For Baltimore Ukrainian community, events a world away hit home

Andrij Chornodolsky, left, and Olga Jaremko, right, are members of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church. They are looking at Ukranian-American newspapers and talking about their concerns over poltiical upheaval in their native country.
Andrij Chornodolsky, left, and Olga Jaremko, right, are members of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church. They are looking at Ukranian-American newspapers and talking about their concerns over poltiical upheaval in their native country. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

The violence in Ukraine struck a home in Roland Park when Marta Zahalak began hearing from relatives through email and Facebook about her late husband's nephew, a physicist who was killed after traveling hundreds of miles to Kiev for anti-government protests.

"We were in shock," said Zahalak, who was born in western Ukraine and came to the United States more than 50 years ago. "I knew his mother very well — they were very pro-democracy."


For Zahalak and many others of Ukrainian ancestry in the Baltimore area, the political turmoil halfway around the world hits close to the heart. If they have not lost a family member or friend, they fear for them, and also for the future of a country for which they've long nurtured a strong emotional bond.

Zahalak had been keeping in touch with the mounting violence in Ukraine through online sources, particularly a Ukrainian TV channel, and watched the funeral for her nephew, Yuriy Verbytsky, who was 50.


According to news accounts, he had traveled from the western city of Lviv to take part in the protest, and was injured by a police stun grenade in late January. Hours later he was abducted from a hospital and found beaten to death in the woods outside Kiev.

Zahalak said her family suspects the government was involved.

She has already played a small part in protests against the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, as she marched in a protest in Washington in early January organized by members of her church, St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church near Patterson Park.

Church member Andrij Chornodolsky was there as well, with a group of about 30 hoisting hand-printed picket signs outside the Ukrainian Embassy and at the White House: "Yanukovych TRAITOR of Ukraine," "Putin's billions can't buy Ukraine," "Ukraine Go West/Yanukovych Go East."

Lately Chornodolsky starts and ends his days with heavy doses of bad news from his ancestral homeland, poring through online reports and emails from friends telling of anti-government protests, killings in the streets, flames and smoke rising from Kiev's Independence Square.

Six hours a day, up to 18 hours a day, he's on his computer at home in Timonium, and "sometimes it's through the night. … My wife will probably tell you this is insanity."

Born in Austria of Ukrainian parents who fled their homeland after World War II, Chornodolsky, 69, came to Baltimore as a little boy and has lived in Maryland since, but has kept close ties to Ukraine. In the 1960s and 1970s he protested Soviet human rights abuses there and visited the country twice on "cultural exchange" trips with the U.S. Information Agency.

Now he's one of a group of local activists at the church doing what they can to ease suffering in Ukraine and get out the word about the conflict between Yanukovych's pro-Russian government and the opposition that wants stronger ties with the West.

Chornodolsky estimates there are roughly 5,000 people of Ukrainian ancestry in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

According to news reports, Yanukovych said Wednesday night that he had agreed to a "truce" with opposition leaders shortly before scheduled meetings with European Union officials who were threatening to impose sanctions in response to the violence. Since protests began in late November, 26 people have been reported killed.

The uprising began in late November after Yanukovych's government announced it would not pursue an agreement that would have strengthened ties with the EU. In December, Ukraine accepted $15 billion in aid from Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The protests spread from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, to cities across the country of 46 million people.


Olga Jaremko, of Baltimore, a member of St. Michael the Archangel, said she's in touch every week with her mother and sister in Ternopil, in western Ukraine, where protesters this week set an Interior Ministry building on fire, according to the Ukrainian News Agency.

"She is very worried about that," Jaremko, who came to this country in the 1990s, said of her mother. "She is very sad about this."

She said her mother, who is 87, is knitting gloves for the Kiev protesters.

In the church's downstairs social room in January, Chornodolsky and several other church members held a fundraiser to support a field hospital set up by volunteer doctors and nurses in Kiev's Independence Square, also known as "the Maidan," scene of the worst violence. In three days they sold 350 plates of perogis, stuffed cabbage and sausage for $8 apiece, raising $2,800.

Then Chornodolsky got onto the Web and raised an additional $11,000, he said, the money distributed in Ukraine in cash — dollars or hryvnia — to pay for a respirator for the makeshift operating room, gauze, syringes and other supplies.

Nella Solovyovskey, a Ukrainian woman whose family owns a Russian restaurant in Pikesville, said she and her husband Skype with friends daily in Kiev, where she was born and lived until she was 28, and tunes into both American and Russian television broadcasts of the violence.

Watching whole blocks of her beautiful home city burn is sad, she said, but it pales in comparison to the loss of life going on there.

"Everything could be put back, but they're killing each other," Solovyovskey said. "The lives you can't replace."

Solovyovskey's friends and family have their disagreements on what the country should do politically; most don't care, though, as long as the solution brings them financial stability.

"I'm not into politics, and I don't know how to solve the problems, but something has to be done, because this is disintegrating the soul of the country," she said.

Chornodolsky and his associates have no doubt about their political sympathies. That much is clear from the protest signs still stacked up at the ready just inside the front door of the church's community center.

"That's why we have them here," he said. "Just in case, we're ready to roll."

Reuters contributed to this article.




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