'A horrible tragedy': Russian attack hits close to home for Parma's Ukrainian Village

Zoriana Zobniw’s voice broke as she described the vyshyvanka, a traditional embroidered Ukrainian blouse, she was wearing.

“There is an old song called Два кольори [Two Colors],” she began to explain.

In the song, a mother sends her son to war in a vyshyvanka. She embroiders the blouse with red and black thread. The red symbolizes love, Zobniw said, and the color black represents the sorrow that the mother feels for her son and for her homeland.

Zobniw touched the embroidery on her own white vyshyvanka, delicately stitched with black and red thread.

“It’s a really important symbol of strength,” she said through tears while seated at a booth at the Royal Donut shop on Wednesday afternoon in Ukrainian Village. The 2.1-mile stretch of Parma is home to a thriving community of first- and second-generation Ukrainian immigrants and business owners.

How the invasion of Ukraine has impacted Parma

Like others in Ohio’s Ukrainian community of about 42,900 people, Zobniw has been watching Russia’s war on Ukraine with horror, grief and shock as Russian artillery attacks and bombings have damaged or destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals and the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial. Allegations that Russia has used cluster munitions against civilian targets have drawn international outrage.

In Parma, home to the largest Ukrainian community in the state, with more than 4,000 people, residents are working around the clock to get in touch with loved ones in Ukraine and send humanitarian aid.

City Council members and the mayor of Parma are rallying on behalf of their Ukrainian neighbors, printing and distributing “Stand with Ukraine” flyers to local businesses and lighting the municipal building in the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Pokrova Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church on 6812 Broadview Road is hosting a prayer service every evening at 6:30 that all are welcome to attend.

'You feel like you're about to lose your homeland'

Many of Zobniw’s friends and family members, including her cousins, are still in Ukraine.

But the war and its mounting death toll — as of Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission had reported 752 civilian casualties — are also bringing up other tragic memories for Zobniw.

Zobniw was born and raised in Binghamton, New York. Her mother, Maria “Mima” Zobniw, was a part-time caseworker there at the American Civic Association, a local nonprofit that supports immigrants and helps refugees navigate life in America.

In 2009, the ACA was the site of a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 13 people.

Maria Zobniw was one of the victims. She had recently celebrated her 60th birthday.

“Even though that happened in 2009, it’s still very fresh. It was a gut wrenching experience of losing your mother in such a tragic way, especially since she was there helping Ukrainian immigrants,” Zoriana Zobniw said.

“And now, it’s the same exact experience all over again, because you feel like you’re about to lose your homeland, your motherland,” she said.

Since the war began on Feb. 24, Zobniw, who is the vice chair of the Ukrainian Village Committee, has been working closely with members of the local Ukrainian community and elected officials to raise awareness on the plight of Ukrainians and collect monetary donations to support them.

And she has settled into a routine that is familiar for many Ukrainians living in America.

“Every morning, you get up… and your first thought is, ‘What’s standing in Ukraine?’ ” she said.

She spends her days answering calls from family and friends and scrolling through Telegram, an instant messaging service, to keep up to date on the latest developments on the ground.

Down the road at the nearby State Meats market, Oksana Valchuk, a 53-year-old clerk, played a video showing buildings reduced to rubble from Russian shelling in her hometown of Borodyanka.

'A horrible tragedy': Russian attack hits close to home for Parma's Ukrainian Village

Valchuk’s parents, brother, sisters and grandparents live in Borodyanka, a town about 37 miles outside of Kyiv. Most of her family has been sitting in bomb shelters for the past week, where there are no toilets, but her mother can’t stay in a bunker because she has asthma. Varchuk’s grandmother is immobile and her building does not have a bomb shelter, so she has been waiting out the war in her bathtub. Because the roads out of the town are closed and the war has rattled the country's supply chain, residents of Borodyanka are unable to get access to food and other necessities.

“All of these bomb shelters in the bottom of the buildings, and older people, (disabled) people can’t make the trip downstairs into the bomb shelters. So they are actually staying in their homes in their apartments in their bathtubs,” she said.

