Ukrainians in America: ‘Putin will go as far as he is allowed to go’

Community in north-east Ohio, 8,000 kilometres away from Kiev, is gripped by fear

Ukrainian Catholic Church in Parma, Ohio. Stephen Starr / The National

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On a grey Thursday morning, people trudge into the Astrodome Events Centre building behind the golden-domed Ukrainian Catholic Church in Parma, Ohio, to buy "pirohi", a popular dumpling dish.

Inside at a small canteen, all are in shock over the news of the Russian invasion of their homeland.

“Everyone’s upset,” says Linda Lishchuk Hupert, a Ukrainian-American artist who has family in western Ukraine and the southern city of Odessa.

Ms Lishchuk Hupert most recently spoke to a cousin living near Kolomyya, in the west of the country, earlier this week.

“She said then that she’s just waiting [for an attack],” she says. “She would like to go to her two sons who are in Poland but she needs a visa.”

Parma, a city comprised largely of single-family homes, small shops and strip malls, is twinned with Lviv in western Ukraine. It has the largest Ukrainian-American population in Ohio, with more than 4,000 of the 79,000 or so residents of Ukrainian descent.

A credit union called Ukrainian Federal and a host of Ukrainian-owned and themed shops, beauty salons and bakeries dot the streets.

Artist Linda Lishchuk Hupert, a Ukrainian American who has family in western Ukraine and Odessa. Stephen Starr / The National

Outside a bank on state Road 94, two men run the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag up a pole. Heroes from Ukrainian history are depicted on lampposts around the area as locals react with horror to the events unfolding across the Atlantic.

A short drive north of the church, Ukrainian-speaking shoppers have gathered inside the Lviv International Food Market to discuss the news that came in overnight.

For Maria Lutsishim, a pensioner who moved from Staryi Sambir in western Ukraine to Cleveland 27 years ago, fear for her loved ones back home is rising.

“I spoke to my cousin,” Ms Lutsishim says. “She’s staying at home, hiding in her basement. But this morning my daughter-in-law tried calling her cousins in Kiev several times. There was no answer. She couldn’t get through.”

Ms Lutsishim, who was a cleaner in Cleveland before suffering a stroke years ago, says she is surprised by the speed of events.

President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has been telling people to be calm, he didn’t want to speak about a war,” she says. “Then we woke up to this news this morning.”

While community members say a public protest has yet to be organised, prayer services have been planned at churches across the district for Thursday evening.

Rallies are expected to be held in the coming days.

Ukrainian immigrants moved to Cleveland to work in the city’s huge steel mills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

They established a bustling community, first in the district of Tremont, south of downtown Cleveland.

By the 1950s, the Ukrainian Museum-Archives was established in Tremont by scholars who fled Nazi terror squads in Ukraine a decade earlier.

Later waves of immigrants settled in Parma, a suburban area 12 kilometres to the south.

Today, about 80,000 Ukrainians call Ohio home, with close to half in Parma and other districts in and around Cleveland.

Sergiy Vashchenko, an insurance agent, wears a worried and worn look having ducked outside his office in north-east Parma for a cigarette.

From the doorway of his office, he says he has hardly slept, having failed to reach relatives in Kiev by phone since the Russian invasion.

“First of all [we need] real weapons — Patriot systems,” he says when asked how the West should respond.

Mr Vashchenko, who came to the US 24 years ago, believes there is little President Joe Biden will do to stop a takeover of Ukraine.

Sanctions? That’s not enough. They only work in the long term,” he says. “Putin sees that nobody can stop him and he will go as far as he is allowed to go.”

Mr Vashchenko says Ukrainians in the area are gathering money and aid to be sent home as the prospect of a refugee crisis on Europe’s borderlands and an entrenched conflict begin to unfold.

Many Ukrainian Americans in Parma are not fans of Mr Biden, with a majority voting for Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections.

Ohio’s Ukrainian community has historically voted Republican, unnerved by the historical legacy of the socialist Soviet Union and the Democratic Party’s real or perceived leftist tendencies.

Rob Portman, a Republican senator and co-chairman of the Ukrainian Senate Caucus, led a delegation of US politicians to Ukraine last month and enjoys considerable visibility among Ukrainian Americans here.

Ms Lishchuk Hupert says she finds it difficult to believe that many Ukrainian Americans support Donald Trump or would vote Republican.

“I mean, he praised Putin [for invading Ukraine],” she says, after pausing to allow a group of fellow Ukrainian Americans to walk out of earshot.

“Trump has just as much of an ego as Putin.”

Despite the territorial gains Russian forces have made in such a short time, Ms Lishchuk Hupert believes Ukrainians are far from a spent force.

“Ukrainians are prepared this time. They’ve had years of training,” she says. “I think Putin is going to be surprised.”

Updated: February 24, 2022, 11:08 PM