“This is Our 1776”: Ukrainian Community Speaks Out

“Today, for Ukraine, is 1776 in the United States,” Father Bohdan Hedz of Riverhead’s St. John the Baptist Ukranian Catholic Church told a crowd gathered mid-day Monday outside Riverhead Town Hall in support of the Ukranian resistance to Russia’s attack on their country. “I only hope that 1939 will not happen. It doesn’t seem that way. I pray and hope that Europe realized, that the world realized, what Ukraine has been saying all along. It’s very important for all of us here to spread that awareness about what is going on in Ukraine.”

About 75 people, many of them Ukranian immigrants living in Riverhead, along with neighbors from Poland and Lithuania and representatives from local government, gathered in the cold, waving Ukranian flags, holding high bunches of red virbunum and sunflowers, while singing patriotic Ukranian songs.

As they were singing, night was falling on the fifth day of the war in Ukraine, as a 40-mile-long convoy of Russian military equipment was on the road to the capital city of Kiev, where civilians were taking up arms, preparing Molotov cocktails and fortifying their home against what is anticipated to be a brutal attack.

“Everybody who stands up for democracy in the eyes of Mr. Putin is a Nazi and a drug addict,” said Father Hedz. “Welcome to the club, everybody. That’s what you are in his sick mind. That just tells you how dangerous is this individual we are dealing with. We don’t know what is on his mind right now. We think he has lost his touch with reality.”

Some of his parishoners in the crowd shouted back that Putin did not deserve the honorific “Mr.”

“Slava Ukraini! Heroiam slava!” they cheered, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!”

Many in attendance spoke tearfully with the media as they held high signs, many of which urged NATO to protect Ukranian airspace, which NATO nations have not yet agreed to do because it would require that they enforce that closure and escalate the conflict beyond Ukranian borders.

Ulyana Zyulkovska held back tears as she held high a sign painted on the blue and yellow of the Ukranian flag that read “Save Ukraine. Close the Sky.”

“Help Ukranian people with weapons and medicine for our people,” she said when asked what is needed. “We need clothes, medicine and food for the people, please. Support the Ukranian military and all Ukranian innocent people.”

She said her family in Ukraine was currently safe in Drohobych, near Lviv in western Ukraine, but they weren’t planning to leave the country.

“It’s our native land. We’ll never give up,” she said, adding that the best thing Americans can do is “pray and try to support our people.”

Ihor Yaremchuk shared her sentiment, pointing at a sign that read “Remember the Budapest Memorandum,” a 1994 treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons that included assurances of security against the use of force against the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

“Close the skies,” he said. “Because of the Budapest Memorandum.”

Mr. Yaremchuk said his sister and her husband and two little kids, along with his mom, have moved to the western part of Ukraine, near the border with Poland, which seems at the moment to be safer than Kiev, eastern Ukraine or the area around the Black Sea.

“Everybody is united,” he said of his family and friends in Ukraine who support his country’s independence.

Natalia Kovtunenko grew up in Kiev, and every summer she brings her children, seven-year-old Kevin and five-year-old Kayla, back to visit her mother and grandfather, who are still there. She brought her children to the rally, with their faces painted with Ukrainian flags, as they held their drawings of tanks shooting at buildings that urged an end to the war. She said her children are very worried for their family.

“They have no food and no water,” she said of her relatives in Kiev. “They just sit and wait for help.”

Ms. Kovtunenko held high a sign that read a quote from a viral video of a Ukranian woman handing sunflower seeds, the national flower of Ukraine, to a Russian soldier, saying “Take These Seeds and Put them in Your Pocket So At Least Sunflowers Will Grow When You Die Here.”

She was surrounded by a group of women who were singing the folk song “Kalina Krasnaya,” about the flower red viburnum. The song tells the tale of the brave Ukranian Sich Riflemen, who worked to liberate Ukraine from the Russian Empire during the first World War.

Nadia Gorbachova, who has family is in Kiev, was standing next to Ms. Kovtunenko and her family, singing.

“They’re hiding in their basements, and the men who can serve are serving,” she said, adding that she calls her relatives at about midnight each night, when it’s 7 a.m. in Ukraine, to see if they made it through the night.

“Night is the hardest time,” she said. “That’s when the bad things happen.”

Ms. Gorbachova said her friend’s girlfriends in Kiev are making Molotov cocktails. Her sign read “We Need Actions Not Sanctions.”

She said she has been able to stay in contact with her father in Mykolaiv, on the Black Sea, in part because U.S. cell phone providers have been providing free calls to Ukraine.

“He was scheduled to come here, but it’s not safe,” she said.

Local elected leaders shared words of support, after which the crowd sang the Ukrainian national anthem, “Shche Ne Vmerla Ukrayina,” which is translated as “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished” or “Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet.”

“We must remain united in our resolve and our decisive action to condemn these brutal actions of aggression, and we must continue to impose effective sanctions and provide necessary military aid to our friends in Ukraine,” said Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming. “We’re praying with you and we wish you all safety and security.”

“The Ukraine has every right to defend its borders, to protect its citizens, and to protect its freedom,” said Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar. “It is also disturbing to see the seizure of the Chernobyl nuclear reactors by Russian forces. This act alone poses a terrible danger to the entire world.”

“We are so aware and so deeply concerned about what’s going on in Ukraine today,” said Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman. “We know that we’re a world away, but we can make a difference because we’re showing up, we care, so that everyone in the world knows that in every corner of this globe people are standing with and for the Ukrainian people.”

“We are learning about Ukraine today, and we are understanding who those people are, how brave they are, how fearless they’ve become, the risks they’re taking,” he added. “The president that decided to stay and not take that ride out of there is standing up for his country, and the people of Ukraine are standing up for themselves, not just for Ukraine, but for the entire planet. Everybody knows how this unfolds when a tyrant starts with one country. He then moves on to the next. If we lose Ukraine, we lose neighboring countries as well. We lose Democracy. We lose freedom.”

“In Riverhead, I know there’s such an active and a good church,” said Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, who is circulating a letter in support of the people of Ukraine among the 18 members of the Suffolk County Legislature. “Thank you Rev. Hedz for all your efforts in the community, not just today but every day. It’s hard to believe, in 2022, that you can see this happening today.”

St. John The Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church, which is at 820 Pond View Road, off of Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead, is collecting clothing, toiletries and personal hygiene items to be shipped to Ukraine with the help of Suffolk County. Father Hedz said that, on Saturday afternoon, an elderly woman came by with one tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush.

“She said, ‘Father, this is all I have for now. Is this enough?'” he said. “Yes! This is enough. We will win because of your support.”

“My phone keeps ringing, and I’m sorry if I don’t pick up, because I’m already on the phone with someone else, but your support is very important,” added Father Hedz. “Usually, the way our psyche works is we grab on to something because it is interesting and then we let go. I don’t want this to happen to Ukraine right now, so that we will feel your support until we win. Whether you are Ukraninan or not Ukranian, whether you are American or whoever you are, thank you.

“Slava Ukraini! Heroiam slava!” the crowd cheered again, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!”

Learn more about the ongoing local effort to help Ukraine at St. John The Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church’s Facebook page.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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