Philly-area Ukrainians respond to unrest with prayers, protests

Listen
 About 200 people gathered outside of City Hall in Philadelphia to honor those who died in Ukraine last week. (Sarah Whites-Koditschek/For NewsWorks)

About 200 people gathered outside of City Hall in Philadelphia to honor those who died in Ukraine last week. (Sarah Whites-Koditschek/For NewsWorks)

After Ukraine’s parliament voted to remove president Viktor Yanukovych, around 200 people met at Philadelphia City Hall Sunday to commemorate the dozens of protesters killed in Ukraine.

Mourners lit candles, sang songs, read poems and listed the names of the deceased. Bohdan Pechenyak is an organizer for the local Ukrainian community who has extended family there. He said friends of friends were shot.

“These are young people who never hurt anyone really,” said Pechenyak. “They were just standing up for their rights. They were killed cold bloodedly without any regard, you know, people were shot and others wanted to pull them away and save their lives and they were shot.”

“Even those who had painted the Red Cross, the medical staff who tried to help. There’s no excuse for that kind of behavior and these people need to be held responsible,” he said.

Philadelphia’s Ukrainian community has spent the last few weeks meeting at churches, community centers and at public rallies to support the demand by Ukrainian protesters for the end of President Yanukovych’s government.

“It’s been shocking, it’s been infuriating. It’s a whole mix of emotions. These people have died, to make sure they didn’t die in vain, the system must be changed. otherwise new people will come and continue stealing and oppressing people then what did they die for, in a sense?” said Pechenyak.

At Philadelphia City Hall, organizers read a list of names of the deceased. At 3p.m. Sunday, Philadelphia mourners joined others worldwide for a moment of silence.

“Without the bloodshed we wouldn’t have the democracy we have today in Ukraine,” said Oksana Tarasiuk, a former research scientist and pharmacist.

Tarasiuk immigrated to the United States as a child of World War II refugees. Recently, she has kept up with events in Ukraine by calling family and following Facebook. She was especially worried about her cousins’ children who had joined the protests. No one in her family has been harmed so far.

“Today, it’s mournful, on the one hand yes, we’re very happy that the opposition was able to get through what they wanted to but today is a day of mourning for the fallen heroes and we have watchful eyes for the future,” said Tarasiuk.

Roman Cybriwsky is a Professor of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. He joined the protesters in Kiev over his winter break.

“People are praying for the success of the country. We are very sorry it’s took a body count to get the government to fall,” said Cybriwsky.

“But how they died, by snipers, [by] someone on a hillock. Here we are in the center of Philadelphia, if you can imagine a sniper somewhere just picking people off one after another doing the work of our government, it’s just unthinkable,” he added.

According to Cybriwsky, the violence in Ukraine is unlike anything that’s happened since the country gained independence.

The group sang Ukraine’s national anthem before dispersing. Many gathered said they are hopeful about the country’s elections scheduled for May. A group of local physicians will travel to Ukraine to help treat some of the hundreds wounded in the protests.

Philadelphia has one of the largest Ukrainian populations of any American City. According to Pechenyak, there are roughly 100,000 Ukrainians in the area. Others of Georgian, Belarusian and Polish descent attended the rally to show support.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.