On a cold morning in Jersey City, snow and ice fell upon the urban landscape, with clouds covering the sky. The wind blew the flags of the United States and Ukraine above the Ukrainian Community Center, located near Rt. 139.
Inside the center, community members from the Ukrainian National Home and volunteers were busy across a giant banquet hall and a kitchen making pyrohy (Ukrainian pierogies), making and cutting dough, filling them with sauerkraut and boiling them to sell and raise funds.
Meanwhile downstairs, an abundance of donations and humanitarian aid were being collected, ranging from clothes, medicine and boxes upon boxes of diapers that will be sent to Ukrainian military and citizens.
All of this is part of the combined efforts by the Ukrainian community in Jersey City and others coming to the aid of Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion. Even in the darkest hour, there was a sense of determination in the air for those helping out.
“It’s our obligation to help the people,” said Igor Kolinets, the president of the Ukrainian National Home. “It was very easy to mobilize people to help us. It’s not just the Ukrainian people; we have many other people, all the American people. It doesn’t matter what kind of nationality they are – everybody helps us.”
The history of the Ukrainian National Home organization dates far back to 1918. Since then, many Ukrainian institutions such as churches, credit unions, youth associations and schools were created.
At the center, they do activities ranging from festivals, picnics, celebrations, and easter egg painting. “We have a big Ukrainian community in Jersey City,” said Ihor Siouta, a Jersey City resident who moved from Ukraine about 31 years ago. “This home serves as a place where our kids, grandkids and newcomers come and socialize here.”
Oksana Condon, a member of the board of directors, moved to the United States in 2006, and has been a Jersey City resident for nine years. “I really enjoy Jersey City,” she said. “I have my husband who brought me here, and my son goes to Hamilton Park Montessori. Jersey City is so diverse that there is a part of each culture here.”
“Because you cannot stay and not do anything, then you deteriorate. You’re not you.” Ihor Siota
Condon said living in the U.S. is very different than Ukraine with it’s systems and politics. “If you go back, we are much older, and we’ve been having the border shift for a very long time, which I think you guys don’t really get to experience and is more stable. But Ukraine, even throughout all this hardships, we still keep our language, our traditions, and we are never gonna give up.”
Siouta moved for religious reasons around the time when the country was still in the Soviet Union, saying that the Catholic church was underground and that they weren’t able to practice it. In general, life in the U.S. was easier.
“We used to dream about normal life,” he said. “That you can open your mouth and just say what’s in your mind and not think 10 to 20 times in your mind: ‘Can I say it? Maybe somebody is listening?’ Right?’ it’s just political things. It used to be like this.”
“Not anymore in Ukraine, until this terrible time.”
For everyone, it was incredibly hard to comprehend what was happening when the invasion began. “I wish this war would end soon,” said Kolinets. “I wish this war would end yesterday, because too many innocent people die, just for nothing.”
The members didn’t hold back their words towards Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He’s a psycho,” said Kolinets. “He is a sick-minded man.”
Some residents also have family members that are still in Ukraine. Siouta’s son, who’s in Lviv, is part of a community organization there that are collecting supplies for people in need, while Condon’s two grandmothers, uncle and aunt are also in the country.
In the wake of the war, the Ukrainian community in Jersey City has mobilized to help send aid to the country, including those from all walks of life.
“The community has been fantastic,” said Condon. “People brought supplies, we created Amazon links, so we had things delivered – shoes, the kneecaps[…]all that stuff. We are doing a lot of work to make sure that our soldiers are able to stand right now we can be free and the whole world can learn the lesson from this.”
They even had a person named Ihor, who fled from Ukraine just a few days ago, that was volunteering at the center in Jersey City.
Ihor, who wished to be identified by his first name due to fear of repercussions, said via an interpreter that he was shocked about the invasion, and hopes that Ukraine will regain their freedom. “I am absolutely delighted that the Ukrainian community rallies around the Ukrainian Community Center, and that together we can help in whichever way we can,” he said.
One person also volunteering was Kamila Pawaka, a teacher at St. Dominic Academy, who’s family is from Poland and lives near the border of Ukraine.
Pawaka said that after a presentation about Ukraine at school, a number of people had asked how to help Ukraine, and she had learned about the Ukrainian center from one of her student’s mothers.
“I asked ‘is there any service opportunities or anything that we can do to help as a school or if I can get a group of girls to volunteer with something,’ and she actually recommended this place,” she said.
The help that the Ukrainian community received has been a big relief for them, said Siouta. “Because you cannot stay and not do anything, then you deteriorate. You’re not you. So without this building, without this community, how would I help? Right? So for all of us, it’s a place where we can get together and do something for them.”
For more information on donating, visit ukrnathomejcity.com.