The Ukrainian community in West Essex speaks on the war

Editor’s Note: After publishing my personal perspective on the war in Ukraine, I felt it was important to hear from other West Essex students whom I know are also Ukrainian and have a lot to say about what’s happening in Ukraine right now. I spoke to senior Maria Kardash, who I grew up with in Saturday Ukrainian school. I asked her to share her life experience as a Ukrainian so that people could better understand the constant and unanimous struggles of the Ukrainian community. Here is what Kardash had to say:

One of the most amazing aspects of growing up Ukrainian is the close, tight-knit community that Ukrainians and the Ukrainian diaspora have to offer. From a young age, I was introduced to my culture and heritage (something for which I am very grateful), leading me to enjoy a huge sense of pride and patriotism for my ethnicity and the Ukrainian people. My parents have always instilled in me the values of Ukrainian culture and made sure that my brothers and I knew our Ukrainian identities. We went to Ukrainian schools, festivals, youth organizations, church services, and more, allowing us to gain an understanding and great admiration of our culture.

Being Ukrainian is something that is very important to me, and something that I truly treasure. I just think it is so amazing to learn about the history of my country and recognize the immense struggles that my ancestors went through to ensure that their descendants could freely speak about and practice their Ukrainian heritage. It is this sacrifice that Ukrainians went through to ensure the preservation of their culture that makes it so important for Ukrainian families to uphold their Ukrainian identities.

So even though I grew up in the United States, I was, and still am, deeply immersed in Ukrainian culture and way of living. It’s always fun to explain to my American friends why we paint pysanky for Easter or jump over bonfires on Kupala Night. Additionally, growing up Ukrainian has helped me open my eyes to more perspectives and approach certain issues differently. Learning about Ukrainian history and hearing my grandparents talk about their life during the totalitarian Soviet Union has given me great insight into different ideologies, both political and mental. I have a great opportunity to see things from both an American and Ukrainian point of view. Finally, growing up Ukrainian has made me a proud defender and supporter of my cultural and ethnic identity. I am proud to be Ukrainian.

I am absolutely horrified at the lack of humanity and utter cruelty brought upon the Ukrainian people at the hands of Putin and his totalitarian regime. Innocent civilians are being viciously slaughtered, young children are dying of dehydration in the twenty-first century, and every night people go to sleep not knowing if they will wake up. I have grown so accustomed to listening to the news every second that I have been falling asleep to the voice of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky every night. All of my family is in Ukraine and I have a lot of friends living throughout all parts of Ukraine, so I am constantly trying to keep in contact with them, some days just helplessly hoping that the reason for the friend not responding that day is merely a lack of internet service.

I feel devastated for the people in cities such as Kherson and Mauripol who are incessantly being shelled and bombed every single day and every single night. The targeting of civilian homes, hospitals, and bomb shelters is barbaric. Over a hundred children have been recorded to be killed, but I fear that these numbers are much higher in cities where it is too dangerous to get a proper count of casualties. And Putin wants to claim that Russia is liberating and protecting Ukrainians. It’s disgusting.

Although the full-scale invasion has grasped the attention of the entire world, this war with Russia has been going on for eight years now. For eight years, Ukrainians have died protecting their future. For eight years, Putin has consistently tried to erase Ukrainian culture. So, yes, I feel sick and disgusted by Russian atrocities committed for the past eight years and especially the past month. However, I have no doubts that Ukraine will prevail. While Putin is trying to instill panic and hatred amongst Ukrainians, he is instead confronted with a fierce wave of Ukrainian patriotism and heroism. Ukraine has fought for its sovereignty for hundreds of years, and this war will not be the war that silences Ukraine, as Ukraine will never be silenced.

Right now, the sense of unity and willingness of everyone to contribute is unmatched. Blood banks cannot accept any more blood because they are so full, citizens are being turned away from joining the armed forces because there are too many people signing up and not enough equipment, and the Ukrainian spirit is stronger than ever before. While this is a time of suffering and great terror, it is also a time of unity and perseverance. Now no one will ever mistake Ukraine for being Russian ever again. Ukraine was, is, and always will be, even if it takes a few Ukrainian farmers to steal Russian tanks with their tractors. I just hope and pray that this war will end soon so that no more innocent people have to face such brutal agony and pain.”

I reached out to another classmate of mine, junior Olena Kurpita, who went to Ukrainian camp with me in the summer. I asked her similar questions about growing up Ukrainian:

“Being Ukrainian is a similar experience as most people go through. Usually, it affects people by placing their values to be focused on family and hard work. Most Ukrainian kids that grow up in America usually have shared experiences of being really involved with different organizations such as Ukrainian dance schools, Ukrainian scouts, Ukrainian zabavas, Saturday schools and churches. People usually leave Ukraine for better opportunities but they still always make an effort to keep parts of their culture regardless of where they are. I think my favorite part about growing up Ukrainian would be the sense of closeness, especially during large celebrations. A lot of the most popular Ukrainian things are religious celebrations, debutante balls, camping events and festivals. Even if someone is an outsider, most Ukrainians are eager to share their culture. The events are also a lot of fun because music is such a central part of most of them. Some of my greatest memories are singing Ukrainian songs with my friends.

With everything going on right now it’s really hard to hear, especially when they happen so close to the places I used to visit and where people I know live. I think it’s hurting everyone right now to hear about the danger overseas but most of the Ukrainian community knows that it is important to help as best they can from the position they are in. Right now a lot of Ukrainian churches are holding donation drives that are definitely a huge help. We also are trying to hold a donation drive in the school for people in Ukraine that will hopefully be running by next week.”

It is helpful to recognize the Ukrainians in our very own classrooms here at West Essex and be able to hear their stories in times like these. Not only does it help the Ukrainian community feel supported, but it also educates people on the current reality of what is happening.”