence started I was begging him to stay at home and stay safe,” she says.
When the anti- government protests first began last December, she heard about the students gathering in the Maidan via Ukrainian friends and Facebook. She decided that was where she needed to be, on the front line.
“I just couldn’t watch it from so far away,” she says.
Since coming back to New York, she has watched with the world as former President Yanukovich stepped down, as Russian forces advance into the western Ukrainian region of Crimea, as the conflict escalates. So far more than 100 people have died during conflicts across the country, according to local media.
She’s trying to get on with her day job at a tech start up while planning protests, relief funds, and projects to send psychologists to begin to treat the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that people are facing through the violence and unrest.
“People have seen dead people on the streets in Kiev and that is just traumatizing,” she says.
The border conflict stirs up the memory of another tumultuous period in Ukraine’s history for 85-year-old Tekla Hnaty Shyn.
Mrs. Tekla, as she’s known in community circles, was evicted from her village during World War II and sent on a journey that lead her family across borders and through a year of hiding in a forest, before landing in western Poland.
By then, Mrs. Tekla’s sister had been killed and the people of her village completely separated. She resolved to marry only a Ukrainian man and eventually did just that — in a church in New York City. She originally came on a tourist visa.
“I came on holiday and I have been on holiday ever since,” she laughs.
But it hasn’t always been easy to be this far away from the family and friends she has back in Ukraine, especially when the country’s future is so uncertain. She worries about her country, but also what the latest Russian moves might mean for the rest of the region and the world.
She’s intent on making her opinion count.
“I went to the [anti- Russian] protest in Midtown with my walker,” she says, “I go. I only do not go if it is snowing — because it is too hard you know with the walker.”
For Ivanka Zajac, 62, it has been an exhausting couple of weeks. She’s the President of the Ukrainian Congress Committee’s New York branch. With the situation in Ukraine moving and changing rapidly from day to day, it’s been a challenge to keep up.
She says she’s been working constantly — between protests, gathering relief funds, and keeping community members in the loop about the latest.
But she’s certainly not alone in her efforts. Ukrainians in New York have been active and vocal about their concerns over Russia’s actions in Crimea, and the specter of corruption lurking in their own government. Zajac says the conflict has mobilized an already very active community in New York, where children learn about defending their homeland from an early age.
Zajac used to teach young Ukrainian Americans language, culture and history in weekend Ukrainian school. She has passed down a legacy of connection with the struggles in Ukraine.
“I was telling some of the younger people that I remember as being a little girl here going to Saturday Ukrianian school and being told that you have to grow up, you have to know your history because and you have to know that some day you might to still need to protect your country,” she says, “Because there is still an enemy out there who might want to take your land away.”
Lesia Harhaj, 29, was one of her students.
Harhaj travelled to Ukraine in 2006 as an election monitor, and hopes to do the same in May this year.
She says getting involved is something she doesn’t even question. For her, it’s about appreciating the stability and democracy she has experienced her whole life in the U.S., and bringing that to bear on her work in Ukraine.
Harhaj is optimistic, for now, that recent events will bring about real change in the political system.
Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited the White House last week as the Crimea voted for independence from Ukraine in elections. The legitimacy of the vote is questionable, since it did not meet internationally recognized election criteria. Russia is still poised to take control of the region, and global leaders including the U.S. have pledged support for the Ukrainian interim government.
Meanwhile, these four Ukrainian American women work with their friends and family, doing what they can from the East Village - the heart of the Ukrainian community in New York City - some 4,672 miles from the Maidan, from Kiev, and from the change that’s inevitably taking shape in their homeland across the ocean.
St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, East 7th Street, New York N.Y.