Ukrainians in Chicago reflect on a year of full-scale warJamie Ludwigon January 5, 2023 at 12:03 pm

It has been nearly a year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For Ukrainians or anyone with loved ones living in the sovereign nation, every week since then has probably felt like a lifetime. The war has rapidly changed the shape of geopolitics amid existential questions about the future of democracy at a time of rising authoritarianism. Most immediately, it spawned a humanitarian crisis that continues to escalate.

In November, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi estimated that the war had caused 14 million Ukrainians to flee their homes. And on December 26, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported 6,884 Ukrainian civilians had been killed and 10,947 injured since the invasion began, while cautioning that due to the difficulties of confirming information from areas under occupation and intense hostilities, they believe “the actual figures are considerably higher.” 

In Chicago, whose vibrant Ukrainian community is one of the oldest and largest in the United States, it has all hit close to home. As news of Russia’s unprovoked invasion shook the world last winter, Chicagoans immediately sprang into action, launching solidarity events and fundraisers, and making individual contributions to support Ukrainians in their home country and abroad.

When the Reader attended a rally protesting Russian aggression on the steps of Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Catholic Church in Ukrainian Village last February, the diverse, impassioned crowd made it clear how strongly the plight of the Ukrainian people resonates even 5,000 miles away from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital (a sister city to Chicago since 1991). The event’s emcee, Pavlo Bandriwsky, vice president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Illinois Division, said after the event, “the world has come to the realization that today Ukrainians are spilling their blood to make the world safer for democracy.”  

Chicagoans also stepped up their support of displaced Ukrainians (predominantly women and children, due to wartime martial law policies requiring most men ages 18-60 to remain in the country) seeking refuge in the city and surrounding areas. In March, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) designated Ukraine for Temporary Protected Status for 18 months. Then, on April 21, the Biden administration announced the Uniting for Ukraine initiative, providing a pathway for Ukrainians and their immediate family members to seek a temporary stay of two years with the support of a sponsor; Bandriwsky said that among 100,000 applicants, 20,000 are slated to come to Illinois. “Keep in mind, this is only one program,” he said. “There could very easily be another 15,000 to 20,000 people coming here.”

That influx has inspired many people in Chicagoland, in and outside of the Ukrainian community, to open their doors to Ukrainians as they got their bearings in a new country. “Americans who don’t have ties to Ukraine, they were calling and volunteering their apartment for free, or they’d say, ‘My father passed away, and there’s a whole house that we’re not using. . . .’ Eventually those dried up, and it’s been more referrals for inexpensive housing,” Bandriwsky said. His own family welcomed a Ukrainian woman who arrived with her five-year-old daughter after fleeing air raids back home. 

At the same time, a number of relief groups emerged in the city and suburbs to provide additional support to the city’s new arrivals. Bandriwskiy points to the Selfreliance Relief Association (SRA) on Chicago Avenue (part of the Chicagoland-based Selfreliance Federal Credit Union), where new arrivals are able to connect with intake specialists who can help them navigate government forms, such as work authorizations and medical documents, and access services such as legal assistance, ESL courses, and more. “They’ve been a great resource, and they’re going to be doing a lot of good, not just in the immediate future but for a long time to come as folks try to get their lives together and figure out what the next two years are going to bring,” he said.

The SRA also works with a small group of volunteer healthcare workers and mental health professionals to offer counseling services to mothers who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and stress related to the invasion and being separated from family members. They’d eventually like to expand it to children too. “Right now, we’re offering it just for the moms,” Bandriwsky said. “[We also] teach them to recognize the signs in their children, which is very important because children may not want to talk about it or want to stress their mom out.”

While some Ukrainians in the Chicago area are settling into life here, others are dreaming of returning to their home country to support the resistance effort from the ground. 

