American and Ukrainian flags whipped in a cold March wind above a packed parking lot in Northeast Minneapolis. Two other blue and yellow flags welcomed visitors to the entryway of the Ukrainian American Community Center.
Inside, more than 300 ticket holders were gathered in a large utilitarian meeting space dressed with suspended ceiling drapes, colored accent lights and a stage. A regiment of round tables sparkled with glasses, favors, flatware and people. Bottles of wine and a soft Ukrainian rye beverage labeled KBAC were huddled together with vases of yellow tulips.
Irina Fursman’s glass was irrigated with wine poured by a friend as she chatted with table mates. The Maplewood resident, a professional leadership facilitator, was among more than 30 volunteers honored for their work in support of Ukraine during the Russian invasion.
“Thank You From Ukraine” was a fête of gratitude to Minnesotans for their sponsorship of refugees and finding them homes; for providing prosthetic devices for amputees; for packing and shipping medical supplies, food, and clothing; for fundraising, and providing daycare and trauma therapy.
The Saturday, March 18, gathering was also a family event and celebration of Ukrainian culture. Infants were held up for hugs, phone cameras flashed like fireflies. A young woman near Fursman’s table wore a vinok, an elaborate Ukrainian floral headdress. Since the invasion, vinoks are reported to be a trending fashion protest against the invasion as well as a salute to Ukrainian traditions.
Before the crowds arrived, folk dancers, singers and musicians were readying themselves in rehearsal and dressing rooms. A team of around 50 volunteers set tables and would be serving borscht and entrées of Chicken Kyiv or salmon, prepared by Ukrainian chef Vasyl Kushneryk.
Among the latter were refugees Mariya Hural and Andriy Syplyvyi. Both hail from Lviv, a city of more than 700,000 people, 43 miles from Poland. Lviv and its namesake region have suffered missile and air strikes since February 2022.
Hural, an attorney who arrived in July, said the invasion took away her life, friends, and career. She misses her mother and relatives. Hural currently works as a paralegal and lives in St. Louis Park with her 3-year-old daughter. They can walk to Wolfe Park and grocery stores. “And she’s safe,” says Hural, in hesitating English. “She does not have to go to bomb shelter. When I see children in Ukraine going to bomb shelter … (an emotional pause), it is very hard. But my daughter is here. I am here.”
Andriy Syplyvyi, an IT engineer, and his wife, along with their 2 1/2-year-old son, live in Northeast Minneapolis. They also seek a safe place to live. Both Andriy and Mariya express bitter disappointment that they have met Russians here who do not speak out against Putin.
Thank You From Ukraine was also a fundraiser. Higher-priced ticket holders sat at VIP tables with young Ukrainian soldiers — Heroes — freshly fitted with high-tech prostheses. Posters signed by General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, the commander-in-chief whose forces pushed back the Russian invasion, were put up for auction. Blue and yellow signs, buttons and stickers printed with STAND WITH UKRAINE MN were selling in the lobby. Stand With Ukraine MN is an organized initiative that coordinates activists and volunteers. It also raises donations for the American Ukrainian Community Center, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization.
Yury Aroshidze addresses the gathering in Ukrainian. His words are translated by activist Yosef Sabi. Aroshidze shares thoughts about his homeland, its soldiers and Protez, the Minnesota-based foundation he heads. He notes that a “worldwide army” of individuals from different cultures has come together with love, energy and donations to support Ukraine.
The Protez Foundation brings amputee soldiers to the Twin Cities for three to four weeks to be fitted with high-quality prosthetic devices and follow-up therapy. “Protez” is Ukrainian for “prosthesis.”
The foundation operates a clinic in a donated space in Oakdale. It is sustained by donations, companies that provide discounted prosthetic devices, and more than 150 volunteers. Click here for the Protez Foundation website.
Applause punctuates Aroshidze’s announcements that Protez has become the world’s largest provider of prostheses to Ukrainian soldiers, that it has opened a second clinic in Ukraine, and that to date, 176 devices are being used by 56 soldiers.
