Long Island Ukrainians Celebrate Independence Amid Chaos Back Home

Ukrainian Long Islanders
Volodymyr Tsyalkovsky (right) and Innesa Tymochko-Dekajlo (third from left) joined their fellow Ukrainian Long Islanders on Friday, Aug. 24, 2014 to raise the Ukrainian flag at Hempstead Town Hall. (Rashed Mian/Long Island Press)

Ukrainians living on Long Island will celebrate their home country’s 23rd year of independence Sunday for the first time since the Eastern European nation was drawn into a conflict with Russia nine months ago.

It’s been a whirlwind year for the Ukrainian community here. They’ve had to sit on the sidelines while 4,000 miles back home, fed-up protesters stormed the streets only to have their peaceful dissent aggressively challenged by ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government. Then there was a sliver of hope: Parliament voted him out office, and in May a new leader was elected.

But during that time Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and pro-Russian separatists, whom are believed to have the backing of Moscow, turned eastern Ukraine into a war zone: Planes were shot down, including a commercial jetliner, and more than 1,300 have been killed, 4,000 others injured. With little cause for celebration, Ukrainians on LI are praying for an end to violence so families and friends back home can go on living without fear of having their independence stripped away.

“We feel really upset about the whole situation that’s happening in Ukraine,” said 35-year-old scientist Volodymyr Tsyalkovsky, a married father of two living in Great Neck. “We are not only praying and hoping that the whole confrontation is going to get resolved in a peaceful manner…at the same time we are doing all we can to help and support the Ukrainian nation in their fight against the aggressor,” he added, referring to Russia.

Tsyalkovsky emigrated from Ukraine eight years ago and has been living on the Island for the past four.

He stood with his family on the steps of Hempstead Town Hall on Friday, two days before Ukrainians celebrate their independence. About three-dozen local Ukrainians gathered to sing songs and raise their flag, the blue symbolizing the sky, and the yellow a field of wheat. They were joined by Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, who said was proud to stand with Ukrainian Americans.

“The violence still hits home,” she said.

Tsyalkovsky’s accent is thick, but his message is clear: He, like so many others, want to see a resolution to the conflict.

“Every day we are in an unknown about what is going to happen today and tomorrow,” he told the Press. “And the only thing we can do from our end is pray and support both our military troops and our government in that important fight.”

The local Ukrainian community has shown its support by sending humanitarian aid back home: money, food, clothes, medicine. Anything that helps. But, what Ukrainian troops on the ground really need, one woman said, they cannot supply.

“We need the weapons, real weapons to help fight…for our freedom, for our democracy and for our territorial independence,” Innesa Tymochko-Dekajlo of East Meadow told the Press.

Standing under an azure sky with a Ukrainian flag whipping behind her, she said Ukrainians are thankful for the support other countries, including the United States, have shown. But, economic sanctions against Russia, which began with the annexation of Crimea and continued after a Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was purportedly shot down by pro-Russian separatists over Ukraine, are not enough, she said.

“If [the] world would stands with us and fights…and when the Russians just leave our country it will be peace,” she said. “Because 23 years we were living in peace, we never got a problem with anything.”

Tymochko-Dekajlo began to worry when protesters spilled into the streets and flooded Independence Square in Kiev after Yanukovych spurred a European Union trade pact for closer ties with Russia. Protesters, many of them Ukrainian youths, clashed with authorities, leading to several deaths.

“We tried to support them here in America and tried to make demonstrations everywhere around the world where there is a Ukrainian community,” she said.

Hours before their Hempstead appearance, the group got the news that a Russian aid convoy entered Ukraine without the country’s permission, raising concerns that further confrontations could spark increased violence.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko reportedly called it “flagrant violations of international law.” The Red Cross was planning on escorting the fleet of more than 100 trucks into Ukraine but nixed that because of safety concerns.

Elia Piddoubny, a member of Long Island Chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, also standing outside town hall, said the recent developments “gives us great concern.”

“Today Ukraine is fighting a struggle to preserve its European character,” she said. “Today a generation of men and women born in an independent Ukraine are now engaged in a great struggle to preserve that European character and for self-determination to have the freedom to decide its own future. We celebrate today not the creation of a new Ukrainian state but the resurrection of an independent, free Ukraine.”

Ukrainians thought they reached that goal 23 years ago, but the struggle will continue, even after it celebrates its independence on Aug. 24.

“Twenty-three years we have our independence,” said Tymochko-Dekajlo. “But it’s not really true independence. We need to fight for our independence.”

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