A Montgomery County food festival raises funds for Ukraine’s armed forces
Inside the community hall at St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Church in Jenkintown, volunteers ran a no-nonsense assembly line, packing to-go boxes with Eastern European staples.
Every night this week, Nadia Skoropad finished her job at a local pharmaceutical company, drove to her Ukrainian church in Jenkintown, and peeled potatoes until 10 p.m., preparing food for a fund-raiser to support Ukraine’s armed forces back home.
“My heart is broken,” said Skoropad, whose son lives in the city of Lviv. “We are willing to do anything to help.”
With a winter storm passing through the region, the parishioners tempered their expectations for a big turnout for Saturday’s event. But of course, pierogi have a powerful draw in the Philly region.
When doors opened at noon, hundreds of people braved the dicey roadways to show support for their Ukrainian neighbors. There was gridlocked traffic in the parking lot of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church, and for hours on end a line stretched halfway across the 15-acre suburban church campus, which some refer to as “Little Ukraine.”
Inside the community hall, volunteers ran a no-nonsense assembly line, packing to-go boxes with Eastern European staples. The churchgoers dished up a dizzying spread of stuffed cabbages, borscht, kielbasa, and cheese blintzes. Pierogi stretched as far as the eye could see. How many? Estimates were feverishly high. “600,000 pierogies,” said the Rev. Andriy Rabiy, pastor of the church.
Anxieties have been running high for Ukrainian immigrants in the Philadelphia region since Russia launched its invasion last month, but like so many others, the community at St. Michael has turned their sorrow into action. They say they’ve raised more than $80,000 to provide first-aid kits, medicine, and thermal underwear to send to their war-torn country. Some parishioners have traveled to Poland with supplies and personally delivered them across the border.
“We are going through a roller coaster of emotions and feelings,” said Rabiy. “At first, it was shock. But now we are concentrating on helping out Ukraine in any way that we can.”
In the basement, two men skewered chunks of plump pork to make shashlik — Ukrainian shish kebab — which had been marinating in vats of onions and herbs since Friday morning. Outside, Askold Sandursky flipped skewers on the charcoal grill as he juggled phone calls in rapid Ukrainian.
“It’s a secret recipe,” said the 49-year-old vice chair of the church’s council.
His phone rang again. Someone was calling about an order he had placed for military helmets to ship overseas.
The first wave of Ukrainian immigrants settled in this area over a century ago, but most of the parishioners at St. Michael arrived in the early ’90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nearly all of them have families back in the homeland — some staying to fight, others simply unwilling to flee. Every day, they brace for heartbreak. But they are also emboldened by the tales of courage from family members who make their way across the Atlantic.
Ihor Sydoryak, 57, head of the church’s council, said his sister has been hosting refugee families in her apartment in Lviv. Hundreds of thousands of refugees pass through the city each day as they trek west to Poland in search of safety.
For many, the message has been: If you cannot stay and fight, it’s time to leave. But many family members are resistant to leaving their homeland, especially the older generation.
As she took a break from serving the potatoes she spent all week cutting, Skoropad said she came to the United States decades ago to pursue a career in chemistry. But many in her immediate family remain overseas — including her son, who was born in the U.S. and returned to Ukraine as an adult. Adding to that worry is her 82-year-old mother, who refuses to leave her home in Lviv.
“My mom says if she has to, she will die in her house,” said Skoropad, wiping away tears. “My mom was born in 1938. This is her second war.”
For Sandursky, taking action from afar is essential.
“Sometimes I am scared people here are more depressed than people there,” he said. So he keeps himself busy, and limits his news intake to three times a day, in order to stay focused on the task at hand. His phone rang again. A shashlik refill was needed upstairs, stat.
Three hours after the fund-raiser began, with the snow having mostly subsided, the line grew even longer outside the church. They ran out of food by 4 p.m.
Organizers said they raised more than $40,000, and due to the surprise outpouring of support, they plan to repeat the food festival next weekend.
Skoropad said some people dug deep into their pockets. An elderly couple living on Social Security paid $150 for food — and threw in an extra $30 donation.
The generosity, she said, has been overwhelming.