With the Ukrainian American Community Center sitting right in the heart of the St. Anthony West neighborhood, and a huge population of Ukrainian Americans living in Northeast, Russia’s invasion hits close to home for a lot of people in our community, whether they are of Ukrainian descent or not.
“It seemed like every day was getting more and more horrific, and I wanted to do something to help,” said Michael Rainville, the Minneapolis City Council Member for the Third Ward, where the Ukrainian American Center is located. “These are human beings who don’t deserve this genocide put on them. … We have to show the world that this is wrong.”
Rainville partnered with the Ukrainian Center to raise money for medical supplies for Ukrainian refugees and armed forces. They hosted a benefit concert in the community center’s auditorium, where local bands Forest Miller and the Lodge Boys, and The Ukrainian Village Band played for more than 1,200 people the evening of April 23. The event was sponsored by Kramarczuk’s Deli and Summit Brewing Company, which provided food and drink. All proceeds from food and beverage sales went to the cause, and voluntary donation booths were set up at the door. Over the course of the evening, Rainville said they raised more than $16,000, and at the time of this writing, they were still counting more donations.
“It’s just so Nordeast!” said one guest, Doug Bjostad, who had been feeling for months like he had to do something, but wasn’t sure what action he could take. He heard of this opportunity and was delighted at the chance to help so directly in a way that was so characteristic of the community: beer and sausage.
“That’s who we are,” said Rainville. “We eat and we drink and we hang out with each other, but for a very serious reason.”
Other guests echoed the sentiment, and hailed from not just Northeast, but from from all around Minnesota. Visitors Gary, Jean and Dave came from Faribault, familiar with some of the Northeast scene. They’ve been guests at St. Constantine Ukrainian Catholic Church, and they wanted to support the community in any way they could.
“I’ve been looking for a way to support Ukraine, but there’s a lot of scams out there,” said Dave. “This seemed like the most genuine way to do something.”
Bill Smith heard about the event through the Germanic-American Institute in St. Paul, of which he is a part. The institute has set up their own fund to aid refugees staying in the German town of Selb and encouraged members to come to the concert to help raise money there, too.
“I hate that asshole sonuvabitch Putin,” he said, adding that having grown up during the Cold War, news out of Ukraine feels like an echo of that era. “He’s a product of the Cold War, and he hasn’t given up on it.”
Russian immigrant Igor Khomyakov and his son Andre came to support their Ukrainian-American neighbors. The Khomyakov family was devastated by the news out of their homeland, and they felt that this was the most direct way to offer aid on behalf of Russians who stand against the
Putin administration’s actions.
“We have to start somewhere to give back,” Igor said. “The atrocities are too much to comprehend.”
Many people at the event had direct ties back to Ukraine, whether it be friends, family or neighbors. Daria Kushnir-Hansen’s family moved to the States from Ukraine after World War II. Emily Falzone and Deb Thorp said a friend of theirs is Ukrainian and still has family there who refuse to leave, so they came out that night to support them.
“While I didn’t live in Ukraine, it’s important to maintain our traditions,” said Kushnir- Hansen.
Howard Dotson, a military veteran, healthcare chaplain and art therapist, came to the show to offer some support here before he returns to Ukraine to assist with evacuation efforts in Lviv.
With a master’s degree in psychology and art therapy, Dotson has 19 years of experience working with children in Kenya, South Africa, Palestine, Beirut, Poland and Ukraine. He was in Ukraine last month working with children at evacuation points around the country, and is going back again on May 1 to help coordinate evacuations by bus.
“I know what’s going to happen in Ukraine is the same as what happened during the siege of Aleppo,” he said, referring to the use of chemical weapons on civilians in the city of Aleppo, Syria, in 2016. “They just can’t rely on the trains anymore.”
Dotson said he worries that using trains to evacuate civilians makes them easy targets, citing missile strikes on Ukrainian train stations over recent weeks. However, trains are cheaper than buses, so they are the primary tool in the evacuation effort right now. He hopes to raise money to pay for bus rides that would spread civilians out over wider, more flexible, and hopefully safer routes to Warsaw, Poland. When he arrives in Ukraine, he and other volunteers and nonprofits he is coordinating with will organize a departure from Lviv to Warsaw on May 4.
Last month, Dotson traveled to five train stations across Ukraine to host “art circles” with refugee children waiting there for a way out. There, he partnered with other volunteers to spend time drawing with children and interpreting the art they made to better understand what kind of mental health care they might need once they got to safety. While he is unable to speak Ukrainian, Dotson said art is a universal language.
“Kids speak and play through art. That’s how they heal,” he said.“Based on their drawings and nonverbal [communication], I’ll be able to assess who needs to be prioritized for psychological first aid once we arrive in Warsaw.”
As a PTSD survivor himself, Dotson said it is important that he use his knowledge and experience to help survivors in Ukraine navigate this horrible time together.
Though buses will have already departed by the time this Northeaster edition hits doorsteps, another team is preparing for another trip in June, and is raising money at https://gofund.me/fdcc3dd3.
Rainville said that after the success of the fundraiser, he is likely to hold another event, though an exact time and date are to be determined.
Below: The Ukrainian Village Band regaled the audience with a collection of Ukrainian folk songs about love, loss, and community adapted from throughout the nation’s long history. Between tunes, they took some time to explain the heritage and meaning of their music. Folks from the audience got up and danced along. (Photos by Alex Schlee)