Ukrainian association pivots from promoting culture to protecting lives

Katya Sedova (left) and Valya Drohomyretska (right) are both Ukrainian transplants who speak Ukrainian, Russian, and English. In October of last year, Sedova traveled to east Ukraine during the ceasefire to monitor parliamentary elections, while Drohomyretska has been actively supporting Ukraine as a board member of the Ukrainian Association of Washington State. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)
Katya Sedova (left) and Valya Drohomyretska (right) are both Ukrainian transplants who speak Ukrainian, Russian, and English. In October of last year, Sedova traveled to east Ukraine during the ceasefire to monitor parliamentary elections, while Drohomyretska has been actively supporting Ukraine as a board member of the Ukrainian Association of Washington State. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)

A little over a year ago, Katya Sedova stepped onto a sailboat with her fiancé, eager to spend the next six months exploring the Bahamas and immersing herself in Caribbean culture.

But before she got far, a full-blown revolution sprung up in her home country of Ukraine.

Every time Sedova set foot on land to reconnect herself with the world through a lethargic Wi-Fi connection, she was horrified to discover what was happening back home. At one destination, she found out Crimea was invaded. Later, that it was annexed. At yet another, she became acquainted with the Donetsk People’s Republic, with the conflicts terrorizing Eastern Ukraine. This was not a vacation — it was torture, she said.

So when Sedova returned to Seattle, there was no question of whether she would do everything in her capacity to aid Ukraine. There was only a question of how.

In the midst of her planning, Sedova learned that the Ukrainian Association of Washington State (UAWS) was fundraising for first-aid supplies to send to Ukraine, and eagerly joined the non-profit in early September. Only three years ago, when the nature of the organization was predominately cultural, Sedova taught Ukrainian dance to kids through the association. Now she leads its efforts to provide humanitarian aid.

“We want this organization to be the face of the Ukrainian community here,” said Valya Drohomyretska, one of nine board members, a cheerful woman who comfortably switched between Ukrainian, Russian and English. “I want it to have a legacy, to be something that we’re all proud of.”

Organized to promote and preserve Ukrainian culture in Washington state, UAWS was established in 1971. The association boasts one of the best Ukrainian dance ensembles in the Pacific Northwest, which showcases Ukrainian regional folk dances and is officially called Barvinok. A Ukrainian choir and small theater group round up the associations’ rich cultural engagement.

During the association’s early stages, members put on concerts, exhibitions, and collected embroidery to show Americans that Ukraine was an independent entity despite its membership in the Soviet Union. They even eagerly celebrated Ukraine’s former Independence Day, which took place on Jan. 22, 1917.

Over the past year and a half, however, the nature of the organization has become increasingly political, said Drohomyretska. Taking on an unprecedented role, UAWS sent money to sponsor transportation for people traveling to Kiev to participate in the Euromaidan protests, to support Hromadske.TV, a Ukrainian internet TV station, and to provide various forms of humanitarian aid. In 2014, they raised $60,000.

“All of a sudden, they found themselves galvanized by what’s happening and decided to get very active,” said Sedova of UAWS members — all of whom are volunteers. “With no previous experience in organizing rallies, dealing with humanitarian aid, and interacting with donors, there were a lot of questions up in the air.”

Two weeks ago, they organized a rally to mourn the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a longtime crusader for democratic liberties in Russia and vocal critic of President Putin. Similar rallies have been frequent over recent months. During the demonstrations UAWS often partners with Seattle’s progressive Russian community — a group of professionals who are generally anti-Putin and anti-war, echoing the opposition movement in Russia.

“In our little way, we are making an impact,” said Sedova.

Ukrainians, Russians, and Americans standing together for "Seattle in memory of Boris Nemtsov and support of Nadejda Savchenko," a rally organized by Seattle-based Russian-Americans and UAWS. (Courtesy photo)
Ukrainians, Russians, and Americans standing together for “Seattle in memory of Boris Nemtsov and support of Nadejda Savchenko,” a rally organized by Seattle-based Russian-Americans and UAWS. (Courtesy photo)

For their most recent venture, UAWS is organizing a charity concert called “Songs for Peace,” taking place in UW’s Kane Hall on Saturday at 7 p.m.

Part of a North American charity tour stopping in six major U.S. cities, the concert will showcase songs by Anastasia Prykhodko, a Ukrainian folk and pop singer who represented Russia in Eurovision’s 2009 contest. While many other Ukrainian and Russian artists fear adopting a position on the war, Prykhodko has been an active defender of Ukrainian sovereignty, vowing to never perform in Russia again.

To continue UAWS’ humanitarian efforts, 80 percent of ticket sales will support Patriot Defense, an initiative of the Ukrainian World Congress. Organized by Ukrainian-American doctors to provide training in tactical medicine and first-aid kits to troops, the diaspora organization also supplies Ukrainian forces with high quality medical equipment. UAWS has been partnering with Patriot Defense since September.

The remaining 20 percent of funds will be directed to a film sponsored by Prykhodko. Titled “True Rus,” the documentary will serve as an educational exploration of the Russian and Ukrainian identity. Besides providing an opportunity for people to support these projects, the concert gives Seattleites a chance to see Ukrainian artists, who rarely come to the city.

“Ultimately, humanitarian work on this level sometimes feels like a drop in the bucket,” admitted Sedova. “So, what we can’t fundraise ourselves from our Ukrainian community, we can help fundraise in a more governmental level.”

Recently, UAWS members have asked their political representatives to support implementation of the Ukraine Support Act, which would offer loans and provide aid to Ukraine while placing sanctions on Russian officials involved with disturbing Ukrainian territorial integrity. They’ve also been urging local leaders to sign onto the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, as the association aims to educate legislators and advise them on how they can best help Ukraine.

“There is a Ukrainian community here, and it’s not silent,” said Sedova.

For the future, UAWS aims to combine efforts with local Polish, Scandinavian, and Baltic associations to stand together in solidarity. They also strive to continuously reach out to their American friends, said Sedova. Currently, they are looking for reconstruction projects to help refugees and bring eastern Ukrainians closer together with the rest of the nation.

“Sometimes I feel that I’m doing more here than I would be over there,” said Drohomyretska. “We do so much here, and it feels so good. If I wasn’t for all of these volunteer organizations, there would be nothing left in Ukraine.”

Valya Drohomyretska has been proudly wearing her tryzub necklace — representing the Ukrainian coat of arms — since she bought it at a concert by Ukrainian pop-rock band S.K.A.Y. in Canada. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)
Valya Drohomyretska has been proudly wearing her tryzub necklace — representing the Ukrainian coat of arms — since she bought it at a concert by Ukrainian pop-rock band S.K.A.Y. in Canada. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)

Sedova, on the other hand, feels that being removed from her country is more difficult than being there.

“Here I am in this beautiful place, in the wealthiest country in the world, and I can’t really do anything. I can’t pick up a weapon and go fight,” she said.

Still, Sedova remains passionate in her efforts to provide aid, treating her work at UAWS as a full time job. Inspired by the new generation of volunteers in Ukraine, Sedova says that the country has changed, and that the local community has changed as well.

Tickets for “Songs for Peace” at UW’s Kane Hall on March 21st are available here.

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