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PA & Ukraine - How Reverberations of Russian Invasion Hit Home

Photo by Tom Riese
A Ukrainian flag was raised at the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department Headquarters on Wednesday February 9 after Mayor George Brown authorized flying the country’s colors on city property.

The Rev. Mykola Ivanov insists that his parents text him every hour. After a morning service on Feb. 28, Ivanov, the pastor of Transfiguration Ukrainian Catholic Church, stood in the empty Shamokin church waiting for their first text of the day.

Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania residents are watching closely as war unfolds in Ukraine – particularly those members of the state’s Ukrainian population, which is second only to New York.

Communities around the region, including Wilkes-Barre, are flying Ukrainian flags in public spaces, organizing fundraisers and holding Mass for peace in the Eastern European country. Since the first Russian attacks began in late February, residents are keeping in touch with family and friends living in the embattled country.

Ivanov, 44, threatened to travel to Ukraine if his parents didn't stay in close contact. His parents, in-laws and brother all live in Lviv, in Western Ukraine. The city became a relative safe haven as the first wave of Russian attacks focused on the northern capital city of Kyiv, but Ivanov said his family does not feel completely secure.

“Almost all of the air strikes on Kyiv are about a 15 minute flight to my home city,” he said.

Ivanov asked his parents to come to the United States and stay with his family. His father’s answer surprised him. They declined to seek refuge in the States in order to stay with their in-laws, who don’t have travel visas.

The priest, based in Northumberland County, has led prayer services for peace in Ukraine since the conflict began. He said he has felt support not only from his own parish community, but from other religious leaders and community members as well. During the first weekend of the war, Ivanov said his church was as full as it usually is during Easter or Christmas.

Hana Savatteri, a member of St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Scranton, also worries for family members in western Ukraine. She moved to the United States in 2006 and became a citizen in 2017. She has been trying for five years to get a family-based visa for her son and his children. But even if they could, her relatives do not want to leave Ukraine, Savatteri said. Men ages 18 to 60 are prohibited from leaving. They are expected to defend their country.

“They don’t want to leave their husbands,” Savatteri said of her daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

Even after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Savatteri said she did not expect an invasion of this scale. She has many Russian friends who live in Moscow, St. Petersburg and close to the Ukrainian border who also didn’t expect a war.

For Ulana Prociuk, a longtime employee of the Ukrainian Homestead in Lehighton, news coverage of the invasion brought back echoes of the past. She recalled her parents’ stories of the beginning of World War II.

“When the tanks came in, the airplanes, the sirens. It’s all over again, and in this day and age, it shouldn’t be that way,” she said.

Prociuk was born and raised in the United States but has family that lives near Ivano-Frankivsk, where a Russian missile hit an international airport. Her family could hear the explosion.

What hasn’t surprised those watching the war unfold from afar is what they see as the resilience of Ukrainians and others joining the fight to protect the country.

Prociuk recalled the words of Vasyl Symonenko, a writer and activist of the dissident movement who died at the age of 28 after being beaten by police in 1963.

“‘Ukraine you are my prayer, you are my age-old despair, a fierce battle is raging over the world, for your life, your rights.’,” she recited, adding “This is what’s happening today.”

Sarah Scinto is the local host of All Things Considered on WVIA. She is a Connecticut native and graduate of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, and has previously covered Northeastern Pennsylvania for The Scranton Times-Tribune, The Citizens’ Voice and Greater Pittston Progress.
Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.