Lisa Korneichuk, a Fullbright scholar studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moved here from Kyiv with her husband in September 2021. A native of Horlivka, in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk Oblast, her family had been forced to flee her hometown after Russian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists seized control of the region in 2014. When we spoke to her in March, she shared her insight into the political situation leading up to the full-scale war and opened up about the emotional turmoil of trying to get through the day while your loved ones are under siege half a world away. 

Nearly a year later, the war remains ever-present in her mind. “I can’t deny that I’m living in, like, two parallel realities,” she said. “I’m physically present here. But I’m mentally present in Ukraine as well. . . . I sometimes have problems placing myself in the here and now. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m still here. I have to focus on my things today and not think of what I will do when I’m back home.’”

In September, she and her husband traveled to Europe to reconnect with family and friends, but due to Ukraine’s martial law policy, she had to cross into Kyiv alone while her husband met with relatives living in Prague. “Seeing people who we had left in the country when everything was fine, seeing them again was very important for us and also, I think, for them to know we are still here and we somehow want to share this time with them,” she said. 

Lisa Korneichuk is a Ukrainian Fulbright scholar at the School of the Art Institute. Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Korneichuk

Around the start of the full-scale invasion, her family learned her grandmother’s apartment in Horlivka, where Korneichuk had spent the first ten years of her life ,had been destroyed. In September they discovered footage of the destruction had surfaced on the internet. “It’s super weird to see your apartment being ruined published online, and you kind of second-handedly stumbled across this footage,” she said. “Compared to what others are going through, it’s not such a big deal. . . . But for my grandma, it’s a pretty big tragedy. Even if she wasn’t actually living there for the last five or six years, it’s still like a big part of her life was destroyed.”

Korneichuk said her family lives in a neighborhood in Kyiv that falls outside the missiles’ range, and by the time of her visit, local residents had more or less grown accustomed to life under precarious circumstances. Though conversations primarily centered around the war, cafes and cinemas remained open, and people continued to socialize, creating a sense of normalcy—at least on the surface. “When it’s 4 AM when you’re sleeping, and then the air raid alert goes off, you’re like, ‘What should I do?’ So that made me really anxious, but other than that, I’d say life was seemingly normal,” she said.

That relative calm shattered soon after she returned to Chicago. On October 17, Russia began launching missiles at Kyiv and other regions, deliberately targeting infrastructure. “It was Monday in the morning when so many people were rushing to work,” she said. “People were killed in the center of Kyiv. One missile hit very close to my husband’s parents’ house, super close to them. It was really scary.”

Russia has continued to target infrastructure ever since. The World Health Organization (WHO) has cautioned that those attacks, along with constraints on humanitarian aid, including vital medical supplies, puts millions of lives at risk during the brutal winter months ahead, estimating that another 2-3 million people becoming displaced as they seek safety and shelter. “Put simply, this winter is about survival,” Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe said during a November 21 speech. 

November also marked the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, the deliberately engineered famine that’s estimated to have killed about 3.9 million Ukrainians living under Soviet rule between 1932-33. As Chicago’s Ukrainian community prepared for an event at Chicago’s Water Tower in remembrance of the atrocity, Ukrainian leadership reported that Russia’s strikes on infrastructure had damaged more than 50 percent of Ukraine’s energy facilities. It’s not hard to find parallels between 90 years ago and today.

“This was a deliberate genocide that happened in order to wipe Ukrainians off the face of the Earth,” Bandriwsky said. “Now, 90 years later, almost to the day, we’re seeing a different type of genocide. We see genocide by freezing and basically causing massive death and destruction to people.” 

The energy crisis has deeply damaged morale as Ukraine’s government has been forced to impose rolling blackouts in an attempt to conserve energy. “The mood is still like, ‘It’s better to be without electricity than to be with Russia.’ But generally [my friends] feel more uncertainty and worry about things like their work . . . life is not getting cheaper,” Korneichuk said. 

And, as she points out, the attacks have hit Ukraine’s most vulnerable citizens the hardest. “This weaponization of electricity and of civilian infrastructure by Russia is basically targeting old people, poor people, lonely people, people who can’t evacuate, [and] people who can’t buy these expensive power chargers,” Korneichuk said.

