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'Truly horrifying': Ukrainian expats in the U.S. feel fear, anger — and guilt

In interviews, Ukrainian-born people living in the United States expressed deep anxiety over their homeland’s future and a desire to do more.
Image: Protesters rally in a show of solidarity with Ukraine outside the United Nations in New York on Feb. 17, 2022.
Protesters rally in a show of solidarity with Ukraine outside the United Nations on Feb. 17, 2022, in New York City.Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images

Every morning these days, Lana Prudyvus wakes up with dread in the pit of her stomach.

Prudyvus, a tennis coach who was born in Ukraine and lives in California, feels “terrified” about what awaits on her cellphone — news alerts about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest announcement and text messages her father sends from their homeland about on-the-ground developments there.

“In the last couple days, the situation has become worse and worse by the hour,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Putin is so unpredictable, and that’s the hardest part. We have no idea what’s going to happen next.”

Prudyvus, 25, watches the coverage of the escalating Ukraine crisis with a swirl of emotions: anxiety about the future of her native country, fear for her parents and loved ones trying to survive there, and rage at Putin.

But this week, she was struck by a new sentiment that surprised her.

“I feel useless,” Prudyvus said. “I feel like I’m not able to be there fully, to support my family. It’s unfair that I’m here and they’re there.”

She is one of the tens of thousands of Ukrainian expatriates across the United States who are shaken by the possibility of a full-scale Russian invasion of their homeland, and the prospect of the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II.

In interviews, some also expressed feelings of guilt, saying they are ensconced in the relative safety of America while their relatives, friends, business partners and compatriots live under the threat of war.

Yara Klimchak, 32, moved to the U.S. with her parents and her brother in 1993. She set down roots in Chicago, where she works as a content strategist at an advertising firm. (Illinois is home to the fourth-largest Ukrainian community in the nation.)

Yara Klimchak's family poses for a photo in Ukraine in June 2021.
Yara Klimchak's family poses for a photo in Ukraine in June 2021.Courtesy Yara Klimchak

But her thoughts are often about her 84-year-old grandmother, who lives in Lviv. The city is in Ukraine’s west, far from the heat of the conflict in the country’s southeast, but Klimchak constantly worries about her safety.

“I have a sense of guilt. I was fortunate that my parents were able to come to the U.S. when I was a toddler. But you watch this stuff sitting here … you wonder: Why am I not there protesting? Why am I not doing more?”

Klimchak said that speaking to the news media and spreading awareness on social media platforms are at least two ways she can help.

“I can talk about it. I can use my voice to let the West know that there are people being directly impacted by this crisis,” she said.

Prudyvus echoed that sentiment. She posted a 335-word message on Instagram on Tuesday night that summed up her feelings about the country she once called home.

“Ukraine has an incredibly rich culture and history and no one can ever take it away from us,” she wrote in part, responding to Putin’s assertion that Ukraine is “Russian land” stolen from the Russian empire. “I am unable to be in my county right now and my heart breaks because of it.”

Prudyvus told NBC News: “It’s my way of reaching as many people as I can, to educate them in the best way I know how, and share from my heart.”

Meanwhile, 400 miles north of her home in Torrance, throngs of Ukrainian Americans rallied outside the St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church in San Francisco over the weekend to pray and show solidarity for their compatriots.

“I was expecting something like this for a long time,” San Francisco resident Tatiana Fedyk told NBC Bay Area on Saturday. “But there probably will be a solution because humanity comes to the edge and stops, typically. I believe in that.”

But in the meantime, Putin’s fiery rhetoric and the looming presence of Russian troops have made an end to the tensions seem distant.

“Ukrainians are under no illusions as to who we’re dealing with here,” said Alex Kuzma, chief development officer at the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation, the North American arm of the only Catholic university in Ukraine.

“The level of destruction Putin can mete out to Ukraine is truly horrifying,” said Kuzma, 66, a child of Ukrainian immigrants who was born in Connecticut and lives in the town of Glastonbury. (He and his wife once lived in Ukraine for about a year.)

But as he grapples with anger and fear, he said he nonetheless feels “encouraged” by the Biden administration’s imposition of sanctions on Russia.

“It was heartening because, finally, Ukraine is not being treated as an abstraction,” he said. “It’s not a chess piece on a chessboard that can be sacrificed to global powers.”

Image: Activists Hold A Pro-Ukraine Rally Outside The United Nations
Dozens of pro-Ukrainian activists and Ukrainian Americans rally outside the United Nations on Feb. 17, 2022, in New York City.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Kuzma added that he believed it was important for Americans to understand that many Ukrainians want a brighter future for Russian nationals, too.

“We don’t have animosity towards the Russian people, per se," he said, adding they admire people like the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “They want the same kind of freedom that Ukraine has experienced over the last 30 years.”

“We just don’t want Ukraine to be sacrificed on the altar of Putin’s ego and Putin’s greed,” he added.

Kuzma and other people with Ukrainian heritage massed at the Connecticut state Capitol building in Hartford on Sunday. He recalled that a friend at the rally remarked that a Russia-Ukraine conflict might be “God’s will — a fight of biblical proportions.”

“We know the ramifications could be horrific,” he said. “But we also know the Ukrainian people survived the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire, the Nazis, the Soviets. We survived any number of invasions and we’re going to survive this as a people.”