For Ukrainians In Kansas City, Conflict Hits Close To Home
Kansas City’s Ukrainian community is small but active, regularly hosting events and get-togethers. Many came during the fallout of the Soviet Union and still have direct ties to their homeland. So for them, this tumultuous year of protest, violence, annexation and war has taken its toll.
Here is a look into the lives of three Kansas City-area Ukrainians and how they manage being so far away from a country and family close to their hearts.
For Alexey Ladokhin, the conflict has meant worrying about family who are directly in the line of fire. He was born in Donetsk but grew up in Kiev and his parents hid protesters during the crackdown in spite of the risks.
"...I was afraid," says Ladokhin. "There were people killed, broken into their apartments."
When fighting broke out in Eastern Ukraine, his nephew volunteered for the Ukrainian army. He’s worried about the army’s lack of resources to the extent that he spends his own money to buy equipment for the Ukrainian forces.
Ladokhin came to the U.S. in the late 1980s, and officially became a U.S. citizen a few years ago.
“I was really pleasantly surprised when the judge who was proclaiming us citizens told us ‘We don’t want you to forget where you’re from.’ I consider myself an American now but I am also Ukrainian,” he says.
Ladokhin is unable to travel due to medical issues, but says that once he gets clearance to travel he would like to go to Ukraine to bring supplies and help in any way he can. In the meantime, he’s here, living his life.
“You worry. You wake every night and you go to internet and you check what is happening,” says Ladokhin. “That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy going out. I’m looking forward to Plaza Art Fair, I go to Tivoli Cinema, I have a regular life. But the undertone is that there is a big injustice in the world.”
VitalyChernetsky has a litany of titles after his name that basically say, if you have a question about Ukraine, talk to this guy.
He has lived in the U.S. for more than 23 years, researching and teaching Ukrainian studies at Kansas University.
“We serve as a bridge connecting our two nations,” says Chernetsky. “For example I got a call from a news agency in Europe who needed to find out anybody who could give intelligent commentary about a fist fight that broke out in the Ukrainian parliament and why do these parliamentary members punch each other in the face?”
His expertise is not limited to parliamentary fisticuffs. Themes of diversity and identity crop up regularly in his work and conversation. So he gets frustrated when media outlets oversimplify the situation in Ukraine as an internal conflict between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians.
He is convinced the conflict didn’t escalate naturally but was provoked by outside forces.
One of the occupational hazards of working within the Ukrainian studies department is that he and his colleagues are constantly following unfolding events. They don’t get a break from what’s happening.
“This has been a very traumatic and in many respects, emotional roller coaster,” he says. “Because one moment you’re very happy and hopeful but on the other hand you hear about these really horrible things that are happening.”
For Iryna Yeromenko, the war in Eastern Ukraine is even more present — it’s the reason she’s in Lawrence, Kan. She’s from Donetsk where she started an English school with $100 and has built it into a successful business. When pro-Russian factions took over the city this year, her Western affiliations, Jewish background and successful business made her, her family and her employees targets. They’ve all gone into hiding.
“This business was like another child for me, so … I had 25 people working for me and I keep in touch with every and each of them because I’m really worried,” says Yeromenko.
Yeromenko and her family came to the U.S. in June to visit, hoping the situation would cool down by the time school started. But now they’re applying for asylum.
“No matter how much time I spend in Kansas, I spend 24 hours a day emotionally in Ukraine,” said Yeromenko. “I read news all the time, like I wake up at night, I just wake up without an alarm clock just to see if maybe there is hope.”
Until she knows whether she’ll be granted asylum, she’s in limbo. She's just waiting and thinking about her home.
“Here, being here I am safe but I feel bad because there is no way I can help anybody,” she said. “I guess I just miss the way it was when I was happy there. And I realize that never, ever, whatever happens, it will never be the same again.”
The war in eastern Ukraine keeps alternating from hot to cold: ceasefires are regularly made and broken. And halfway around the world, a community does what it can to help, waits for an end and wonders what will be left when the dust settles.
This story is part of a Central Standard series exploring how international communities in the Kansas City area are following and responding to crises in their home countries. We also checked in on local Syrian and West African communities, and had a conversation about what it means to have your head and heart in two different places.