Ukrainians Abroad Respond to Russian Invasion With Heartbreak—and Determination

A sense of urgency has gripped Ukrainian communities around the world.

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainians hold banners and Ukrainian national flags during a protest for peace in Ukraine in front of the Russian Consulate in Krakow, Poland, on Feb. 20.
Ukrainians hold banners and Ukrainian national flags during a protest for peace in Ukraine in front of the Russian Consulate in Krakow, Poland, on Feb. 20.
Ukrainians hold banners and Ukrainian national flags during a protest for peace in Ukraine in front of the Russian Consulate in Krakow, Poland, on Feb. 20. Omar Marques/Getty Images

When Russian missiles bombarded Ukraine on Monday evening, Vira Derun, who co-runs a bakery in Washington, was distressed.

Almost all of her family lives in Ukraine, she told Foreign Policy, and she feared they could be in danger. “Everybody’s hiding and everybody’s praying because it’s the night,” Derun said, who owns the business with her sister. “Everybody is scared of the night because that’s the time when they start bombing.”

As Russia’s military assault on Ukraine unfolds, a sense of shock—and urgency—has gripped Ukrainian communities around the world. Amid reports of advancing Russian tanks and aerial attacks, many members of the Ukrainian diaspora have followed the developments with heartbreak—and determination to fight back. Some Ukrainians abroad have vowed to return to the country to support its military forces; others have organized aid drives and protests.

When Russian missiles bombarded Ukraine on Monday evening, Vira Derun, who co-runs a bakery in Washington, was distressed.

Almost all of her family lives in Ukraine, she told Foreign Policy, and she feared they could be in danger. “Everybody’s hiding and everybody’s praying because it’s the night,” Derun said, who owns the business with her sister. “Everybody is scared of the night because that’s the time when they start bombing.”

As Russia’s military assault on Ukraine unfolds, a sense of shock—and urgency—has gripped Ukrainian communities around the world. Amid reports of advancing Russian tanks and aerial attacks, many members of the Ukrainian diaspora have followed the developments with heartbreak—and determination to fight back. Some Ukrainians abroad have vowed to return to the country to support its military forces; others have organized aid drives and protests.

Reports of Moscow’s military advances have painted a bleak picture on the ground, with an onslaught of rockets and missiles striking Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Almost a week into the invasion, Russian forces now also appear to be attacking civilian areas in an apparent shift that has worried onlookers.

“It’s kind of a David and Goliath situation,” said Maria Shust, director of the Ukrainian Museum, a private museum in New York City dedicated to Ukrainian cultural heritage. Shust’s family immigrated to the United States after World War II. “It’s hard to imagine how Ukraine can withstand such an onslaught,” she added.

To aid the war effort, many Ukrainians living abroad are traveling to the country to join the fight despite having little to no experience in combat or military training. In total, as many as 22,000 people have entered Ukraine since the start of the invasion, according to the Polish Border Guard, some of them Ukrainians returning to their homeland.

This influx of Ukrainian volunteers comes as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky temporarily suspended visa requirements for all foreigners—with or without Ukrainian roots—who want to take part in the fight on Tuesday, urging them to “join the defense of Ukraine, Europe, and the world.” Since the invasion began, Ukrainian authorities have reportedly handed out 18,000 rifles to volunteer fighters in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also encouraged foreign volunteers to contact the Ukrainian diplomatic missions in their countries. “Together we defeated Hitler, and we will defeat [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, too,” he tweeted.

Other Ukrainians abroad have responded by mobilizing large-scale protests against Russia’s invasion and raising money for humanitarian relief and military support, among other causes. In London, protesters chanted “Putin, hands off Ukraine”; in Mexico City, they smeared their bodies with fake blood and assembled outside of the Russian Embassy. From Toronto to Bangkok, these demonstrations have involved thousands of people and often include both members of the Ukrainian diaspora and people with no ties to the country.

In the United States, the diaspora’s coordinated response—planning demonstrations, raising money, and sharing resources—can be traced back to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, said Emily Channell-Justice, director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute. More than 1 million people of Ukrainian descent reside in the United States, according to the 2019 U.S. census.

“When Russia first invaded Ukraine [and] took over Crimea, the Ukrainian American community really came together,” Channell-Justice said. “That continued over the past eight years, so they were ready exactly when this invasion began.”

But nothing could prepare them for the difficult experience of watching loved ones confront war. The invasion has already taken the lives of 352 civilians and injured thousands more, the Ukrainian interior ministry said on Sunday. According to United Nations estimates, around 660,000 people have fled their homes, a number that could surge even further if the conflict intensifies.

“It’s terrifying,” said Mykola Murskyj, chair of the Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan. He described texting friends in Ukraine who were huddled in bomb shelters as explosives dropped nearby. Although that experience was frightening, he said, the reality they are facing is “infinitely worse.”

This week, European nations and the United States unrolled a slew of new sanctions that have shaken the Russian economy and sent the ruble plunging to record low values. On Monday, Zelensky also pressed the European Union to allow Ukraine’s immediate accession to the bloc. “Europeans are aware that our soldiers are fighting for our country and, consequently, for the whole of Europe,” he said in a video broadcast.

“The world is realizing that Ukraine is a country with people that are strong and determined,” said Shust, the Ukrainian Museum director. “They love their country, and they’re willing to fight for it.”

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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