Published March 18th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Since the 1950s, the Ukrainian Club of Kansas City has united expats – professors, students, professionals and others who found their way from the heartland of Eastern Europe to the heartland of the United States.
For decades, that was enough.
The club focused on social and cultural events, gathering volunteer dancers and cooks for annual events like the Ethnic Enrichment Festival and filling a table at the related Diplomatic Ball.
Both events gave the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Ukrainians living in the region opportunities to speak their native language and share dishes like paska (an Easter bread), borscht (a beet-based soup) and the savory fillings of varenyky (half moon-shaped dough treats).
Three weeks ago, the invasion of their homeland ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin changed everything.
The Ukrainian Club of Kansas City is now the primary contact for all who are mortified by Putin’s efforts to conquer Ukraine for Russia.
Everyone, it seems, suddenly is tapping the club. Local Ukrainians who desperately want to join the war effort, even from more than 5,000 miles away. Kansas Citians who are eager to show their solidarity and learn more about the country’s ancient history and culture. And journalists seeking local contacts to give context to the horrifying images on the news.
“We had such a small organization,” said Lyudmyla Savinkova, the club’s president. “And now, all of the Kansas City area is looking to us. And yet, I cannot reply to all of the people.”
The club is reorganizing in a myriad ways. An ad hoc speakers bureaus is forming and work is being done to put in place a nonprofit to help with incoming refugees.
There’s also a profound awareness that it’s vital to keep U.S.-born people informed and engaged. The club is a bridge, as members can be a resource to understand the complex geopolitics involved in the conflict.
For now, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a hero to both Ukrainians and most area residents. But disinformation – a routine tactic whenever Russia is involved – is a gnawing concern. And support could shift as the war grinds on or if the American public perceives economic sanctions against Russia as harmful to the U.S. economy.
Ukrainian democratic values are essentially the same as American democratic values, said Oleksandra Wallo, an associate professor at the University of Kansas.
“What Ukrainians are doing right now is actually fighting and dying for these values that supposedly are shared by the free world. Values of democracy and freedom, and human rights,” said Wallo, a native of Ukraine. “The least we can do is not look away, and pay attention.”
Indeed, the quest to keep the focus on Ukraine is a new mission for the local club.
Club president Savinkova is a registered nurse by training. She’s studying for a masters in art therapy counseling at Emporia State University. Her personal goal of opening an arts center in Mission, Kansas, has been postponed because of recent events.
The club’s Facebook page and members’ personal social media accounts have become tools of resistance.
One of Savinkova’s most heartfelt social media posts was made shortly after Russia invaded in late February. She promoted a teach-in and panel discussion at KU, emphasizing that everyone was welcome to attend.
First, she thanked the many Kansas Citians who have offered support. Then, she addressed those who might be more hesitant:
“Those, who never acknowledged the fact that war against humanity is happening right now and are still putting on the face of neutrality, naming the genocide of an innocent nation ‘just a political issue and none of my business’ or (are) scared to agitate aggressors. Why???? Would you like to be more educated on the issue?”
The club’s most visible activities – weekly rallies at Mill Creek Park near the Country Club Plaza – are no longer organized by the club.
Olah Potapenko and her sister-in-law, Mariya Slipych, took it over, helping to free up other club members to take on new roles.
At the most recent rally, Slipych handed out blue and yellow signs recalling the Ukrainian flag to anyone who showed up, and dozens did.
She wore a flower crown and traditional, colorful Ukrainian frock, made by Potapenko.
Elsewhere in the park, Natasha Costa stood with her husband and two children Dasha, 7, and Maksim, 12, who waved huge Ukrainian flags.
Costa said her family lived in a small village in eastern Ukraine. The last she heard, the village didn’t have water.
“I can’t do much,” Costa said.
The whole family recently drove to Chicago to attend a big Ukrainian rally. It was “at least something” she could do from the states to support her home country.
“It’s just nice to be around people who have the same beliefs and worries like you do,” Costa said.
For others, the rally is a good place to connect. But their more urgent concerns are for the future.
Volodymyr Polishchuk, of Liberty, is organizing a nonprofit. His goal is to have an organization in place to help Ukrainian refugees if an influx eventually arrives in Kansas City. The community, he said, would be able to help find housing, jobs and language assistance.
Such work has often been done by previous immigrants, hired through resettlement agencies like Catholic Charities and Jewish Vocational Service.
Polishchuk, who is from Kyiv, said that he’s aware that many Ukrainian people would gladly volunteer to help. But he’s focused on creating something more formal, with fiscal accountability.
The last wave of refugees from the former Soviet Union resettled in the Kansas City area in the 1990s. Organized help for new waves of migrants needs to be established, he said.
An employee of Cerner Corp., Polishchuk moved to the Kansas City area in 2002, after originally settling in New Jersey.
Elizabeth Bejan is a proud, first generation Ukrainian here in Kansas City. She is opening her home to any Ukrainian family that wants to seek refuge in Kansas City.
Her parents immigrated to Cameron, Missouri, to do farm work before moving to Kansas City. She’s been attending the Ukrainian Club gatherings for as long as she can remember.
“My parents were so specific that we are Ukrainian, not Russian,” she said.
