In addition to being an attorney in East Meadow, Oleh Dekajlo is the president of the Long Island Chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, a nonprofit focusing on helping and advocating for that country.
His parents were born in western Ukraine near Lviv and are United States citizens. He was born in New York City, attended Stuyvesant High School, the City University of New York, and then New York Law School, where he earned his Juris Doctorate. We talked with him about the war in Ukraine and Long Island’s Ukrainian community.
Do you have family in Ukraine?
I do. On my father’s side. Most of them are attorneys. One is a retired appellate judge. They’re in the western portion, which is less affected, as opposed to the eastern or southern part. I have a second cousin who’s a federal prosecutor in Ukraine in Kiev. He had to remove his whole family. Getting them out at the time was difficult, because of the gridlock and jams. Thank God he has family in the western part. The air raid sirens in western Ukraine go off constantly.
Do you think Americans understand what’s going on or not?
Very much, the Americans I work with. I have spoken with judges, prosecutors I haven’t seen in 20 years. They make unexpected appearances at my office to make financial donations. They ask me for appropriate organizations or charities.
Are Ukrainians coming to Long Island from the war as refugees?
The answer is, very few. Long Island is considered a strong Ukrainian community. Unlike other refugee movements, people left with suitcases. They have homes and jobs. A lot of the ones displaced have every intention of going back. The husband or father might be fighting, but they’re looking to reunite.
What’s happening to businesses in Ukraine?
The business in Ukraine depends on where they are. The retail spending has taken a big hit, because of the uncertainty of the future. In terms of sanctions, I was on the radio on Feb. 22, two days before the war officially started, calling for sanctions, asking why they weren’t imposed sooner and why they weren’t more severe. Now we’re rolling out sanctions. They’re hitting, but why so late? Why didn’t it happen sooner? We can quarterback with 20/20 hindsight. This is taking its effect. I think there could be pressure from the oligarchs.
Has Russia been fighting a war against an army or against civilians as well?
There are universally accepted norms even in a war. You don’t target civilian hospitals, apartment buildings with no military threat or resistance. Mariupol is a gorgeous city. You should look up the beauty of Mariupol before the occupation. It was a green city. There is only a skeleton now. Why? Because they can? To decimate a city that posed no benefit and no military advantage?
What is the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America?
It’s an organization that’s been around since the 1940s. I’ve been a member for many years. It’s a volunteer organization that has a strong lobby force, which is separately staffed. The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America is an umbrella organization. Most Ukrainian organizations in the United States are members. There’s coordination between churches, schools, the scouts, dance ensembles.
How has your organization changed since the war began?
Everybody is mobilized to be active. Before, people would go to their meetings and have nominal participation. Every group, every youth group, is very active, looking for ways to help, volunteer. There was a collection point at our parish center in Uniondale. They became overwhelmed. Our church donated the space, not renting it out, using it to accept donations to sort and package.
Have there been other attacks in Ukraine’s history?
We have something referred to as the Holodomor, which means death by starvation. Somewhere between 6 and 10 million Ukrainians were starved to death in 1932 and 1933. There’s a memorial held every year on Long Island. We have a monument in Eisenhower Park that is maintained. It was put up by the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.
Why haven’t I heard about the Holodomor?
You should look it up. Stalin forcibly starved millions of Ukrainians, millions. Every Ukrainian has a grandfather or great uncle with pictures of a mountain of Ukrainian bodies rotting, corpses. It was a horrible experience Ukrainians lived through.
How was that covered?
The New York Times at the time had on its editorial staff a denier by the name of Walter Duranty. His job was to cover the famine. He denied it occurred. The New York Times has been asked to retract his stories and give back the Pulitzer he won for his coverage. They’ve acknowledged publicly that the Holodomor did occur and they erred on the wrong side of history in terms of their coverage in the 1930s.
Is Russia fighting a war using disinformation?
One of the big problems that has become crystalized is that one of Russia’s biggest weapons is propaganda. They use propaganda to their advantage. They promote it to the world and their own people. We’ve always claimed it to be in the front of their arsenal. And now the world sees it.
Are Americans hearing the truth?
I think the reporting has been for the most part accurate. If somebody asks my opinion, I will give it to them. If they ask for facts, I will state the facts, as to what happened or didn’t. I can give my opinion as to why it happened.
Have you been helping get flags out there?
We’ve been giving out hundreds, thousands of flags. Businesses contact us. They want to put the flag on their table. There’s also a Ukrainian symbol, a trident, that’s a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism, a point of pride. Ukrainians will have that as a lapel pin. This is not a political contest. You have an antagonist, a guy who is pure evil, who lies and cheats and has no value of human life. And then you have the Ukrainians. Everywhere you go. Drive up and down. I was in Florida on the waterfront. I can’t tell you how many sailboats had Ukrainian flags.
That’s a good first step. What more?
Then we get to the material support. We need to get the supplies, go after politicians to encourage them not to hold back. Give Ukraine defensive weapons. The Poles wanted to give us their airplanes. The United States said, “Absolutely not.” That would have been easy. Ukrainians are skilled pilots. Don’t hold back. Why are we doing sanctions now, but we didn’t do that three months ago? Why did we wait until the war started when he was amassing troops on the border? For military exercises? Everybody was so hesitant to provide Ukraine with support and impose sanctions on Russians. Now the whole world is paying the price. Don’t hold back.
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