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‘An incredibly painful time’: Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans in Mass. share what it’s like to watch the war from afar

“The best that you can do is either donate or just speak up and raise awareness among society. You feel helpless.”

Thousands of people took part in a Peace March for Ukraine from Copley Square to Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common March 6. Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

Even though the fighting in Ukraine is halfway around the world, for some in the Greater Boston area the conflict is much closer to home. Images of people killed in airstrikes, messages from family members trying to escape or hunkering down, and the constant influx of news stories from Ukraine keep the conflict front and center. 

Danyl Levytskyi, a student at St. John’s Prep who immigrated to the United States in 2020, said watching from afar has been very hard. His friends and family are living through a war, and he said he feels like he can’t do much to help.

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“I feel helpless and even have some kind of survivor’s guilt because my friends, my relatives are out there and fighting for the freedom of their country and we’re here,” Danyl Levytskyi said. “The best that you can do is either donate or just speak up and raise awareness among society. You feel helpless.”

Levytski’s mother, Nataliia Luna, married Joe Luna in 2018. Nataliia Luna and Levytski came to the United States about a year and a half later, and Joe Luna officially adopted Danyl last year. 

In an interview with Boston.com, the entire family, who lives in Salem, shared the devastation they have been feeling since the invasion began Feb. 24. 

Nataliia Luna’s daughter, grandson, brother, mother, and many other relatives and loved ones were all still in Ukraine when Russian troops moved in. Nataliia Luna’s mother is sick and the rest of her family can’t get to her to help because of Russian patrols in the streets.  

“This is an incredibly painful time,” Joe Luna said. “Nataliia is pretty much on her phone 12 hours a day because she does have communication. It’s a fine line between [keeping] things as a private family, but then also to let the world know the seriousness of what’s going on.”

Invasion of Ukraine:

Steve Wenglowsky, a Ukrainian American living in Somerville, is faced with a similar situation to the Lunas and Levytski. Though he has never lived in Ukraine, he has many aunts, uncles, and cousins still in the country. Wenglowsky said he thought the invasion would be more gradual than it was. 

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“I just felt I spent the day [the invasion started] at home just feeling kind of sick,” Wenglowsky said.

Wenglowsky’s parents came to the United States from Ukraine after World War II and Wenglowsky visited Ukraine in 1992. 

One of his family members who is still in Ukraine is his great aunt, who is “hunkered down in her home because it’s all she has.” Wenglowsky said his family reaches out and talks to her regularly to keep her spirits up.

“It’s very emotionally charged,” Wenglowsky said. “I think for the older generation, people that have lived since World War II, they’re just exhausted. … Life has just been hard from day one. It’s really sad for me to see her in her old age — she’s in her late 80s — in the middle of a war.”

Wenglowsky said there is a sense of resignation among the older generations in Ukraine that is “absolutely heartbreaking” for family members in the United States. 

Meanwhile, the younger generations seem to be more determined to fight and stand up to Russia. One of Wenglowsky’s cousins and her family have lived in Copenhagen for a while, but were in Kiev settling affairs when fighting broke out. They were a part of the long lines of cars trying to get out of Ukraine.

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While they were able to get out, when Wenglowsky last talked to them they were planning on heading to Poland to volunteer to help refugees. 

“It’s wild. It’s just crazy to be sitting here and following that with people that you know and love from so far away,” Wenglowsky said. 

Levytskyi urged people to pay attention to what’s happening in Ukraine because it’s happening to real people. 

“It’s all real and it’s happening right now,” Levytskyi said. “Especially to American teenagers: It’s not a video game. There is nothing funny about war.”

Reaching out to help

Though they are in the United States and far away from the danger, Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans around Boston are not sitting idly by. On a large scale, protests in Boston have drawn thousands and an ever-growing number of organizations are working to help Ukrainains both in the country and those who have fled.

But on an individual level people are helping out too. Joe Luna said their family is collecting money and sending it to Ukraine. Instead of going through an organization, they are sending it to their family members, who often share the help with their friends and neighbors. 

For example, Nataliia Luna said they have a friend who owns a restaurant in Ukraine. The restaurant now is giving away bread for free to help the community, and money Nataliia Luna collected and sent is helping pay for flour. 

“They tell me [to please] say to American people thank you because we do not feel that we are alone,” Nataliia Luna said. “It’s important because it’s when we are together, we can kill war.”

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The family also attended the Feb. 27 rally at the Boston Public Garden.  

“We don’t know what else to do, but just pray and try to get money to people,” Joe said. “We also know how Russia fights a war in history and it is horrible to think about what could happen.”

Wenglosky hasn’t had a chance to go to any of the big rallies, but plans to attend some in the coming weeks. He said he is watching the Ukrainian Boston Facebook group for more events and ways to support. 

Both the Lunas and Levytskyi and Wenglosky said that the people of Ukraine don’t want or deserve this war.

“These are real people with real ties, all over the world,” Wenglowsky said. “These are just good people that are just caught. They’re in the wrong place geographically.”

The Ukrainian flag, which has become a common symbol in the past weeks, is a simple combination of a blue stripe and a yellow stripe. The blue represents the sky and the yellow, on the bottom half, represents the golden fields of wheat. Wenglosky said this simplicity reflects the people of Ukraine, saying, “They don’t want big, crazy things. They want simple things.”

“These are peaceful people who just aspire to be part of Europe, to be part of a Democracy,” Joe Luna said. “They look toward the United States as a standard bearer for that in all things. We just pray the United States doesn’t abandon them in their time of need.”

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Wenglosky pointed out how Ukraine always seems to be caught in the middle of giant geopolitical events, due to where the country is positioned. 

“At the end of the day, you’ve just got these simple people that want to be left alone and want to live their lives just like anybody else and be free and prosperous, and then these things just keep getting imposed on top of them,” Wenglowsky said. “I don’t know when it’s gonna stop but I hope someday it does.”

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