Ukrainians rally in Warren with politicians and faith leaders in support of homeland

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Warren — When people tell Borys Potapenko that his Ukrainian activism is a result of his personal connection to the country, he scoffs. 

Though his own family history is rife with examples of violence endured in Ukraine in the past century, Potapenko, 71, says he advocates for Ukraine because of the millions of lives lost due to wars and famine and the others that might be lost if Russia invades Ukraine. 

Potapenko, with the Detroit chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, helped organize an "All-Community Rally" Sunday with the Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan to speak out against the threat from Russia and to commemorate protesters who were shot by snipers in Ukraine in 2014 known as "the Heavenly Hundred" and others who died. 

"It's got to do with 40 million dead in the 20th century, 14,000 more in the last eight years. And God only knows what is going to happen perhaps in the next days," said Potapenko.  

President Joe Biden last week said he was "convinced" Russia President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine, including an assault on the capital, Kyiv, a city of nearly three million people. Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are stationed at the Ukrainian border, but the country denies its intention to invade. 

"What President Biden is doing right now is totally unprecedented," said Potapenko. "For him to say that Ukraine's freedom is so important that the U.S. will band their allies together, that they will stand up to Putin, that they will defend Ukraine, that's like a wild dream." 

► More:US claims Russia has ordered final preparations for invasion

Roman Maksimowich of Warren, a member of the local Ukrainian American Veterans post, listens as students from Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic School in Warren sing during a rally Sunday.

In Warren, some 250 attendees trickled into the crowded banquet hall, and the rally began with opening remarks by Mykola Murskyj, chairman of the crisis response committee, who said he grew up listening to his grandmother's stories about the struggles Ukrainians endured before their country declared independence in 1991.

"The prospect that Vladimir Putin's ambitions of empire could undo centuries of freedom fighting, could undo all the work of millions of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, who left home to fight for freedom ... That terrifies me," said Murskyij. 

By the committee's estimate, 46,000 people of Ukrainian heritage live in Michigan. The event Sunday was held to raise awareness about the imminent danger of a Russian invasion and occupation, as well as to highlight the plight of Ukrainians living in Crimea, including the region's indigenous Muslim population, the Tatars. 

Murskyij and other organizers spoke of the massive human and economic toll of a war in Ukraine, and penned a letter to Biden and urged the federal government to enact severe, immediate sanctions against Russia if the country invaded Ukraine, including personal sanctions against Kremlin leaders. They also recommended continued  defense security assistance. 

Senior U.S. officials on Sunday defended their decision to hold off on crippling sanctions of Russia ahead of an expected invasion, leaving open the door for a diplomatic solution. 

"In these coming days and weeks, we will have to decide whether our convictions mean anything," said Murskyij. "Whether right and wrong are something more than nice ideas." 

Students from Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic School in Warren sing during a rally Sunday at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Warren to show support for their homeland.

A Presentation of the Colors, in which American and Ukrainian flags were carried onto the stage by Ukrainian-American veterans, followed Murksyij's remarks. The crowd, all standing, sang both countries' national anthems, before a prayer for peace was led by the Rev. Daniel Schajkoski of the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church. 

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts speaks in support of the Ukrainian people and against Russian aggression during a rally at the Ukrainian Cultural Center.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts joined organizers in calling on the U.S. to continue its support of Ukraine's democracy, and emphasized the importance of unity between Democrats, Republicans and Independents in the country when it comes to protecting Ukraine's democracy. 

Fouts commended politicians like U.S. Rep. Hayley Stevens, D-Rochester, and Rocky Raczkowski, chair of the Oakland County Republican Party, for attending the rally Sunday and embodying that unity. 

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens speaks on the threat of war during the rally Sunday.

The newly elected mayor of Hamtramck, Amer Ghalib, said he attended the event in the solidarity with the Ukrainian community which is "part of the fabric of Hamtramck." 

"There is no good war and bad war, all war is bad," said Ghalib, stressing his support for a democratic Ukraine and opposition to a war that would create "a mess all around the world." 

Outside the banquet hall, Eugene Bondarenko, 33, of Ann Arbor, said he was happy about the difference he saw between the West's reaction to the Ukraine crisis in 2014 and 2022. 

"In 2014, the Ukrainian community was largely playing catch-up to a degree where sometimes we had to to explain ... hey, we're actually a different country (than Russia), with a different language," said Bondarenko, who teaches Ukranian and Russian languages and cultures at the University of Michigan. 

"I'm very heartened by the fact that the West has taken sort of a more active role in this," he added. 

Ukrainians in the country have been the calmest group about the prospect of a Russian invasion, Bondarenko said, with many doubting the possibility of a full-scale war. Still, he added, no one he spoke to ever said that they would leave the country because they were afraid of having to fight. 

"I really hope that the Kremlin is aware of this," he said. 

For Maria Kohut's parents, leaving the country was not a choice. Like Potapenko's parents, they were forced into Nazi labor camps during World War II.

Kohut, 77, of West Bloomfield was born in Munich, and wasn't able to visit her parents' homeland and see the impact of the Soviet Union's occupation until she was in her 40s. 

She sees the impact of the Soviet Union and Russia on her family to this day, however, and said it reached her children as well. She blames Russia for having a small family, without a connection to her parents' siblings and other relatives. 

"Russians, what they did in war after war, is they took families apart," said Kohut. "My family was separated; some are in Poland, in Germany, in Ukraine, all in different places." 

This meant Kohut grew up without an extended family, and raised her children without one as well. 

"In the summer, your next door neighbors have barbecues. They have a big family, aunts, uncles, grandma, grandpa and they're all happy," said Kohut. "And you're kind of alone.

"I never had any support group to help me raise my children. Always I had to fight my own battles.”

Detroit News wire services contributed to this report.