‘Time Is Very Crucial’: Chicago’s Ukrainians Organize Aid for Family Back Home
Elena Lypnytska was so distraught when Russia invaded Ukraine that she immediately threw up. That night, she had trouble sleeping as she scanned the news, checking in with loved ones and contemplating ways to help. By Saturday, she sorted out a way to collect necessities to send to Ukrainians at the forefront of the conflict.
“Right now, we can’t send money to Ukraine, we can’t send regular packages,” she explains to Rolling Stone. But Chicago-based Meest-Karpaty — a package-delivery company that services several countries in Eastern Europe — started a humanitarian effort to collect items for Ukraine, such as clothing and medication that the company will fly to Ukraine. The problem was that the information to donate was a bit hard to navigate and some of it was in Ukrainian.
Lypnytska tried to make things simpler. She created a list of items needed for Urkainian aid and shared it on her Fullcirclechicago Instagram so that others can share it. “If you want to help Ukrainians, this is not a third-party person — It’s direct,” she says. “We’ll do what we need to do, and will give it to the people who are doing humanitarian help and they send it to Ukraine. So it’s all happening here. We’re asking them to do it overnight as soon as possible, because time is very crucial right now.”
She began receiving deliveries on Monday at her pilates studio, which she and her friends will sort through and take to Meest-Karpaty to deliver to Ukraine. The 38-year-old came to the U.S. at age 20. Her mother, sister and nephew are still in western Ukraine and she says she’s communicated with them several times a day in the wake of the invasion. She says they are doing “OK,” but have a go-bag ready when necessary. “I think just in general, Ukraine is very strong, spiritually, very proud, very fearless. We know what it means to be under Russian invasion. We know what it means to be a part of USSR. We’ve been through this before. So people are — they’re not scared, but they are ready to fight. They are very calm. It’s it’s amazing.”
She hopes more people will get involved.
“If we can help them with the packages, if we can be loud enough and, you know, reach congressmen, reach people in government, if we can educate people more, if we can tell them more why this is such a big problem, it’s not just a Ukrainian problem. This is the world’s problem. And unfortunately, the world is a little bit sleeping, or not stepping in enough to help us. But I think that’s the best we can do.”
Four days into the conflict and some 5,000 miles away, Kyiv’s sister city Chicago continued showing its solidarity for Ukrainian sovereignty, pleas for peace, and demands for U.S. sanctions on Russia during one of numerous area protests. Thousands, including Lypnytska, have joined the call, from marching in the streets to honking horns and forming car caravans to draw more attention to the conflict.
The invasion spurred immediate action in Chicago hours after the first bomb dropped. People packed an overpass bridge on the Northwest side that afternoon; a suburban Bloomingdale, Illinois, church, an hour west of the city, held a rally that evening; and a couple hundred-strong crowd showed up midday on the front steps of Chicago’s Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic church. At the byzantine-domed structure, community members and politicians including Congressman Mike Quigley addressed the crowd who waved Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag, offered up prayers and songs in Ukrainian and bore signs that read “Chicago Stands With Ukraine” alongside urging to “Stop War.”
By Sunday, the support swelled at another protest in front of the church. Ukrainian national songs were sung; “Slava Ukrayini” (“Glory to Ukraine”) greetings were answered with a boisterous “Heroyam Slava” (“Glory to Heroes”), a Ukrainian call-and-response echoing the firm resolve many in attendance have embraced through generations of fighting for their sovereignty. “USA Support Ukraine,” “Stop Russian Aggression/Oppression” and “Close the Sky” — a plea for allies to assist in blocking Ukraine’s airspace from Russian aircraft — were some of the day’s recurring chants.
Among the politicians voicing their support were Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and Governor J.B. Pritzker, who shared that his family comes from Kyiv. “Liberty, democracy and humanity will beat tyranny and oppression every time, but only if we resist in solidarity with the Ukrainian people,” Pritzker said. He also quipped: “Screw Vladimir Putin.” Following the protest in Ukrainian Village, hundreds assembled in Millennium Park to march downtown in support of Ukraine.
In Chicago, the calls for action are not only an anti-war/anti-Putin rallying cry to defend democracy, but they are deeply personal. Home to the second largest Ukrainian population in the U.S., with more than 100,000 Ukrainian-Americans living in Chicagoland, the community has called the city its home for a century. Some 10,000 live in Ukrainian Village, a neighborhood that’s become a central hub for the Ukrainian diaspora. It’s home to Sts. Volodymyr and Olha as well as other cultural touchstones, such as the Ukrainian National Museum, the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, and myriad independently owned restaurants and businesses.
Maria Klimchak, curator at the Ukrainian National Museum, fled Western Ukraine as a refugee to the U.S. in 1993. She was born in 1961, when Russia occupied the country. “We wanted to find a way to raise our kids in a democratic society, and also we wanted to feel free, because living in the Soviet Union in a cage for 30 years, I understood what future my children [could] expect,” she tells Rolling Stone. Her daughter was three, and her son was age eight at the time. While her children were raised in the U.S., they spent summers with their extended family in Ukraine.
As the war unfolds, Klimchak says she feels guilty she is not in Ukraine. “I have half of my soul in Ukraine, half in the United States,” she says. Her sister is a teacher whose school serves almost as “a refugee camp” for Ukrainians fleeing the Eastern area. She and their 84-year-old mother head to a bomb shelter every night. “For my mom, it’s very hard to leave the apartment building. But this is life and they accept, but she’s very positive. She said that she survived through the communist regime. She is a child of war, Second World War, and she’s praying every day that Putin will die,” she says. Her extended family, as well as her husband’s, plan to stay in the region.
Klimchak has been donating to Ukrainian American Veteran’s Organization, and the Ukrainian Red Cross, for whom her niece is a volunteer.
She sees hope in the younger generation of Ukrainians, born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. “They are free, they also [experienced] a very peaceful nation. They travel a lot. They studied abroad. They brought all experience to Ukraine,” she says. “And of course, it’s like new democratic society, European society and not Russian. They will never be back to under umbrella of Russia. And you see how brave they are. I am very proud of that.”
Aside from appreciating the moral support found amid the community and at protests such as the one on Sunday, Klimchak emphasizes a need to cut Russia’s access to the banking system — one of the sanctions the U.S. and allies have begun implementing — and she adds, “do not buy oil.”