Ukrainian Americans remember their roots: Transplants reflect on, acclimate to life in the U.S.
| By Edward Graham |
Kat Savchyn was 10 years old when her family emigrated from L’viv, Ukraine for the United States. Along with her sister and her mother, the family eventually settled in Alexandria, Va.
Now 25 years old and working as a data scientist for a consultant firm in Washington, D.C., Savchyn said she was too young at the time to grasp the full magnitude of their move, but she was able to adapt relatively quickly to her new surroundings.
“I didn’t really have a good understanding of what was going on, but when I went to school I acclimated really quickly,” said Savchyn, who attended the Alexandria City Public Schools. “There were a lot of foreign kids in school with me, so I guess I organically adapted to the culture and the people and the language.”
Although the D.C. region does not rank among U.S. cities with the largest Ukrainian populations—data from the U.S. census shows that New York City has the highest total of Ukrainians in the country—the region nevertheless boasts a proud Ukrainian heritage.
According to data from the Center for Demographic and Socio-Economic Research of Ukrainians in the United States, just over 18,000 people of Ukrainian heritage live in the metropolitan D.C. area. The majority of this population—close to 13,000 people—were born in the U.S.
Savchyn says her mother remains in touch with the Ukrainian community through church in D.C., but that she isn’t as in tune with the local community. While she still maintains a slight accent, Savchyn is perfectly fluent in English and can also speak Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, often drifting between all four languages when speaking with her mother or sister.
“I met a few Slavic people when I was in school, and they helped me acclimate in the sense that being around them made me feel more at home, and also to gradually transition [to living in the U.S.],” Savchyn said. “But I wouldn’t say we knew a lot of Ukrainians when we came here, or were in touch with a network.”
Ukrainian diaspora remains visible and vigilant in D.C.
As the nation’s capitol, the District is home to a number of international organizations geared towards representing Ukrainian interests, both abroad and in the U.S.
D.C. boasts several such organizations, including the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, which also maintains an office in Kiev, Ukraine. The non-profit foundation works on strengthening ties between the two countries, with a larger push over the last year for the U.S. to take a larger role in combatting Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula.
The region is also home to three Ukrainian churches, including the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in northeast D.C. The church publishes a duel church bulletin in both English and Ukrainian, and also holds liturgies in both languages.
Perhaps the most visual sign of the Ukrainian diaspora’s direct impact on the D.C.-area is the recent construction and dedication of the Holodomor memorial in downtown Washington, D.C.
The memorial commemorates the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine, which historians estimate to have killed between 16 percent to 25 percent of the total population of Ukraine—perhaps 7 million to 10 million total people.
Known today as “the terror famine,” the man-made famine was enforced by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as a means of crushing the brewing Ukrainian independence movement. Soviet soldiers, often through force, took the majority of Ukrainian harvests and shipped them back to modern-day Russia, starving the majority of the region’s population.
The Holodomor memorial, located at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue Northwest and North Capitol Street Northwest, just outside of Union station, received congressional authorization for construction in 2006 and was built with private donations.
The memorial’s dedication ceremony included several thousand Ukrainians who traveled from across the U.S. to attend, the first lady of Ukraine and several U.S. congressional representatives. Crowds of people braved dreary and rainy conditions to memorialize the victims of the famine.
But the ceremony only represented one aspect of D.C.-based events commemorating the Holodomor. A two-week long exhibition, called the “National Holodomor—Genocide by Famine” was also placed inside Union Station to tell the story of the famine’s impact on Ukrainians. Several concerts, exhibits and other artistic performances were also planned around the memorial’s dedication.
The memorial, a bronze wall embossed with a wheat field, is dedicated “in memory of the millions of innocent victims of a man-made famine in Ukraine engineered and implemented by Stalin’s totalitarian regime.”
When I visited the memorial on a Thursday afternoon, several wreaths, candles and flags adorned the memorial wall. It was a quiet day, and most people seemed to walk past the memorial without noticing. A homeless man was asleep in the shade cast by the back side of the memorial.
When I asked a passerby, Alyssa Kinney, about the memorial, she said that she wasn’t that familiar with it.
“I didn’t even notice it until you said something,” Kinney said, noting that she didn’t visit the area that often.
When asked about the Holodomor, Kinney was also equally unfamiliar.
“No idea,” she said.
Kinney’s confusion isn’t exactly surprising.
During Stalin’s rule, all mention of the famine were stricken from official records, and government officials were ordered to falsify findings about the role of the government and the staggering loss of like in Ukraine. It wasn’t until the last several decades that Western journalists began to uncover and write about the scope of the Ukrainian famine.
The goal of the memorial, U.S. and Ukrainian leaders and officials say, is to spread greater awareness about the Holodomor and to educate the public at large about one of the last century’s unwritten genocides. With Russia’s aggressive posturing in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Ukrainian leaders are quick to point a connection between the ongoing conflict and Russia’s longstanding denial of the Holodomor’s existence.
“The repercussions of the Holodomor are still being felt today,” said Daria Pishko-Komichak, executive secretary of the U.S. Holodomor Committee. “Russian-backed rebels who are fighting in Eastern Ukraine today pose a threat not only to the future of a unified Ukrainian state, but seek to re-write history as they deny the existence of the Holodomor.”
YouTube video of a portion of the Holodomor Memorial dedication ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, November 7.