With prayers, sunflowers, and each other, hundreds gather at a Ukrainian church in Bridgeport
Several hundred people, including many who were born or have family in Ukraine, prayed and raised money for the war-torn country at a Ukrainian Catholic church in Bridgeport, Pa. Sunday.
The crowd in the church hall sang the Ukrainian national anthem, and Ruslana and Nelya Naida held high the blue-and-yellow flag of the country where they were born.
But like others at a Sunday morning rally in Bridgeport, Montgomery County, the mother and daughter from King of Prussia wanted to express more than just love for a homeland under fire.
They also had a warning for the rest of the world about Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“This is not only a war against Ukraine. It’s a war against democracy, against humanity,” Ruslana, an accountant who immigrated to the United States 20 years ago, said in an interview.
“It’s not only about Ukraine now.”
Said Nelya, a 22-year-old Villanova University senior: “He [Putin] is capable of so much more. If we don’t step up and close the skies we are going to lose half of the European continent.”
The pro-Ukraine demonstrations that have taken place in Philadelphia since the Russian invasion began Feb. 24 continued over the weekend, with a prayer vigil for peace Saturday at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. A march along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and an anti-war event on Independence Mall, the latter hosted by the Granny Peace Brigade Philadelphia, also drew crowds Sunday afternoon.
After singing the Ukrainian National Anthem, rally organizers pleaded for someone who could actually sing. Marusia Dombchewsky, who is in her late seventies, picked up one of the megaphones and sang a Ukrainian patriotic song, Oi u Luzi Chervona Kalyna, “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow.” The lyrics speak of the beauty of Ukraine and one of its national symbols, the viburnum flower: “Oh, in the meadow the red viburnum leaned / Our glorious Ukraine is somehow upset / We will raise that red viburnum / We will cheer up our glorious Ukraine!”
Dombchewsky’s father was a church choir director in western Ukraine and was targeted after the war. So he left and Dombchewsky was born in Austria before they came to America. On this day, Dombchewsky and her husband Leo came to the rally from East Norriton.
The “Support Ukraine on the Parkway” rally was held under the Ukrainian Flag on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 17th St. The public display of support for the people of Ukraine was organized by the local Ukrainian community to make visible their opposition to the Russian invasion and solidarity with Ukrainian people.
The “Rally for Peace in Ukraine” was at People’s Plaza on Independence Mall. Co-sponsors of the rally included the Pennsylvania office of the Coalition for Peace Action, Granny Peace Brigade, Code Pink, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Brandywine Peace Community. They too condemned the Russian invasion, called for an immediate ceasefire, for Russia to withdraw its army from Ukraine and engage with Ukraine and the United States in serious negotiations.
They also called on the United States to double its humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and to neighboring countries such as Poland, Moldova, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, who are accepting and housing over a million refugees. They also spoke on the dangers of nuclear power plants in Ukraine during this time of war, and of the humanitarian consequences of war and a possible nuclear meltdown at one or more of those nuclear plants.
The Philly region’s Sunday show of support for Ukraine began with the morning rally in Bridgeport, home to a population of 4,500 as well as Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Mayor Beth Jacksier said in an interview after the rally that the ”spirit of Bridgeport” was evident at the rally, just as it has been in the borough’s ongoing efforts to recover from last September’s devastating floods from the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
Many people arrived at the rally directly from 9 a.m. Mass at the landmark church on Union Avenue; some carried blue-and-yellow “pray for Ukraine” signs while others held sunflowers, a popular symbol of the country.
The event also attracted a lineup of Pennsylvania politicians, including Madeleine Dean and Mary Gay Scanlon of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation, and State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democratic candidate for governor. They sat at a head table behind a “Bridgeport Stands With Ukraine” banner.
Describing “the most memorable Zoom call of my life,” on March 5 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and 300 other U.S. elected officials, Dean said, “He called upon us for increased sanctions and he said [Ukraine] need air cover, we need jets.”
With cheers erupting in the church hall, Dean called the Russian invasion of Ukraine “not a war ... a series of war crimes is what it is.”
Shapiro got a similar reaction. “I say this as the top prosecutor in Pennsylvania. He [Putin] has to be prosecuted for those war crimes.”
Russ Chomiak sat at one of the tables on the floor of the hall, eager to share a message with anyone willing to listen.
“My overall objective is to make Americans aware that there are real people attached to this horrible situation in Ukraine,” he said, handing a reporter an iPhone. The screen showed a young mother and her three children; the photos were taken Saturday in Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine.
“That’s my cousin Kristin Barna,” said Chomiak, a retired engineer who lives in Radnor and is of “100 percent” Ukrainian heritage. “We hadn’t heard from them since the war began. We kept writing until finally yesterday we received this response.
“Look at the words,” he said.
We are all right. We are stay[ing] in Lviv. The Lviv region is quite safe so far ... every day we hear the siren we hide in shelters, sometimes several times a day. We ... have a “new job.” We weave camouflage nets for our defenders. [Doing so] calms the nervous system.
“I want to bring [the invasion] down to the human level,” he said.
A number of people in the crowd weren’t Ukrainian.
“I’m here because I just want to demonstrate the fact that Russia’s aggression is appalling, and it should be stopped, at any expense at all,” said Patrick Bambrick, a retiree from East Norriton.
Diane Maresca, a Bridgeport resident of Polish descent, said she “wouldn’t have missed this for the world” and was taking home a “please pray for Ukraine placard.”
“I want to put it in the back window of my car where everyone can see it,” she said.
Natalia Symoni, who emigrated to the United States from western Ukraine in 1997 and lives in King of Prussia, has attended rallies in Philly and Washington.
Symoni, who works as a lab specialist, cried as she was being interviewed by a television news crew.
“Well, my family is over there and there is only so much I can do, being in the States,” she said. “But being at the rally [in Bridgeport] was definitely a good communal experience.”
Other people in the hall cried when the Rev. Ronald “Father Ron’ Popivchak, who is 80 and has been pastor of Saints Peter and Paul for 50 years, told a parable-like story about the Russian invasion forcing a 4-year-old refugee girl to flee her home in western Ukraine.
The little girl walked and hitchhiked to the Polish border with her family “and they had nothing but the clothes on their backs,” Popivchak said.
Her parents “realized her hands were bleeding,” Popivchak said. “She was carrying rocks from the front yard of their home. They were [her only] possessions, and she held on to them so tight her hands bled. That’s why we’re here today.”
Ruslana and Nelya Naida said the human cost of the invasion needs to be kept front and center.
“Seven nights they’ve been sleeping on the floor in the cold,” Ruslana Naida said, describing the plight of some family members in western Ukraine.
‘I can’t imagine what these kids are going through,” she said. “It’s been a nightmare. The war has to be stopped.”
Said her daughter: “I think for my generation the idea of war is what we learned in history class. But to open social media on your phone and see explosions happening –– this is our reality now.
“We are the generation that needs to step up,” said Nelya Naida. “The biggest message we can send now, whether on social media or at rallies, is that we have always been Ukraine, and always will be.”
Inquirer photojournalist Tom Gralish contributed to this report