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In New York’s ‘Little Ukraine,’ fears and prayers for home country

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"Little Ukraine," also known as "Ukrainian Village," is situated on 6th and 7th Street between 1st and 3rd Avenue in the trendy East Village./AFP
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Feb 23, 2022 - 01:22 AM

NEW YORK — In New York’s “Little Ukraine,” anxious residents fretted Tuesday about the fate of their loved ones 4,000 miles away if Russia launches a full-scale invasion of their homeland.

“It’s like a bad dream,” Anna Shestopalova said outside the St George Ukrainian Catholic Church in Manhattan.

She emigrated to the United States in 1996 and is fearful for the safety of her sister and nephews back in Ukraine.

“I spoke to my sister this morning and she is very worried. I never think in my entire life that this was going to be happen,” Shestopalova told AFP.

“Little Ukraine,” also known as “Ukrainian Village,” is situated on 6th and 7th Street between 1st and 3rd Avenue in the trendy East Village.

Although the area has become less Ukrainian in recent years due to gentrification, the country’s influences are plain to see.

‘A heavy heart’ 

At the center of the small community is Veselka restaurant, which proudly displays the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag in its window.

Inside, Ukrainian chefs and waiters serve up borscht soup and pierogi dumplings.

Many staff are anxious that Vladimir Putin is about to launch a war on Ukraine.

“I feel very sad and with a very heavy heart,” said owner Jason Birchard, a third-generation Ukrainian whose grandfather opened the restaurant in 1954.

“We’re hoping for a peaceful resolution but with the situation being volatile as it is, we’re very concerned.”

He added that a lot of customers “are very sympathetic” to Ukraine’s situation.

“They’re sending their prayers and well wishes and asking about staff and their family,” the 54-year-old told AFP.

The manager of the restaurant is 30-year old Vitalii Desiatnychenko, who finds being separated from his parents in Kiev extremely difficult at this time.

“It’s not the easiest thing to live in New York and be physically present right here and then have your mind and have your head somewhere else,” he said.

“Even though I’ve been here for ten years I’m still a Ukrainian. I’m still a single child in the family and now I cannot not be worried about them,” Desiatnychenko told AFP.

‘This is all politics’ 

A little over one million people of Ukrainian descent lived in the United States in 2019, according to US census estimates, with the largest number of 160,000 in New York City.

The Big Apple also has a large Russian population, with many living in the “Little Odessa” area of Brooklyn.

Desiatnychenko says that while he thinks some older Russians in America have been affected by Russian “propaganda” he feels no ill will towards his Russian friends.

“This is all politics. We are the same people, we’re coming from the same territories. Ukrainians — they have families in Russia, Russians — they have family in Ukraine,” he said.

Opposite Veselka sits the East Village Meat Market. A Ukrainian flag hangs in its window; inside is a poster advertising a rally in support of Ukraine.

At the nearby Ukrainian National Home cultural center a poster outside reads “Say No to Putin.”

Inside, dance teacher Natalia Lemishka has a simple message for Russia’s leader: “Just don’t do this. Just don’t do this,” she repeats.

All stand ready to help Ukraine if conflict sparks a humanitarian disaster.

“Every time there’s something going on, people collect money, people buy clothes, people send food,” said Desiatnychenko.

“There have been talks in the community that if the invasion is going to start we’re going to restart doing that again.”

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