The Rotary Club of Smithtown donated funds toward the Rev....

The Rotary Club of Smithtown donated funds toward the Rev. Vladyslav Budash's humanitarian efforts on Thursday. Credit: Rotary Club of Smithtown

When Russian soldiers surrounded Chernihiv, the northern Ukrainian city where Rev. Vladyslav Budash was born, he was in Smithtown, safe but haunted.

Budash, the priest at Resurrection Byzantine Catholic Church, spent much of the past two weeks watching the war on YouTube and in pictures sent by his parents, who are now, he says, trapped in his hometown. On his computer screen, he saw the theater where he watched American movies as a kid, flattened and burning. Houses in the neighborhood where his grandparents lived, shelled to ruins. Children huddled in the basement bomb shelter of his parent's apartment building. This city of 290,000, 90 miles north of Kyiv, is under siege.

"Every day … another building, another memory of my childhood" and more dead civilians, Budash, 39, told Newsday. "Every 15 minutes there is something new … All this destroys you." No one he knows has been killed in the past two weeks, but conflict between Ukraine and Russia has simmered since 2014 and he knows soldiers who were killed in that fighting. "Some of them were my parishioners, some of them were my friends."

Budash's mission now is to help the war effort and "try to be a representative of my country" in the United States. He has raised about $20,000 for an orphanage, known as Nazareth, in Korolevo, in Ukraine's west. It has become a refuge for women fleeing from the fighting in the east. It distributes clothing to Ukrainian soldiers, he said.

A former Ukrainian National Guard chaplain, Budash had church postings in Ukraine before coming to the United States in 2019: first to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then Smithtown, in 2020. His congregation of about 200 is mixed, with just a few second- or third-generation Ukrainians.

Long Island is home to 13,000 people of Ukrainian ancestry but no major Ukrainian enclaves. When the bombs started to drop, Budash asked his parish and his American friends to help Ukraine in any way they could.

He preached about the war and wrote a Facebook post, shared by Legis. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) and others, that was both a confession of anguish and an appeal.

"The front line in Ukraine is the border between the civilized world of free people and the savage kingdom of the dictator," he wrote. "Become an ally of Ukraine."

Budash weighed going back, not to fight, but to serve again as a chaplain. Doing so would have left his church without a priest indefinitely and endangered his and his family's legal residency in the United States, so he decided to stay.

"It was my decision," he said. "I don’t know if I am right or if I am wrong."

Smithtown Fire Department firefighters and EMS workers are pooling money to donate, a department spokesman said. Staff and families in Carle Place schools are contributing. The Rotary Club of Smithtown this week donated $5,000 and another $2,000 to a Rotary relief fund, said president Richard Smith, the Nissequogue mayor.

Budash, a Rotary member, is "our most direct contact of anyone who’s experiencing this horror," Smith said. "We were more than happy to be in a position to make that donation."

Lauren Moriarty, principal at Carle Place's Cherry Lane Elementary School, said staff there and at Rushmore Avenue School raised $1,700 after learning of the fundraising effort through a district family who are members of the Smithtown church. Students at those schools and the district’s middle school-high school will continue fundraising this week, selling $1 ribbons. In Moriarty’s school, she said, "we talk about gratitude, how fortunate we are, and how children and families around the world may need support."

Budash also donated his month’s salary, a sum he declined to specify. "It’s not big but it’s everything," he said.

Last week, the UN's Undersecretary-General told a Security Council meeting of "horrific" shelling of residential areas and civilian infrastructure in Chernihiv and other Ukrainian cities.

On March 9, Amnesty International said in a release that Russia may have committed a war crime when it dropped bombs on Chernihiv March 3, killing dozens of civilians.

The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment. Budash said he didn’t want to talk about that incident, or the casualty count. "I don’t know and I don’t want to know," he said.

He has worries beyond the misery war has already caused. He was a toddler during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and remembers lining up during elementary school to be checked for cancer symptoms. If fighting near the much larger nuclear plants in operation today leads to another radiation release, the fallout "could destroy not only Ukraine but could destroy the health of the world," he said.

He worries about what he described as a reckoning for the countries he calls collectively the West.

"A crazy man breaks agreements, military conventions, and democratic leaders do nothing, because business and blood are more good for them than ideals of democracy," he said. He framed a choice: defend those ideals in Ukraine where they are under attack, or "say that democracy is fake and it doesn’t exist."

He worries, too, about his father, a retired firefighter, and his mother, a homemaker, both in their 60s. Electricity is intermittent and the plant that provided heat to their neighborhood has been destroyed. They wear coats inside to stay warm but the outside temperature is just 17 degrees, so "it’s quite useless."

Budash said they probably could have left before, but did not want to leave their home. Now it is too late. "They shoot at civilian cars" on the main roads and Ukraine’s own army mined the village roads to slow the Russian advance.

"My parents think in this way: they say we will die today or in 20 years. In any case we will die, but what is important is how and for what."

Since the start of the war, they've spoken at least once a day, but he has been unable to reach them since Thursday, Budash said. Maybe, he said, it's only a problem with the internet. Maybe it's only a technical issue. Maybe.

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