Please tell us a bit about you, what is your story?
I was born in the Los Angeles area in 1968, the middle of three children. Our father is from Donetsk and our mother from the village Bidylo, west of Kharkiv. During World War II, when they were just four and five years old, the Soviets took their families’ land and made them homeless. They eventually landed in separate labor camps in Germany for about five years. When the war ended, my father’s family was sponsored by a farming family in upstate New York (he was 12) and my mother’s went to Curitiba, Brazil where they lived for 9 years before making their way to America, my grandfather’s dream. My parents met in Syracuse, New York and married in 1959.
What does it mean to be part of the diaspora?
Being Ukrainian was always a big part of my identity. All of my aunts and uncles married other Ukrainian refugees, so our extended family and all my cousins are all Ukrainian. We were all very active in the Ukrainian-American community, attending the Ukrainian Orthodox Church every Sunday, Ukrainian School on Saturdays, participating in all of our holidays and even performing in Ukrainian folk dance troupes. Holding onto our culture and language was a big responsibility for the diaspora as the Soviet Union remained closed to the rest of the world.
It was particularly poignant for us because my mother’s oldest sister remained in the village until she passed away a few years ago. She was 18 and married, with her husband fighting in the war when the rest of the family left. No one knew it would be forever. So one branch of our tree expanded its roots in Ukraine. I had three first cousins there (one has passed away) and they have six adult children collectively and as many grandchildren now. We were fortunate to have reconnected after the collapse of the Soviet Union with many tearful and joyful visits.
Tell us about your experience with the war - what happened for you?
We had been paying attention to Russian-backed fighting in Donbas since 2014, especially since that’s where my father is from and we knew many Zlidennys still lived, and were devastated by the reports of all the young lives lost. But the news of the full-scale invasion on February 24th struck us on another level. Putin’s declarations that Ukraine didn’t exist, that Ukrainains didn’t exist, nor our language or culture, brought up all the fears and realities of Ukraine’s history including Stalin’s purges and forced famine (Holodomor) of the 1930s.
While I joined demonstrations and fundraisers, my parents began reliving their horrors as children and when there were no more words, my father said he just felt numb. Of course, our biggest concern was and is for our family in Ukraine. My mother stayed in touch with my cousin Nina, but when the Russians occupied her town near Kherson and phone calls would no longer go through, I found her nephew on WhatsApp and check in with him often for any news.
Tell us about the photoshoot - what does it capture for you?
The photoshoot on the hill shows me holding a pysanka. This unique Ukrainian art form has so many meanings. The egg shell may seem fragile but is incredibly strong, and I could not be more proud of the strength and courage of the Ukrainian people. The pysanka also represents Ukrainian culture that is the foundation of our national identity and it is a tribute to our ancestors, and from the diaspora to Ukraine that we <<зберегли>> saved/protected it. This batique process survived since pagan times and it will continue to endure. It represents spring and new beginnings – and Ukraine’s spring will come.
If people want to help Ukraine, what would be the most effective way now in your experience?
There are endless needs and ways to help and it can be overwhelming. My advice is to pick an organization that is doing something that’s meaningful to you, whether that’s sending medical supplies to soldiers on the front lines, providing food and shelter to refugees, helping children in orphanages, or sending warm clothing for the winter. All of this helps people survive.
The most important thing is to keep up the pressure on Western governments to support the brave people of Ukraine who are fighting for the democracy and freedom we enjoy (and may even take for granted) every day.