“My parents say, every day, ‘If the bombs come, then this is what our fate is.’ They are not sure what every day will bring,” Varchuk said. “I feel absolutely horrible in this moment.”

The home of one of Varchuk’s friends was destroyed in shelling. Thankfully, they were not home when Russia's military bombed their neighborhood so they survived, she said Wednesday.

“We know that once the war is done, we have no illusions that we are all going to have to work hard to restore Ukraine and rebuild it,” she said.

“It took a very long time for Ukrainians to build their lives and the wages are low in Ukraine, so to even purchase a bed to furnish your apartment could take years. It’s not like here in America, so it is going to take a lot of work and many years of hard work to rebuild what took decades to gather.

“This is a horrible tragedy. … Our great grandparents stayed in Ukraine to fight the wars, and they fought to create a Ukraine for us, for all the future generations. And now Putin wants to take away our Ukraine, and this isn’t going to happen,” she said.

Like other members of the Ukrainian community that the Beacon Journal interviewed, Varchuk expressed her gratitude to her American neighbors and European nations.

“We are very thankful for all of the support of the whole world… Everyone is working hard on a local level and a national level … All of these actions of support, from colors and flags to banners to symbols of Ukraine, to actual action for Ukraine, helps to unite everyone,” she said.

‘This hits really, really close to home’

Parma Ward 4 Councilwoman Kristen Saban lives in the heart of Ukrainian Village. Her teenage son’s best friend, Vlad, is Ukrainian. The pair are inseparable, and Saban describes Vlad as “our second son” who joins them on family vacations.

“This hits really, really close to home in our neighborhoods,” she said of the war.

“One of my routines … is to check in with [Vlad] every day to see if he’s heard from his family over in Lviv, and I get the update from him about his grandparents and his cousins.

“Last week, it was ‘What we can do?’ And even if it was just getting these flyers made up … We had to do something to show that we’re here, we’re here for whatever we can do. Rob, myself, and our colleague [Ward 3 Councilman] Mark [Casselberry],” she said.

Ward 9 Councilman Rob Euerle has been distributing flyers to local business owners.

“We’re getting very good support … The posters we have been handing out, they [have been] very welcoming,” he said.

Saban and Euerle also are spreading the word about humanitarian relief efforts.

Ukrainian Village Committee Chair Roman Fedkiw, whose own family lives in western Ukraine, praised the cooperation of Parma elected officials.

“The relationship between the city of Parma and Ukrainian Village is an incredible relationship. They have been very supportive over the years,” he said.

Fedkiw and Zobniw stressed the importance of aiding Ukrainian refugees. In seven days alone, more than 1 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland to nearby countries — including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova — according to the United Nations, and another million are internally displaced.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden granted "Temporary Protected Status" to Ukrainian nationals in America on nonimmigrant visas after members of Ohio Congress and other groups had urged the president to take action.

“Everybody knows, everybody sees what is going on, everybody knows who Putin is, what he really is, but until you have that connection … it’s through your neighbors, your connection. That’s when reality really hits,” Fedkiw said.

“Just think of how many other people are there that can’t get out. I mean, you can’t run to the east. You can’t run to Russia,” he said.

“You can’t run north to Belarus,” Zobniw interjected.

“You can’t run south. … You’re going through a lot of battle areas. And they’re there until whatever happens happens in the end,” Fedkiw said.

Seyma Bayram is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at sbayram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3327 or on Twitter @SeymaBayram0.

How to help

• The Fund to Aid Ukraine and the United Ukrainian Organizations of Ohio, an umbrella organization of about 50 groups providing humanitarian relief to Ukrainian refugees, are collecting donations to help the people of Ukraine. To donate, go to https://tinyurl.com/2jwybpbr

• The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America is accepting monetary donations at https://www.mightycause.com/story/M1wzpf?amp;

• The Cleveland Maidan Association is a nonprofit organization that is fundraising to send medical and other supplies to Ukraine. Visit http://www.clevelandmaidan.org/ for more information or to donate.