You can see the concern on their faces at times. They sit in English class or Citizenship class, but their minds are five thousand miles away with family and friends. Our Ukrainian refugees and immigrants keep teachers abreast on what is happening; bringing a heavy reality and urgency to a conflict that can at times feel distant on the television or computer screen.
One Ukrainian immigrant, Oleksii, agreed to speak with me after class about his thoughts on the conflict. The interview was conducted with the help of a Russian translator. Oleksii immigrated about two years ago to be closer to their daughter and grandchildren, who live in Sioux Falls. He is from southern Ukraine, from a city on the border with Crimea and the Black Sea. He was a ship captain in Ukraine. “Nothing good is happening. It’s not right. We need to negotiate, to talk…negotiate at the table, not with guns.” He communicates almost daily with his mother and sister who live near the capital city of Kiev. I asked him what he wants for Ukraine, how he imagines the conflict could be resolved. “First of all, we don’t want war. 70% of Ukrainians work in Siberia. We have a lot of mixed families [Ukrainian and Russian]. Neither group wants war.” He shared skepticism with the referendum held in Crimea earlier in the month and blamed Ukraine’s current issues with Russia on the former Ukrainian president’s actions. “Our former President [Viktor Yanukovych] just sold us.”
Andrey, a Ukrainian refugee who came to Sioux Falls in 2001, is studying to become an American citizen. I asked him after class about his thoughts on Ukraine and he shared with me how the current conflict is the result of long series of actions begun in late 2013. He said some people in Ukraine felt the coup was unconstitutional, but that a majority of Ukrainians supported the ousting of President Yanukovych, citing the recently revealed 500 acre presidential estate’s vast wealth as one example of his corruption in a country’s whose average monthly salary is $450. “The [former] president makes this big mess…and then the new Congress has a mess with a new constitution and confusion about the president…and now Russia sees the big mess and wants Ukraine.” He said some people in Ukraine feel Russia’s President Putin is manipulating Russians in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine saying, “’You need more security; I want to help’ but it is a lie. He [Putin] wants to take eastern Ukraine…the states of Donetsk and Kharkov.” Andrey is from southeastern Ukraine and fears for his family and friends there. He said he learned of some friends moving to western Ukraine because they are afraid of current fighting and tension in the area. “Putin is making the problem…before no problem. Nobody wants war. Only Putin can stop war.”
Skyping or talking on the phone almost daily with friends and family back in Ukraine, Oleksii and Andrey both share a desire and hope for a peaceful end to the conflict in Ukraine and a move towards a functional democracy and economy. All of us at LSS Refugee and Immigration Center join them in that hope.