Long Island Ukrainian-Americans protest war in their homeland

Protesters gathered in New York City on Aug. 16, 2014, to call for action and raise awareness about turmoil in Ukraine. (Credit: Patrick McCarthy)

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The fighting in Ukraine is half a world away, but Ukrainian-Americans living on Long Island who took part in a rally in Manhattan Saturday said it's agonizing and ever-present.

"We're all waiting -- what's going to happen next," said Bellmore resident Oksana Zukoff, 56, who works in hotel management. "A lot of my friends are sending their kids to the war."

Zukoff, who came to the United States from Ukraine more than two decades ago, was one of more than 300 people who marched Saturday up Fifth Avenue to protest near the Russian consulate on East 91st Street.

As blue and yellow Ukrainian flags fluttered in the wind, Iryna Cohen, 46, of Port Washington, led a chant via megaphone: "Russia, hands off Ukraine!"

The march was one of several planned for Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and San Francisco to call on Russia to end the war, which the United Nations has estimated has cost more than 2,000 lives. Marches were also planned for other countries. Ukrainian and U.S. officials have said Russia is supporting separatists in Ukraine.

Reached on Saturday, Russian Embassy staff in Washington, D.C., said no one was available to comment. Russian officials have blamed the United States and the government in Kiev for the crisis.

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From the East End to Hempstead, Long Islanders of Ukrainian descent are contributing -- sending money and prayers -- and staying glued to the Internet for news about their country, friends and families.

Long Island is home to 13,247 people of Ukrainian descent, about 10 percent of the state total, according to recent U.S. Census estimates.

The crisis that escalated since November from protests against then-President Viktor Yanukovych into a war is deeply personal to Long Island's Ukrainian-Americans.

"Long Islanders have been playing a role as far as putting pressure on the United States government and just raising awareness of what's going on," said Cohen, who is on the board of the New York branch of the Ukrainian Youth Association.

Cohen said that in addition to collecting money for medical supplies and advocacy, they can let families know the diaspora cares. "We haven't forgotten about them . . . we're in this together," Cohen said.

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One of the organizers of Saturday's march is Razom for Ukraine, a nonprofit based in Jersey City.

Rosty Vygovsky, 50, a software engineer from Valley Stream who was born in Ukraine, is a member of the group and said it began when people here tried to help protesters with medical supplies, clothes, tents and other items.

Today, the group is trying to help volunteers who play a logistical role in Eastern Ukraine and to send medical help, Vygovsky said.

"We are also trying to help the displaced people who are trying to flee -- some are trying to settle in summer camps -- some need some food, some need some toys," Vygovsky said.

On Friday, Father Wasyl Hrynkiw of St. Vladimir Ukrainian Catholic Church in Hempstead blessed about 200 pocket icons and 200 Virgin Mary medallions that Lesya Koziy of Massapequa plans to take to Ukraine on Monday to give to soldiers on the front lines.

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Koziy, who works at a bank branch and is in her 40s, moved to the U.S. from Ukraine 15 years ago. She said the icons and medallions are for the soldiers to know that "there's a church on Long Island in [the] United States that cares about them."

She said the fighting affects the area's Ukrainians personally.

"There is always someone you know," Koziy said.

"Either you know the family or you know the extended family of that person . . . he needs the help or support or the family needs the support." Hrynkiw said the pocket icons, which are about twice the size of a business card, are to help soldiers' spiritual lives.

"They always pray to God to help them survive," Hrynkiw said. "They are fighting for protection for their families, of their land, to keep the country safe."

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The conflict has entered into the sermons at churches. Last Sunday, Hyrnkiw compared the situation in his home country to a story from the book of Matthew when Jesus tells Peter he needs faith to walk on stormy water.

"We have same situation in Ukraine," Hrynkiw said after a service last Sunday. "We have to believe in the power of God, that he will help us."

In the Internet age, the conflict is always present, said Luba Koziy, 22, of Massapequa, a New York University graduate: "Every day when I get home, my parents are watching Ukrainian news, nonstop; we're always in constant contact."

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