February 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Local Ukrainians urge sanctions

Marie Zarycky scours the Internet daily for news about the anti-government protests in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, where at least 18 people were killed in the latest clash between police and protesters on Tuesday.

“Things look like they’re out of control,” said Zarycky, who was born in Ukraine and came to Metro Detroit when she was a girl.

The political unrest gripping the eastern European country has many of the 26,000 people of Ukrainian ancestry in southeast Michigan concerned.

“We’re worried that things could get worse in Ukraine,” said Vasyl Perets, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America’s Detroit Branch.

Perets has lived in the U.S. for the past 18 years and works out of the Ukrainian Cultural Center on Ryan Road near Interstate 696 in Warren.

Metro Detroiters with ties to Ukraine like Zarycky and Perets are trying to raise awareness about the protesters’ plight by holding local rallies. They’ve also sent money and donations of hats and gloves to those on the front lines. They’ve also met with U.S. lawmakers on the protesters’ behalf to get the federal government’s support.

The unrest started in November when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians turned out to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a political and economic agreement with the European Union in favor of a $15 billion aid package from Russia. Several people were killed and dozens injured in confrontations with police.

Since then, there have been nearly daily protests in Kiev, prompting Yanukovych to sign a law severely limiting protests and the freedom of speech. On Tuesday, thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with police outside parliament. At least 13 people — including six officers — died and hundreds were injured. The clashes dimmed hopes for an imminent solution to the political crisis in the eastern European country roughly the size of Texas.

“We thought we were moving towards democracy in Ukraine,” Perets said, calling the developments shocking. “Then we found out it wasn’t true.”

Like many in the area’s Ukrainian community, Zarycky said she has family — a cousin and a stepson — in Ukraine. That’s why the 71-year-old said she’s keeping tabs on the situation.

“All of us have relatives in Ukraine,” the Warren resident said. “It’s impossible for people in the community not to have some connection.”

While immigration to the U.S. has slowed, the number of visas for Ukrainians was up 18 percent last year. The federal government issued 4,220 visas, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, up from 3,567 in 2012.

Members of Metro Detroit’s Ukrainian community, which is concentrated in Sterling Heights and Warren, say their greatest fear is the land of their ancestors will once again fall under Russia’s influence. Russian President Vladimir Putin has blocked Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union and wants Ukraine to join its trading block, which includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.

George Stasiw said other Metro Detroiters and Americans should be concerned about what’s going on in Ukraine, a country of 47 million people.

Stasiw was born and raised in Metro Detroit, but his parents emigrated to the area after World War II. He said he has family in Kiev and western Ukraine. He’s been getting news about the situation there from Facebook posts from family and friends overseas, he said.

“We should care because the more these types of corrupt governments survive, the things they do become more and more accepted,” said the 51-year-old from West Bloomfield.

Local Ukrainians are calling for the U.S. to level sanctions against Ukraine’s government until Yanukovych steps down.

Troy resident Vera Andrushkiw was born in Ukraine and came to the U.S. as a little girl in 1949. She is a retired professor who taught Ukrainian and Ukrainian culture at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Harvard University.

“The U.S. is still a world power and it’s important that it stands up to human rights and sovereignty violations no matter where they are,” she said.

U.S. officials have taken notice of the situation that is being watched by the more than 939,000 people of Ukrainian descent who live in the United States.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a resolution 381-2 supporting Ukrainians’ right to choose their country’s future.

Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, joined fellow co-chairs of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus in a meeting in Washington with opposition members of Ukrainian Parliament.

“President Yanukovych and his allies face a stark choice — continue down the road of repression or respect the desire of millions of Ukrainians for democracy and fundamental human rights,” Levin and other caucus members said in a statement after the meeting.

In the meantime, many in the area’s Ukrainian community aren’t sitting by idly.

For example, the Ukrainian Congress Committee sent a photographer to Kiev in December to document the protest, Perets said.

And members of the Ukrainian American Civic Committee of Metropolitan Detroit, including Zarycky and Andrushkiw, have organized rallies in the area to support Kiev’s protesters.

About 200 attended a recent rally at the St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Warren, Zarycky said. It featured Oleh Medunicia, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament and one of the organizers of the Kiev demonstration.

Associated Press contributed.

Flames engulfed the main anti-government protest camp in Kiev on Tuesday as riot police tried to force demonstrators out. / Genya Savilow / AFP/Getty Images