Ukrainian-Americans speak on behalf of friends, family at Iowa City solidarity rally

People gather on the Pentacrest to express support for Ukraine, March 1, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Many were wearing the Ukrainian national colors of blue and yellow, and a few carried the country’s flag as they marched from the Ped Mall to the Old Capitol Building Tuesday, showing support for Ukraine as it resists Russia’s invasion.

Tuesday’s solidarity rally was the second held on the Pentacrest since the invasion of Ukraine ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, Feb. 24. The first rally was held on Sunday, and attracted about 60 participants. Tuesday’s event, organized just a day in advance, drew a similar number.

“Around half-a-million Ukrainians already escaped Ukraine, and there is no end to this,” Olga Dubey, a neurologist from Ukraine who is currently a Fulbright scholar pursuing graduate studies at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, said from the steps of the Old Capitol. She described how people in Ukraine’s cities are sheltering in bunkers and basements as warning sirens blare, and the Russian army fire missiles and aim artillery barrages at civilian areas.

“We ask you to support our army with donations, as well as support us with humanitarian help,” Dubey said. “There are a lot of ways to do it.”

On the Facebook page for the march and rally, Dubey and Yotopia owner Veronica Tessler, co-organizers of the event, link to a page with multiple organizations providing assistance in Ukraine. (Yale University historian Timothy Snyder has also created a list of non-governmental organizations providing support and relief to Ukrainians.)

Tessler has her own personal connections to Ukraine. Her father was Ukrainian and immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, when it was one of the many countries that made up the Soviet Union. Ukraine regained its status as an independent country in 1992, following the dissolution of the USSR.

“There are people — civilians — dying and being bombarded by Putin’s insane invasion of this sovereign nation that has been building its democracy for just a short 30 years,” Tessler told the people assembled on the Pentacrest. “So our hearts go out to them, and we stand in solidarity with all Ukrainians and peace-lovers around the world.”

Iowa City Councilmember Janice Weiner, a retired foreign service officer, was working for the U.S. State Department in Germany 30 years ago, as the communist governments of the Soviet-dominated East Bloc countries collapsed in the face of opposition from their own citizens.

“I witnessed, as we are today, courageous people prepared to give their lives for actual freedom,” Weiner said.

Iowa City Councilmember Janice Weiner addressing the rally in support of Ukraine, March 1, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

The leaders of those East Bloc countries had underestimated the power and determination of their citizens to change their governments, and were unprepared as their regimes fell. Putin apparently underestimated the determination of Ukrainians to resist his invasion and preserve their independence and national identity and fiercely they would fight back. He also failed to understand how the rest of the world would respond, or the amount of resistance he’d face in his own country as some Russians protest against the war despite heavy police repression.

“Putin has united Europe, NATO, the EU and the former East Bloc — even normally neutral countries — as they have not been for years, perhaps never before,” Weiner said. “And I have such respect for those in Russia who show the courage to go out in the street and demonstrate against this war as well.”

While Weiner helped put the Russian invasion in a broader context — not just in terms of history, but as part of attempts to undermine democracy around the world, including in the United States, that have become more aggressive over the last five years — 12-year-old Misha Klymenko spoke in very personal terms when he addressed the rally.

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Klymenko, who was born in Kyiv and is now a sixth-grader at Horace Mann Elementary School, has been worried about family and friends ever since the invasion began.

“My grandparents, my friends, they are all hiding in bomb shelters,” he said. “I want to go back to my country, see my friends, see my grandparents, see my beautiful country. Please help stop war in Ukraine.”

“We should all live in peace.”

Most of the speakers on Tuesday were Ukrainian or have family roots in that country, but a few were just there to declare their support and solidarity. That sense of solidarity and the willingness to help are of paramount importance at the moment, said Viktor Soloviov, who used to teach at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

“Of course, our power is limited because we are far from our country,” Soloviov, who is currently a graduate student at UI, said. “But thanks to you guys, who became Ukrainians for a while right now in standing for Ukraine, I really believe that we can help.”

People march from the Ped Mall to the Pentacrest, expressing support for Ukraine. — Jason Smith/Little Village