Thursday, February 9, 2023

As war in Ukraine rages on, interfaith, multicultural Detroiters rally for peace

March 30, 2022
Michigan residents stand in support of Ukraine at Hart Plaza in Detroit, MI. Organizers sell stickers and accept donations for Ukranian aid. - March 28, 2022
Michigan residents stand in support of Ukraine at Hart Plaza in Detroit, MI. Organizers sell stickers and accept donations for Ukranian aid. - March 28, 2022 —
Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

Detroiters braved high winds and cold on Sunday to show their support for Ukrainian independence at Hart Plaza, where speakers spanning local Ukrainian-American organizers and interfaith leaders called for an end to Russia’s invasion of the country. 

The rally took place on the heels of a turbulent week in Eastern Europe; seeing occupation of Mariupol in the south of Ukraine, President Biden’s visit to Poland and the first notable Ukrainian offensives in the suburbs of Kyiv. As the world enters a second month of a conflict many expected to be over in 72 hours, Ukrainian resistance has become a lightning rod for international support. The Hart Plaza rally was one in a series of demonstrations happening in Michigan and across the country as Americans strive to show their support for Ukraine. 

For many in the crowd, Russia’s war in Ukraine is personal. Moshe Givental drove into the city from Farmington Hills to show solidarity for a cause which seeks to save his family’s homeland. 

“I was born in what used to be the Soviet Union in Lithuania, but my father's family is from Ukraine,” Givental said. “So it's home, a place where he was born, the place where my parents met and got engaged, being bombed to smithereens.”

Ties to Ukraine, such as Givental’s, are common in Detroit and its suburbs. Metro Detroit has a Ukrainian community of about 50,000 people, with Ukrainian churches and cultural centers present in Warren and Hamtramck particularly. In the recent weeks since Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian groups in the area have banded together to form the Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan, a grassroots network of organizers dedicated to furthering the Ukrainian cause in metro Detroit. 

Organizer Viktoria Senkiv said that the coalition is working to celebrate the spirit of Ukraine to bolster hope among the community alongside its direct aid efforts. 

“We've been organizing many concerts and dinners for Ukrainian people to stay together, we've been inviting Ukrainian singers from Ukraine,” Senkiv said. “So we can, you know, keep that Ukrainian spirit up.”

A key focus of the rally at Hart Plaza was connecting members of Detroit’s interfaith community in solidarity with Ukraine. Leaders from local Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim groups spoke on the importance of forming a united front in efforts to support Ukraine. 

King David Baptist Church pastor Sterling Brewer spoke at the event, stressing the ties between Detroit’s Black and Ukrainian communities and the universal struggle for freedom. He said the cause was personally important to him because Ukrainians are fighting for their lives alongside the fight for justice. 

“Coming from the African American community, we understand what it means to have to fight for your freedom,” Brewer said. “So when I see people whose livelihoods are being taken from them, and they're being taken or ran from their country, it’s a soft spot in my stomach. And so that's what gives me the courage to ask my members, the church I pastor, to support me as we try to support one another.”

Rabbi Daniel Schwartz of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield expressed similar feelings about the Ukrainian cause. He said that in familiarity with many African Americans, Jewish Americans feel solidarity with the events happening in Ukraine due to a history of persecution. 

“We have the holiday of Passover coming up, and for us, it's a holiday all about our freedom,” said Schwartz. “And the idea behind it is that when others don't experience freedom, they need help with liberation, that it's our obligation to be able to help them.”

“Passover reminds us of the slavery that we experienced in ancient Egypt and our eventual redemption, and the freedom that we experience and we have an obligation to be able to make sure that others experience that as well.”

Alongside many Americans of Ukrainian descent at the rally were Detroiters of other cultural and ethnic backgrounds, including members of the Midwest regional chapter of the Taiwanese Association of America. Regional Director Wen-Lang Tsai and member Randy Fang spoke of Taiwanese fear of the dangerous precedent that could be set if Russia is allowed to succeed in occupying Ukraine. 

“We worry about China and Taiwan,” Fang said. “Russia invaded Ukraine successfully. And they (China) think, 'okay, we can do that also.'”

Foreign policy experts have expressed similar concerns that failing to harshly and swiftly punish Russia’s actions in Ukraine could embolden the imperialistic tendencies of other countries, China being one possibility. 

Themes of cross-cultural solidarity defined the rally, but organizers also provided information on tangible steps members of the community can take to directly help Ukraine. The Crisis Response Committee has dedicated warehouse space in Hamtramck to field donations of material items to be sent overseas, and asked that people interested in helping visit the group’s website, uacrisisresponse.org, to check which supplies are most needed. 

Senkiv said that Michiganders have shown remarkable support for the Ukrainian cause, and that she hopes people will continue to learn about Ukrainian sovereignty and how to help. 

“They know that Ukraine is strong, and Ukraine is its own country,” Senkiv said. “And Ukrainian people are very strong, not afraid of anything and anyone ... So I hope people will be more like Ukrainians.”

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