Blackouts are common in Ukraine now. Jenia Polosina, Anna Ivanenko, Studio Serigraph, 2022.

The majority of Americans without direct ties to Ukraine or other nations directly impacted by Russian aggression have enough distance from the war that it hasn’t perceptively impacted their daily lives. Add in a mix of domestic and international issues—the 2022 election cycle and the ongoing pandemic and climate crises, to name a few—and a notoriously fickle corporate news environment, it may be no surprise that public attention has waned since last spring. “I anticipated this back in March and April when Ukraine was on the front page of every major newspaper and in the nightly news,” Bandriwsky said. “Now it’s been relegated to the front page of section two of the newspaper, and somewhere in the middle of the six- or ten o’clock news. Even then, it’s only covered when some horrific tragedy happens—like the maternity ward that was bombed and a two-day-old baby was killed.” 

“Russia normalizes the crimes, normalizes things that were shocking and unbelievable and horrible,” Korneichuk said. “I myself feel maybe less touched by some things [in recent months] just because there’s only so much you can bear and so much you can feel. I think we all get really numb, but it’s important to not forget.” 

That means bearing witness to the bloodshed and devastation faced by Ukrainians and others directly impacted by the war, including millions living in food-insecure regions that are reliant on Ukrainian crops. It also means remembering that Americans and others around the world benefit from Ukraine’s ongoing resistance—and that the stakes are high. 

In his December 11 Substack column “Gratitude to Ukraine,” Yale history professor and modern authoritarianism expert Timothy Snyder frames the debt of gratitude America owes to Ukraine using seven words: security, freedom, democracy, courage, pluralism, perseverance, and generosity. “Ukrainians are defending the basic concept of self-rule, and at huge cost to themselves,” he wrote. “They are doing so at a moment when it seemed that authoritarianism was getting the upper hand around the world. For anyone who cares about democracy, this is a huge debt.”

Likewise, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke of gratitude when he appeared before a special joint session of Congress in December. Thanking the American people for their allyship thus far, he urged the country to continue its support as the war heads into its second year. “Our two nations are allies in this battle,” he said. “And next year will be a turning point, I know it—the point where Ukrainian courage and American resolve must guarantee the future of our common freedom. The freedom of people, who stand for their values.”

On a local level, Bandriwsky suggests visiting the UCCA and Selfreliance Association websites for information about supporting the Ukrainian community in Chicago and urging elected leaders to act. “We ask that the American people do not forget about Ukraine and do not forget about Ukrainian people,” Bandriwsky said. “Send a quick email or note to your congressman, to both of your senators, and to the White House saying, ‘We stand with Ukraine to the end.’”

“Solidarity also means highlighting voices that were silenced,” Korneichuk said. “Many voices, not only Ukrainian but Belarussian, Lithuanian, [and] Latvian voices that were silenced by Russia. Voices of people of Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics who were oppressed, had their cultures appropriated, and experienced all kinds of chauvinism from Russia.”

Korneichuk’s biggest dream is for Ukraine to succeed in ending the war in the months ahead. Regardless, she and her husband are looking forward to returning to Kyiv after she graduates this summer. “I love Chicago. It’s really the greatest journey of my life so far to come here. But unfortunately, the war didn’t allow me to get the most out of it, in a way.”

Though the couple is prepared to reevaluate their decision if circumstances change, they feel strongly that they can do more to help their country from within. Pointing to friends who’ve enlisted in the military, volunteered with humanitarian relief groups, rebuilt homes, created digital campaigns, and collected money and goods for civilians living in occupied territories, Korneichuk said there are unlimited ways to get involved. 

“This fight has so many levels,” she said. “Being in Ukraine, just living there, is not only part of resisting Russia, but resisting imperialism as an idea of oppressing other countries, and denying others the chance to make decisions on their own. If I decide to stay in the U.S., I would want it to be my decision and not a decision that is forced on me because of war.” 

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