When Mariana Hembarovska and her 6-year-old daughter, Yuliia, arrived from Ukraine three weeks ago, they were warmly welcomed into the open arms of the Ukrainian community here in St. Louis.
Hembarovska’s decision to leave behind her husband and extended family in Lviv, in Western Ukraine, was difficult, but the anxiety her daughter experienced became too much to bear, she said.
Her husband remained home to help as a volunteer with the Ukrainian Army. Her mother, father and brother also are helping with the efforts at home, including making covers for military tanks and assisting Ukrainians migrating from the east to west.
“Here I can sleep all night and don’t worry that something can happen,” Hembarovska said. “It’s very scary when you need to wake up three times at night and take your baby to go to hide somewhere. I didn’t want to do it but I needed to do it, because she must have a normal life without war.”
Tetiana Mouzi and her husband, Yuriy Safronov, longtime members of St. Mary’s Assumption Ukrainian Catholic Church in south St. Louis County, are sponsoring Hembarovska and her daughter through the Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) Program. The couple also are sponsoring Mouzi’s niece and daughter, who arrived from Ukraine several weeks ago.
All of them attended a fundraiser held Aug. 27 at Bohrer Park in south St. Louis County in observation of Ukrainian Independence Day (Aug. 24) and to support ongoing humanitarian and military efforts in Ukraine.
The afternoon began with a Panakhyda — a memorial liturgy for the dead — at St. Mary’s Assumption, to remember the military and civilians who have lost their lives since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine six months ago. Afterward, several hundred people processed across the church parking lot to the park and opened the festivities by singing the Ukrainian National Anthem. The event featured food, music, traditional Ukrainian folk dancing and handmade items for sale. Proceeds from the event will go toward humanitarian and military aid efforts in Ukraine.
Deacon Eugene Logusch, parish administrator at St. Mary’s Assumption, said many parishioners, as well as the greater Ukrainian community in St. Louis, continue to be deeply affected by the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.
“Several (parishioners) who were here on a green card have returned to Ukraine to serve in the military,” he said. “We have had parishioners who were trapped there as they were traveling in the early days of the invasion. Others have family who are still there.”
Celebrating Ukrainian independence means celebrating unity, Deacon Logusch told those attending the event. “This is love to Ukrainian culture, to Ukrainian music, to Ukrainian language, to the Ukrainian spirit and to Ukrainian liberty. We bow our heads before the brave sons and daughters who are defending the Ukrainian state on the front lines … together with them, we believe in the unquenchable star of Ukraine and in her great future.”
Mouzi and Safronov came to the United States from Ukraine almost 30 years ago. Both are lay leaders at St. Mary’s Assumption. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, they and other parishioners have helped organize gatherings to collect money and supplies to send abroad. The church also has held a regular Moleben, an intercessory prayer service that is a part of Eastern Catholic Churches in honor of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, a feast or a particular saint or martyr.
When President Joe Biden announced the Uniting for Ukraine program, which was launched April 21 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security, Mouzi felt called to open her home. Each refugee must have a supporter in the United States, who agrees to provide financial support for the duration of their stay in the country, which under the program is a two-year period.
“The biggest question for me is, I am here, I can do something. What can I do?” she said. “When Biden announced we can bring actual people here who are scared and suffering there and don’t see any future, I started feeling like we need to do something.”
While families are beginning to adjust to life in the United States, it hasn’t always been an easy transition, she said. One newcomer who heard a tornado siren test — not knowing what it was — became upset and called Mouzi for help.
“It was my first time thinking they will adjust here — but no, it’s not easy,” she said. “We hear all of the stories (about the war in Ukraine) and think we understand them and really want to help and do something.”
Father James Deshotels, SJ, who regularly celebrates the Divine Liturgy at St. Mary’s Assumption, said there’s been a great anticipation for the arrival of refugees.
“There’s been a lot of praying, a lot of fundraising,” he said. “I am amazed at how many people want to help.”
Support from the community
Part of the weekend’s festivities included traditional Ukrainian folk dances, performed by several dozen women and children. Hannah Nameniuk and her boyfriend, Alex Piasta, who came to St. Louis for Nameniuk’s studies at Saint Louis University, donated their time to teach the group several dances. The two began lessons in Ukrainian dance when they were 5 and now teach classes to others.
“I never thought that moving to St. Louis meant that I would get to enhance my Ukrainian culture,” said Nameniuk, who was born in the United States. “I didn’t know there was such a huge community here.”
Tatiana Bihun, a second-generation Ukrainian who still has family in Ukraine, has taken her medical background — she is an assistant medical examiner for St. Louis City — and assembled trauma kits to send to Ukraine.
Bihun worked with SSM Health in the spring to obtain several pallets of medical supplies to send to Ukraine. She recently met a woman in St. Louis who was receiving money from people in Ukraine in need of medical trauma kits.
“She was spending $130 per pack, and I told her if you buy the components in bulk, you can get the cost down.” Bihun was able to match the monetary donation from Ukraine and lowered the cost by purchasing the supplies separately. She has since sent about 80 trauma kits to the front lines, which include wound seals, vented chest seals and other critical supplies to help save lives.
“It’s a continued effort,” she said. To learn more about how to donate toward the trauma kits, email [email protected].
>> Aid for Ukraine
To address the growing needs in the conflict in Ukraine, Catholic Relief Services has sent staff and resources to support local Caritas partners in Ukraine and nearby countries. To donate, see stlreview.com/3Tvz2QI.
The Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia has created a fund to support humanitarian aid projects and organizations, and suffering Church institutions in Ukraine. See ukrarcheparchy.us/donate.
Two pontifical agencies also are taking donations for Ukraine: Catholic Near East Welfare Association, cnewa.org/campaigns/ukraine/, and Aid to the Church in Need, bit.ly/3sgpuNV. Internationally, Aid to the Church can be reached at bit.ly/3vfqCn4.
The National Bank of Ukraine has opened a special fundraising account to provide humanitarian aid to civilians and to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine. See bank.gov.ua/en/ for more information.
To learn more about the Uniting for Ukraine program, see www.uscis.gov/ukraine.