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Kansas City's Ukrainian club pivots from sharing culture to mobilizing a war effort

The cross stitching on Mariya Slipych’s traditional Ukrainian dress represents her family’s heritage in western Ukraine. The pattern is also believed to bring protection to one’s family.
Cami Koons
The cross stitching on Mariya Slipych’s traditional Ukrainian dress represents her family’s heritage in western Ukraine. The pattern is also believed to bring protection to one’s family.

The Ukrainian Club is now the primary contact for locals who are mortified by Putin’s efforts to conquer Ukraine for Russia. "All of the Kansas City area is looking to us," says club president Lyudmyla Savinkova.

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.”

Natasha Costa (left) her husband Andrew Costa and their daughter Dasha, 7, stand at the rally in Kansas City. It was much smaller than the Chicago rally they’d attended the weekend before, but still allowed Natasha to feel connected to other Ukrainians.
Cami Koons

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 Zelensky 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 president of the Ukrainian Club of Kansas City, Lyudmyla Savinkova (right) with her husband Reza Derakhshani.
Cami Koons
The president of the Ukrainian Club of Kansas City, Lyudmyla Savinkova (right) with her husband Reza Derakhshani.

War effort

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.

Tetiana Siedina (right) is a Ukrainian artist living in Kansas City. She painted the sign her husband, Rick Turner, sports. It speaks for itself.
Cami Koons

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.

This story was originally published on Flatland, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.
Mary Sanchez has also been a metro columnist for The Kansas City Star and member of the Star’s editorial board, in addition to her years spent reporting on race, class, criminal justice and educational issues. Sanchez is a native of Kansas City.
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