Saturday, November 26, 2022

Behind The Photos: 'Stand with Ukraine' rally at the Michigan State Capitol

Members of the Ukrainian community share their stories, why they rally

March 22, 2022
<p>A Ukrainian flag is held high at the Michigan State Capitol on March 20, 2022, where a rally in support of Ukraine was held. Members of Lansing&#x27;s Ukrainian community gathered in support of Ukrainian President Zelensky&#x27;s request to close the Ukrainian sky and to open the border&#x27;s for the homeless looking for refuge.</p>

A Ukrainian flag is held high at the Michigan State Capitol on March 20, 2022, where a rally in support of Ukraine was held. Members of Lansing's Ukrainian community gathered in support of Ukrainian President Zelensky's request to close the Ukrainian sky and to open the border's for the homeless looking for refuge.

Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

Lansing's members of the Ukrainian community and allies of the cause gathered at the Michigan State Capitol on March 20, 2022 for the 'Stand with Ukraine' rally, not only to listen to speakers and gain knowledge of the ongoing war in Ukraine, but to share their own stories as well.

Yuri Tomkiw

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Neuroscience senior Yuri Tomkiw is the President of the Michigan State Ukrainian Student Organization, or USO. On March 1, the USO organized a 'Stand with Ukraine Rally' at the University and hosted a webinar with the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, so that people are able to stay more informed.

“I just want people to educate themselves on the topic,” Tomkiw said. “And just make sure people know they can come support and sign the petitions and go to their local congress(people) or go to their local senators and just speak to them so it can go up the food chain.”

Tomkiw was born in America and is Ukrainian culturally. Because of COVID-19 and now, the war, he has never been able to visit his home country. He said many of the speakers at the event were people he had grown up around: his teachers, family and friends.

Tomkiw wants people to understand that while it is Ukraine that is suffering now, this isn't just a Ukrainian issue.

“This is not going to stop at Ukraine,” Tomkiw said. “You have a power-hungry leader just looking to take land that he thinks is his and he's obviously meeting a lot of resistance. But what if he turns to a higher power arsenal to achieve his goals? That's not just going to affect Ukraine. I think the world leaders need to see that this conflict will involve them and just sitting trying to avoid something that's already happened is pointless.”

Donna Riley

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Lansing resident Donna Riley wrote the petition to open the borders to 'our homeless neighbors.' The petition reads as follows:

“Unlike our neighbors to the north, expediting Visas has not been instated in the United States. The Ukrainians who are fleeing the war, regardless of their age, and who do not have family members in the US are allowed to come into the States ONLY after they satisfy the slow bureaucratic process of applying for the acceptance of Visas. However, this does not provide the refugees (with) permanency. Per the National Law Review (March 19, 2022) '...war and generalized violence (do) not provide the refugees in of itself asylum,' for there are many restrictions and rules that guard our nation's borders.

Under the current immigration policy, the number of Ukrainians allowed to come to the States on refugee status is only 10,000, which is a fraction of the more than 3 million, mostly women and children, who have fled their homeland with only what they could carry. The bordering countries of Ukraine have placed a temporary hold on proper documentation and have welcomed their neighbors with open arms. Now, they are near the point of imploding due to the millions who have crossed their borders.

it is incumbent upon us as Americans to open our hearts and our borders to these innocent victims who want to save their children from the carnage of war."

Riley planned to walk around and add signatures to the petition, which needs 100,000 names in 30 days before it can be brought to the Senate floor but found herself speaking to the crowd.

”I'm not a public speaker,” Riley said. “(but) when I read the policy myself, I was outraged, so I said, 'OK, I'll speak.’”

Overall, Riley had one thing to ask.

"If war doesn't guarantee asylum, what does? That's my question," Riley said.

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow and Irina Bondareko

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Sen. Debbie Stabenow spoke at the rally. Stabenow has been in multiple meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the past weeks and pledged to continue to find ways to support Ukraine during this time.

“What we're seeing in Ukraine right now is pure evil,” Stabenow said. “It is pure evil.”

Following Stabenow's speech, she spoke with many Ukrainian-Americans and listened to their stories.

“This is incredibly important,” Stabenow said. “We have over 50,000 Michiganders who come from Ukraine or have Ukrainian ancestors, or friends and family still there. It’s heartbreaking every single minute of every single day.”

Lansing resident Irina Bondarenko approached Stabenow almost immediately after she began her descent down the Capitol steps.

"For Ukrainians, they want to be a democratic country; they really looked up at us they wanted to be like us," Bondarenko said. “So in a way, we are their dream. So for them the support, to know that people here care, gives them strength. I can tell your story.”

So, immobilized and separated by an ocean, Bondarenko is doing the only thing she can: telling their stories, wanting to show that this fight was much closer to home than people in America might have thought before.

“I have a very close friend in Kyiv who didn't want to evacuate,” Bondarenko said. “Finally on the day of the State of the Union address, we persuaded her that it was too dangerous. We persuaded her to leave the next morning.”

Her friend wasn't a native speaker of English and misunderstood the message being delivered.

“The same night, two hours before her train ... she called me and texted me,” Bondarenko said. “(She said) I've heard President Biden said that they will cover our skies. I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying in the city, Rina.”

Bondarenko had to let her friend down.

“I'm sorry, that's not true (I told her), we are not covering the skies," she said. “We are covering our skies from Russian aircraft. ... I physically felt her heart dropping. It was such a silence on her end. Because we are their hope.”

As Bondarenko reflected on her friend's experience, she reminded herself of all the death that has already happened.

"It's genocide," she said. "And I know that Americans care."

The Hope of Rallying, Katya

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Katya fled from Ukraine in early March. She is one of 3 million people– half of which are estimated to be children – who have had to leave their homeland behind because of the war. The rallies, in the eyes of those present and around the world, are for children like her.

The war in Ukraine has been said to be the 'first war on Tik Tok'. This stretches to social media as a whole, as people turn to Ukrainian people's Instagram and Twitter feeds for live updates and looks into the reality – and new normal – of places like Kyiv and for people like Katya. In turn, social media has been used as a weapon both to support and block Ukrainian efforts. In Russia, socials are going dark. Meta, formerly Facebook, has been dubbed an 'extremist' organization by a court in Moscow, and 'Z' has been used as a weapon for propaganda much like the swastika was in Nazi Germany.

But in Ukraine, the States and worldwide, the sharing of photos from rallies has been a way to kindle hope.

“So if people see the constant posting of events going on, maybe one time on the go, 'Hey, I'll go attend to one of those,’” Tomkiw said. “And if they are uneducated, they'll either be educated by the speakers at these events by the people in these events, or just learn the pride of the Ukrainian people, and the impact of having a lot of people here in the United States and across the world.”

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