Two small girls have taken the stage. They are playfully bouncing a ball back and forth. An air raid siren sounds. The table chat and servers tone down. The girls are rushed off stage by older siblings, presumably to a bomb shelter.
On this weekend of appreciation in Northeast Minneapolis, 16 armed Russian drones targeted facilities in Lviv, Kyiv, Zaporizhia and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts (administrative regions). Seven of them were shot down by Ukrainian forces.
The siren fades. A youth-spirited chorus of girls re-forms on stage. Each sports a floral, tiara-like vinok. They sing an urgent version of the Ukraine National Anthem. Their choreographed footwork suggests a determined march.
Yosef Sabir, who is also the evening’s master of ceremony, provides perspective: “A number of the children we have on the stage right now are refugees themselves. For Ukrainian children, it is important to process the trauma that is happening.”
Patti and State Senator Steve Cwodzinski (“Cwod”) of Eden Prairie share a table near the stage. The following day, Cwod told EPLN that the program — its children, soloists, speakers and convalescing soldiers — was “emotional, heart warming and heart wrenching.”
Patti’s niece, Kathryn (Katie) Korchak, and husband, Kostiantyn, were nearby but were busy managing volunteer servers; their two young daughters were in tow.
Kostiantyn immigrated from Ukraine a decade ago. He and Katie welcome and help settle Ukrainian refugees and soldiers to Minnesota brought here by the Protez Foundation. They greet them at MSP International Airport.
During the evening, Cwod and Patti were approached by two Ukrainian men. They had attended a recent State Senate hearing of his bill that would require middle and high school social studies curriculum to include sections on the Holocaust and other genocides. The bill references the 1932-33 Soviet-era Holodomor in Ukraine. They thanked the senator.
The March 15 report of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine states that Russia’s forced deportations of Ukrainian children “violate international humanitarian law, and amount to a war crime.”
Recently, the Yale School of Public Health published research that documents how the Russian government has forcibly relocated more than 6,000 children from their families in occupied parts of Ukraine. The State Department-funded study has also identified 43 re-education and adoption facilities, stretching from Crimea to Siberia.
The Ukrainian Government claims that the number of child abductees is much higher — 16,221. Informed, international law experts and organizations like Stand With Ukraine MN classify the abductions as a form of genocide.
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that more than 8,000 non-combatant Ukrainians have been killed, and more than 13,300 have been injured during the first year of the invasion. As of this month, 8,157,230 refugees from Ukraine continue to reside, mostly in Europe. More than 11 million have returned to Ukraine, but the war slogs on.
Editor Note: Writer Jeff Strate is a founding member of the EPLN Board.
This just in …
Stand With Ukraine MN notified its email list on March 27 that the Thank You From Ukraine event raised $28,895.25 in donations. The funds will support the Protez Foundation and supply “Negative Pressure Wound Treatment” through Stand With Ukraine MN. Stand With Ukraine MN also thanked event sponsors Ukrainian American Community Center, The Oasis Group, Vibrant Media Concepts, Minsk Market, Paradise Market, and Smak Groceries.
The New York Times featured an article titled “From Combat to Rehab in Minnesota, With No Time to Waste” about the Protez Foundation and the Ukrainian soldiers it serves on its front page on March 23. Read the article here.
The following links provide information and data related to this story
The Institute for the Study of War is a nonpartisan, public policy research organization. Click here for a March 18 backgrounder on the Russian offensive campaign in Ukraine.
U.N. News has published a Feb. 21 story on the death toll of the Russian invasion. Click here for the article.
The Hill reports on Russian deaths and casualties during the Ukraine Invasion on Feb. 28. Click here for the report.
The Center for Research & Analysis of Migration provided an update on Ukrainian refugees — their numbers, current locations, and how many have returned to Ukraine — on March 19. Click here for the update.
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