As tension between Russia and Ukraine grew over the weekend, members of Chicago’s Ukrainian community gathered Sunday to discuss the unrest in their homeland with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
“It’s hard to watch, but we have to keep fighting,” Valeria Tkachenko, 20, of Ukrainian Village, told the Sun-Times after the town hall meeting in Chicago’s Ukranian Village neighborhood on the Northwest Side.
On Saturday Russian forces seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which raised fears of military conflict. In response Ukraine put its military on high alert and threatened war if Russia makes further advances.
For Tkachenko, a student from Kiev, the takeover marked a troubling chapter in the country’s fast-deteriorating ties with Russia.
“I’m emotional about it. I worry about my family,” she said.
Tkachenko’s dad and two brothers were among tens of thousands of people who took part in the three months of anti-government protests in the Ukrainian capital.
She worries they could be called into military duty if the conflict worsens.
“The Ukrainian community in the United States — in Chicago — has to show that we’re united,” she said.
With approximately 50,000 Ukrainian Americans, the Chicago area has one of the largest Ukrainian bases in the United States, according to census data.
Durbin, whose office organized the community meeting, discussed the country’s future with Tkachenko and several hundred others at the Chicago Ukrainian Cultural Center.
He said he supports the U.S. taking non-military action against Russia, but questioned the effectiveness of economic sanctions against the deep-pocketed Kremlin.
“It would take a long time, especially against Russia. But we should start,” he said.
The forum included a conference call with U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffery Pyatt, who described current conditions on the ground in the Ukraine.
He said Russia has sent power and infrastructure experts to Crimea to prepare in case the region is cut off from the Ukrainian mainland.
“Everybody was surprised by Putin’s actions . . . but Russia needs to understand that I fully expect the Ukrainian people will fight,” Pyatt said.
Tkachenko, who moved to Chicago six months ago, told the Sun-Times the unrest in Ukraine is always on her mind.
“It’s a disaster right now. We’re a country in need. But we’re ready to fight,” she said.
Yuriy Figel, 29, a Chicago-based entrepreneur from Kiev, said after the town hall meeting that he was “shocked” by the takeover.
“It was a surprise, but we knew something was going to happen after the Olympics,” he said.
Gregory Sidelnik, 27, a graphic designer from Park Ridge, said the conflict has made it increasingly difficult to contact his grandparents in Kiev.
“I worry about them, but we’re still able to keep in touch through social media,” he said.
Sidelnik was traveling for work last week when he decided he wanted to raise money in support of Ukrainian protesters.
He designed a pro-Ukrainian symbol and began selling sweatshirts with the emblem on the back, the proceeds from which he sends to charities in Kiev.
“I needed to do something. I wanted to make a difference,” he said.
The nation of 46 million people has been in turmoil since November when then-President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal to move the country closer to the European Union.
Yanukovych was ousted by the Ukrainian parliament last month and fled to Russia.