Los Angeles, California – In response to Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States and Canada is demonstrating, fundraising, organising social media campaigns, and calling on their elected leaders to act.
On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine, bombing cities across the country, including the capital, Kyiv, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at least 137 Ukrainians had been killed on the first day of the attack.
Watching the news from New York City, Ukrainian-born Dmytro Shein felt the urge to help. His grandmother had moved from Ukraine to the US in the 1990s, and he and his mother followed in the early 2000s. His father, uncles and aunts still live in Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine.
The city has not been bombed, but the family members have started packing their bags. If anything happens, Shein said they plan to hide in a movie theatre that the city is converting into a bomb shelter.
“Even when we’re checking in with family, it feels like people haven’t realised yet what’s happening,” he told Al Jazeera.
He had never launched a fundraiser before, but his girlfriend suggested he start one to finance food, fuel and legal fees, in case his family needs to flee Ukraine. In less than 24 hours, the fundraiser was halfway to its $8,000 goal.
He called the Russian invasion “strange and shocking”, adding: “I am really trying to check in and do what I can.
“I hope we come out of this OK, not too battered,” he said.
Rallies spring up
Other Ukrainian Americans also want to help.
Andrij Dobriansky, director of communications for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA), noted that in the first hours after the Russian invasion people rallied at 4am (09:00 GMT) in front of the Russian embassy in Washington, DC, and flash mobs popped up in New York City.
“Those events sprang up almost instantly even though people barely slept,” Dobriansky told Al Jazeera. He has been encouraging the Ukrainian diaspora to contact their local leaders no matter where they are in the US.
“People want to feel empowered,” he explained. “When you’re sitting at home watching these horrible things on the news, you need to give people the opportunity to do something, whether that’s donating online, or actually physically gathering somewhere.”
Dobriansky’s father was a child in Poland in 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded, sparking World War II. He lived in a displaced persons camp, and eventually migrated to the US.
Dobriansky grew up in New York City’s East Village steeped in Ukrainian culture – performing folk dances with other members of the community. Although they were born in the US, many of his friends have since moved to Ukraine and started families there, some in search of their cultural heritage. As Russia bombs their new homeland, they are making difficult decisions about next steps.
“Everybody had a plan of maybe moving,” Dobriansky told Al Jazeera. “But the way the bombing went, it looks like, either you stay and fight in some way and hold your territory, or you’re leaving the country altogether.”
US officials have repeatedly warned Americans to leave Ukraine, and have said the US government will not evacuate them if they stay. “None of them have left the country yet, but they are having hard discussions,” Dobriansky said of his friends.
He has found himself explaining to New Yorkers why his friends do not want to leave Ukraine: “Would you leave if a bunch of tanks showed up in the middle of [New York City neighbourhood] Jackson Heights and said, ‘You can’t live here anymore?’ I don’t think that’s the American spirit either.”
Canadian Orest Zakydalsky is part of the vibrant Ukrainian diaspora there, the result of a long history of Ukrainians immigrating to the country. Many, like Zakydalsky’s parents, came as refugees during World War II.
As senior policy adviser for the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Zakydalsky is helping put together rallies and pushing the federal government to take action. “We are organising protests all over Canada to make sure people see and hear and know what’s going on,” he said.
The UCCA wants Canada to help Ukraine defend itself, to sanction Russia, and to aid Ukrainians who are leaving the country. The group has been speaking with Canadian government officials to urge unified action with allies – and call for a swift humanitarian response.
Amid warnings that the current conflict could result in a wave of Ukrainian refugees, the UCCA has advocated for the government to relax immigration rules and develop a hotline for fleeing Ukrainian nationals.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Thursday that his government will expedite immigration applications from Ukraine. It also has set up a hotline for immigration inquiries. Canada’s immigration department says more changes are coming “in the near future”.
Zakydalsky called the Russian attack “one of the greatest evils we have seen in Europe since World War II”.
He told Al Jazeera that he worries for friends still in Ukraine. “It’s both difficult and surreal,” he said of the invasion. “It’s difficult to comprehend what’s going on, and that’s compounded by worry for people you care about.”
Meanwhile, Dobriansky emphasised that Ukrainians are resilient after surviving historical oppression. He said his great-grandfather, a music teacher, was beaten to death for teaching in the Ukrainian language.
“Somehow the Ukrainian culture, the Ukrainian religious practices, the Ukrainian language have all continued to flourish,” he said. “So no matter what’s happening now, you turn to the first words of our national anthem, ‘Ukraine has not yet perished.’ That’s our calling, that’s our pride, we’re not dead yet. Try as you might, it’s not going to happen.”