Local Ukrainians look back on a year of war

BOSTON -- Father Yaroslav Nalysnyk, the pastor of Christ the King Ukrainian Catholic Church in Jamaica Plain, recalled feeling "disbelief" and "numbness" when Russia's invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022.

He said that while he believes in "the best of human nature," all his philosophy "crashed in one day."

Father Nalysnyk grew up in the former Soviet Union. His mother, who is in her 90s, and his siblings, nieces, and nephews still live in Ukraine. He said that immediately after the aggression began, his mother warned him, "This is another genocide. Be ready." Ukraine had experienced a man-made famine in 1933 called the Holodomor, which has since been recognized as a genocide against the Ukrainian people by the Soviet regime.

"I couldn't accept this reality. Genocide, again?" Father Nalysnyk said. But he eventually had to agree, as Russian forces not only destroyed Ukraine's infrastructure but also killed civilians, including children.

During the first days of the invasion, Father Nalysnyk established a credo for his parish: "Prayer, Truth, Action, Justice, and Love." He said he put prayer as the "first principle" because they believe God is with them in the midst of their suffering. The second, truth, involves telling the world about Ukraine's national identity, including their unique culture, language, spirituality, and moral values. It also means telling the truth about Russia's injustices toward Ukraine.

"This practical credo helped us to focus (on) what is important for us people of faith," Father Nalysnyk said.

Throughout the past year, the parish has held a prayer service for peace in Ukraine every Wednesday evening. Between 20 and 30 refugee families have come there to worship, as well as some Ukrainian soldiers who were sent to Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment.

Speaking to The Pilot in late February, Father Nalysnyk expressed gratitude for the support they received from the Archdiocese of Boston -- from Cardinal O'Malley to the Catholic schools to individual children offering their pocket money. On one occasion, when Father Nalysnyk was visiting the Mission Church in Boston, he was approached by a young boy, Kevin, who offered a few dollars he had saved to help the children in Ukraine. One young girl, Romy, set up a lemonade stand and raised over $100 for the parish to put toward Ukraine relief.

"It was so beautiful. They touched our hearts. Yes, this is war, you see a lot of things happening in Ukraine, but at the same time, good people, especially children, are showing the best of humanity," Father Nalysnyk said.

In addition to serving as a center of prayer, Christ the King Parish has also allowed other Ukrainian organizations to use their facilities.

One of these is the Ridna Shkola, a weekly Ukrainian language school, which meets for lessons each Saturday. The parish has provided them with classroom space, and also created a scholarship for refugee children to attend the school, which teaches the Ukrainian language, history, and culture to children ages four through 12.

Alona Popova, co-director of the Ridna Shkola, said that the school has doubled its number of students over the past year. In addition to meeting at Christ the King each Saturday, they also have online classes for those who cannot attend in person.

"We were very happy that we have both our schools, that we have our online and offline format, because we give people what they need," she said.

The parish also allows Ukraine Forward, an initiative of the Ukrainian American Educational Center of Boston, to use their facilities for storing and packing donations.

Ukraine Forward was organized immediately after the invasion to collect funds, tactical medicine, and other supplies to be shipped to Ukraine. Hospitals have provided them with lists of needed items, which donors can purchase through online wish lists.

Ukraine Forward President Myron Kravchuk said that initially, they did not even need to ask for donations.

"At the beginning of the open invasion, people were so touched, and there was no need even to ask, there was just need to show how they can help, in what way," he said.

Working with local businesses and community organizations, Ukraine Forward has held over 20 fundraisers and donation drives over the past year.

Ivanka Roberts, president of the Ukrainian Cultural Center of New England, said that the war has been hard for everyone who has a connection with Ukraine, whether through close family, distant relatives, or simply knowing it is their family's homeland.

"It's all been hard just because we do not really know how it is when you're there. Here we are constantly living in worry because we just don't know," Roberts said.

She said the people in Ukraine have become used to the reality of war, and continue going to work and school in the midst of it.

"They are doing their life, but in the middle of the air sirens and rockets flying," Roberts said.

She said that for everyone of Ukrainian heritage, life is not going to be normal again until the war is over.

"But we just get used to what it is, and we move forward, and we are trying to do the most we can to help from here," she said.

She recalled how many people looked for ways to volunteer after the invasion began.

"I believe that is the best thing you can do, when you do some kind of volunteering and you know you are making a difference," she said.

Some Ukrainians in the Boston area even went to Ukraine to do volunteer work there, such as driving trucks to deliver relief supplies. Roberts said she would have gone herself if she did not have young children.

Instead, she got involved with the Ukrainian Cultural Center of New England (UCCN), a volunteer-led network of Ukrainian people and organizations in Massachusetts. It was founded shortly before Russia's invasion, with the idea of uniting Ukrainians and bringing their culture to their neighbors, "so in neighborhoods people can have a different association of what is Ukraine and who is Ukrainian."

"Our main goal is to unite. We wanted to be the source that people would come in and they would always know that they are welcome and they can be part of something bigger," Roberts said.

The UCCN has become an informational hub, connecting people with resources and creating a network of organizations. They put out a weekly newsletter that lists all local events held by or for Ukrainians. Some students in Boston created a website, shop4ua.com, to list Ukrainian businesses and ways to donate to Ukraine.

One unusual situation the UCCN helped to resolve was when a Ukrainian mother and child, who did not speak English, were stranded at an airport because of a problem with their passports. The airport reached out to the UCCN, which was able to provide translation and connect them to the ambassador of Ukraine so they could get new passports.

"Usually if people reach out to us and we cannot help directly, we know who can," Roberts said.

She noted that Boston's Ukrainian community, though smaller than in other major American cities, is one of the most active in the U.S.

"We have far less, but we are more together. That has been wonderful," she said.

The UCCN and other local organizations organized "Ukraine: 365 days of Defending Freedom" in Boston on Feb. 26. This event included a Stand with Ukraine Rally in Copley Square attended by over 1,300 people. Speakers at the rally included Father Nalysnyk, Congressman Stephen Lynch, and other political, religious, and community leaders.

Following the rally, hundreds of people visited Trinity Church to see an exhibit called "Defending Freedom," chronicling the past year in Ukraine. Trinity Church also hosted an interfaith prayer service for Ukraine, with Father Nalysnyk and leaders of several other faith communities participating.

Speaking to The Pilot a few days after the rally, Roberts expressed gratitude to the Boston community "for always standing with us."

"Ukraine is fighting for the freedom of the whole world and it needs the help of its allies," she said.