Andrew Meyer, a former Peace Corps member in Ukraine, has been honing a presentation for interested groups in the area. His wife, Karina Meyer, also has been giving presentations and doing press interviews. She’s a native of Ukraine and they both spoke last Sunday at Southwood United Church of Christ in Raytown.
The couple spent January in Ukraine, with Karina’s family, in part so the grandparents could meet their 9-month-old son.
Both have experience working with humanitarian aid organizations. Karina has been translating for Heart to Heart International, a Lenexa-based nonprofit that the club has been working with, packing hygiene kits that are now on their way to Ukrainians fleeing into Poland.
“I can provide real information, explain what internally displaced people really need,” she said.
She’s also uniquely qualified to know which organizations are still operating in Ukraine, particularly the medical ones, and wants to guide the donations that Americans want to make to the proper agencies.
And no, even steeped in an understanding of her country’s history, she never envisioned this level of an attack by Putin.
“It’s just a humanitarian catastrophe,” she said.
Her husband shares that sense of disbelief.
“Until two weeks ago the very thought that Putin could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine or anywhere, I would have shrugged off and laughed at,” Andrew Meyer said. “But he’s crossed the line of rational thought.”
Professor Wallo sounded emotionally drained when she answered the phone.
She’s lived in the U.S. since 2007. But most of her family, including her parents and brother, still live in Ukraine.
From there, her family has helped to organize transportation, volunteered at shelters for internally displaced Ukrainians, helped make camouflage netting and done whatever they could to help.
“They’re all trying to … do something useful for the cause, and trying to keep their sanity and trying to just hang on and hope that this war will be over soon,” Wallo said.
From her home in Lawrence, she’s trying to do the same thing. Her time is filled answering media requests, attending rallies and packing hygiene boxes with Heart to Heart.
“If this can help in any way to end this war, or if at least not end it, to help people understand Ukraine better and understand what is going on, I’m all for it,” Wallo said. “ I’ll do what I can.”
Wallo teaches Ukrainian language and culture at the university. She said it’s important to understand that Ukraine is its own nation, and has been, culturally, for a very long time.
“They are their own nation, and they’ve been struggling for a very long time for independence,” Wallo said. “There is a lot of talk about Ukraine only being independent for 30 years and that it is kind of a young state that is only finding its footing. That’s true, but Ukrainian culture, as a nation, has a millennia of history behind them.”
There are buildings in Kyiv, the country’s capital city, which date back to the 10th century, and the city’s history dates back even earlier, she explained. Ukrainians have gained and lost independence in brief stints since World War I.
“It seems like the world doesn’t know this, and part of the reason is because the Russian Empire appropriated this history for themselves and kind of cut Ukrainians off from it, or claims basically that Ukraine does not exist, (that) it’s the same as Russia, Ukrainians and Russians are brothers, they’ve always existed together, which is not true,” Wallo said.
Wallo said she also sees the current narrative around Ukraine lacking the full context. The invasion that started on Feb. 24 is an escalation of conflict that started in 2014 when Russia occupied the Donbas region.
“It’s important to understand (that) Ukrainians have been at war for about eight years now,” Wallo said.
Wallo said she’s grateful for the presence of the Ukraine Club in Kansas City.
“The club is kind of taking on a larger role, way beyond just being a way to maintain Ukrainian culture here in America,” Wallo said. “We’re more united than ever.”
Ukrainians here find it nearly impossible to look away from the television screens or the news updates. Wallo said she encourages her students and other Americans to keep watching too.
“I think this is why Ukrainians are putting up such a fight, because this is a struggle that they’re very familiar with, and they know from their own experience, that freedom is not free,” Wallo said. “Freedom has to be defended, and often it’s a life and death situation.”
When she looks out at her students here in the U.S., Wallo said she wonders if they would step up to fight in the same way Ukrainians of the same age are stepping up to fight now.
“America has been largely spared from wars on its territory, and there’s been this temptation to basically take these values for granted and just assume that it will always be like this, but that’s not true,” Wallo said. “It’s a delusion.”
Other immigrants are uniquely able to empathize with Ukrainians.
Reza Derakhshani, a native of Iran, is married to the club’s president, Savinkova.
He’s an inventor and professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Derakhshani is widely known for inventing and developing a biometric security system that uses the patterns of blood vessels in the eyes.
But what’s happening to Ukraine is like a flashback for him.
“My heart grieves for the civilians in Ukraine,” he said. “I lived through it and it is just unimaginable.”
Iran’s eight-year war when Iraq invaded killed his aunt and her extended family – eight deaths in all.
The Russians “are the masters of disinformation,” Derakhshani said. “They will tell you 30 different versions of the same thing.”
Some of the newest additions to the club could also be considered the area’s first refugees to arrive, although they do not have that specific immigration status. But Liz Shchepetylnykova and her husband Vitaliy Sharlay fled the war in Ukraine.
They landed in Kansas City in February. Their connection to the area was her former status as a foreign exchange student. She’s reconnected with her host family in Kearney, Missouri, a family that has done a lot of media outreach, even nationally, to spread the story and the plight of all Ukrainians.
And so, from a kitchen in Kearney, the couple is fighting the war for their country. On Amazon, they’ve purchased night vision goggles, intended for hunters, not soldiers. They bought four. Bullet proof vests are also on their shopping lists.
“Everybody is just trying to do whatever they can,” Shchepetylnykova said. “Ukrainians are going to keep fighting until the end.”
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.