‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Refugees Find Safety in Ukrainian Village One Year Into War

Friday marks one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. Millions of people have since fled the war-torn country, some seeking refuge in Chicago.

Dmytro Riumin and his family escaped Ukraine and came to the U.S. last April. 

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“It was a totally normal life,” Riumin said as he reflected on the days he was forced to leave his home in Kyiv. “Who could’ve told us tomorrow there will be war and we need to take some things and go to the United States? We wrote our names and phone numbers on our son’s jacket because if something happened, he must leave.” 

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It’s a heart-wrenching reality Olha Tsvyntarna sings about. 

“It’s about the blame I felt then that there are children dying in Ukraine that have been killed, and why am I alive,” Tsvyntarna said. 

Tsvyntarna managed to escape with her son while her husband stayed behind to fight.

She’s now a manager at a cleaning company hiring other Ukrainian refugees and is continuing her mission of using her voice to raise awareness.  

“This is something we must not forget because if we want to protect democracy and freedom, we must take action,” Tsvyntarna said. “If we don’t stop this evil in Ukraine, it will spread further.”

Tucked into Chicago’s West Town community, Ukrainian Village has become a pillar of hope for hundreds of Ukrainians.

At the Selfreliance Association of American Ukrainians, program director Oleg Malski said that since November, the association has assisted hundreds of Ukrainians with English classes and state benefits.

“We are seeing a lot of new arrivals,” Malski said, “and we are trying to help everybody as much as we can. We help them file and advocate for Medicaid, SNAP and cash assistance.” 

Once a professor in Ukraine, Nadia Smolikevych said she has found strength working at Selfreliance since she fled the war. 

“I miss my relatives in Ukraine, my friends,” Smolikevych said. “I miss my co-workers because we were friendly, and I worked at different universities.” 

Read More: Local Museum Portrays Russia-Ukraine War Through the Eyes of Children

Meanwhile at St. Nicholas Cathedral School, principal Anna Cirilli has made way for 75 refugee students who have arrived from Ukraine.

“Our goal right now is to focus on our current mission of educating these students,” Cirilli said, “so when it’s time for them to go back home they feel they have the tools they need to be successful in their own country.”

Riumin’s son is one of the children attending the school. It’s a space Riumin said has become a safe haven for his family.

“We came to a new country with nothing, and people from the school took us in,” Riumin said. “Sometimes he doesn’t understand English, but we have 100% support. My wife also comes here to volunteer.” 

Cirilli said the community has sprung into action by donating food and opening their homes for those needing a place to stay.

“I guess that’s the silver lining, is all of the support that we have been receiving,” Cirilli said. “And then to see families and these children bond over this experience, I think, is the absolute best thing you can wish for such a tragic situation.”

At 6:30 p.m. Friday, the community is hosting a large rally on the church steps of Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church to reflect on Ukraine’s fight for freedom — the same steps where hundreds of people gathered a year ago for a peace rally when the war broke out. The group will then head to St. Nicholas Cathedral to hold a large vigil honoring the lives lost during the war.

To donate to St. Nicholas Cathedral School’s efforts, click here.

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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