Here’s What Ukrainian-Americans Are Doing For Ukraine

Ukraine’s Maidan revolution united Ukraine as a nation like never before, and it reinvigorated Ukrainian-American communities across the United States. While Ukrainian-Americans are well organized nationally through such organizations as the Ukrainian Congress Committee of Ukraine and in metropolitan areas with large Ukrainian communities, such as Chicago and New York, Ukrainian-Americans in smaller towns have also mobilized to help Ukraine’s war efforts, humanitarian needs, and rebuild connections to an ancestral home. As in Ukraine, these efforts have brought together Ukrainian-Americans from all walks of life regardless of immigration histories, mother tongue, age, or religious identity.

In Milwaukee, a city with approximately 1,500 Ukrainian-Americans, volunteers have brought American physicians and physical therapists to Ukraine to advise Ukrainian doctors and treat injured soldiers. Oleh Onyskiv emigrated from western Ukraine to Milwaukee shortly after 1991. When the Maidan protests began, Onyskiv and a few friends sent money to Maidan volunteers. As Russia invaded Ukraine, first seizing Crimea and then starting a war in the Donbas, the Ukrainian army saw heavy losses in 2014. In August 2014, as Onyskiv and a group of friends were celebrating Ukraine’s independence day in Milwaukee, they decided to do more. Onyskiv and twenty other Ukrainian-Americans formed the Ukrainian-American Association of Wisconsin. Some members immigrated during the Soviet days, a time when mostly Russian speaking Jews were able to leave the USSR under a special refugee program, while others left during the turbulent 1990s and hail from western Ukraine and speak Ukrainian.

During the fall of 2014, the new association collected about $1,500, which they used to buy gear—boots, long jackets, pants—that were given to the 128th brigade of Ukraine’s army. The supplies arrived before another period of heavy fighting in January and February of 2015, when the Ukrainian army was desperate for winter gear and clothing.

But the efforts didn’t stop there. From volunteers in Ukraine, the Milwaukee community learned that wounded soldiers lack follow-up care: physical therapy, particularly for those injured in combat, is not a well-developed field in Ukraine. After all, Ukraine had never been at war until now. Seeing this need, Onyskiv’s wife who is a physician asked her colleagues to travel to Ukraine at their own expense to advise Ukrainian medical professionals on the newest methods in physical therapy for combat injuries. By 2015, two physicians and two physical therapists were ready to go. “The beauty of this,” said Onyskiv in a phone interview, “is that these were ‘real Americans’ without any previous connection to Ukraine who simply wanted to help.” Onyskiv traveled to Ukraine with the group in June 2015, where they visited Kyiv’s central hospital and a rehabilitation facility.

The first trip was so well received in Ukraine and by the visiting American medical professionals that Onyskiv and his wife managed to secure funding from NATO to cover travel costs for a second trip in 2016. This time, a bigger group traveled to Ukraine with additional materials—the latest medical books on physical therapy and rehabilitation techniques, and Ukrainian doctors established relationships with their US counterparts. This fall, two Ukrainian medical specialists traveled to Milwaukee to build on those relationships with the intention of establishing rehabilitation programs for military veterans in their home towns. Much more could be done, Onyskiy said, if they had resources to develop the fledgling medical exchange program: Ukrainian hospitals need equipment, medical training in rehabilitation techniques, and supplies. More American physicians could travel to smaller towns across Ukraine to consult local medical professionals and vice versa.

Other Midwestern cities are doing their part. In Minneapolis, less than one percent of the city’s population claim Ukrainian heritage; many are second or even third generation Ukrainian-Americans who have retained their ties to the language and culture from their grandparents. Shortly after the Maidan, a group of Ukrainian-Americans launched Maidan Minnesota, a group that seeks to help Ukrainian communities that have suffered from the war while raising awareness in the US through cultural activities. In 2015, the group launched the Maidan MN Medics initiative which has delivered $170,000 in medical supplies to non-profit organizations in Ukraine.

Zina Gutmanis, a representative of the Minneapolis Ukrainian-American community, said the Maidan brought the community together like never before. Churches, young people, and older Ukrainian-Americans have gotten involved. Local Ukrainian Orthodox churches organized a Ukrainian war casualties committee to raise funds to aid wounded volunteer soldiers and their families. The committee focused on volunteer soldiers because they were the ones who spontaneously formed units and experienced heavy losses. Through Facebook, they’ve built relationships with volunteer groups and organizations all over Ukraine, such as Kharkiv Station and New Mariupol. Maidan Minnesota has also organized film screenings, discussions, and fundraisers in Minneapolis.

Community efforts have not slowed even as the conflict in Ukraine enters its third year. But much more could be done to help such grassroots initiatives. The United States has been supportive of Ukraine’s reform agenda and provided much needed security assistance; the US government has provided $2 billion in loans conditional on reforms in key sectors and the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorized $300 million for assistance to Ukraine ($50 million of which is only for counterartillery radar and lethal assistance). The US has also expanded its training of the Ukrainian military. Still, the experience of small Midwestern communities shows that urgent needs, such as physical rehabilitation for veterans, remain unmet. Volunteer groups on both sides of the Atlantic have taken the lead in filling the gaps with few resources. As Congress begins to consider the NDAA again this fall, policymakers should consider expanding it to include medical training focused on rehabilitation treatment for combat-related injuries. This would go a long way to amplify the small-scale initiatives of Ukrainian-American communities.

Alina Polyakova, a UkraineAlert contributor, is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Related Experts: Alina Polyakova

Image: On June 9, volunteers from the Ukrainian-American Association of Wisconsin sort medical supplies that will be sent to Ukraine’s frontlines. From left to right, Oleh Onyskiv, Anjela Kolomoitseva, Tetyana Myzyka, Vira Marchenko, Elena Yampolska, and Faina Bursuk. Credit: Ukrainian-American Association of Wisconsin Facebook Page