By Maggie Heenan, Staff Writer
For the past few weeks, opening your phone or any social media app would greet you with the same exact thing: videos, photos, or updates about the war in Ukraine. For most of us, this brutal conflict exists only in our phone screens or on the television, but for many, this is reality for them or their loved ones.
Zorian Shepko-Hamilton, a junior at New Paltz High School, has a unique perspective on the situation- his family originally being from Ukraine. Though they were originally from Kharkiv, one of the eastern-most cities and closest to the Russian border, Zorian’s remaining family in Ukraine currently reside in Lviv on the opposite side of the country.
“Right now they’re kind of helping refugees who are fleeing from the eastern side of the country and from Kyiv,” Says Zorian about his cousins who are currently living in Lviv, “They’re trying to just help them, house them, feed them- give them whatever they need really.”
Around 10 million people have already fled their homes in Ukraine attempting to escape Russian forces, but 6.5 million of those are still stuck, homeless and helpless inside the war-torn country. Though it’s hard for anyone to watch, especially fellow Ukrainians, the help that Zorian’s family (and many others) are providing is incredibly necessary and makes all the difference.
Though Zorian does have a special connection to this issue because of his relatives currently in Ukraine, it’s not the only reason he has such a strong determination to speak on the topic.
“Well, for me, it’s like the whole country is my family,” he says, “It’s painful to watch what’s happening right now and the atrocities that are going on… and as a Ukrainian American I think it’s helpful to show our support and helpful to raise awareness about what’s going on.”
As terrifying and upsetting as it is to be Ukrainian right now, Zorian not only wants to raise awareness about the conflict but also spread pride and appreciation for Ukrainian culture, saying “Right now, I’m wearing [my culture] as proudly as I can.”
For Zorian, wearing his culture and educating others about it is a way of gathering support for both the people currently living in Ukraine and the country as a whole. He’s determined to humanize Ukrainian people in the eyes of those from foreign countries, wanting people to see that Ukrainians are not just figures on our screens but real people that everybody can relate to.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” he says, “you’ve got to help each other as people.”
To many of us, especially those of younger generations, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the attack of civilians may have seemed unusually cruel or even unexpected. This attack on civilians is and was cruel and undeserved, but unfortunately it is not the first time Russia has launched attacks on Ukrainian people.
“This kind of Russian attack on Ukraine culture and Ukrainian people has been going on for decades, really.” Zorian explains, giving some quick insight into the history of the two countries. He gives an overview of the Holodomor, a man-made famine enforced on Soviet Ukraine in the 1930’s which killed millions of Ukrainian people, “they made a law, and if you grew more than five seeds of grain then you’d get shot.”
Zorian’s family history is incredibly intertwined with Ukraine’s history, many of his relatives having been artists who were persecuted in the many Russian attacks and purges of Ukrainian culture.
“My [great-grandmother’s] first husband was killed because he was an artist and [the USSR] was doing a cultural cleansing,” He says, going into his family’s story. After his great-grandmother remarried, her second husband- a poet- was sent off to Siberia, so Zorian’s grandmother grew up with just her mother and brother. The three of them went from place to place around Europe, fleeing the fighting and chaos of World War II. Zorain recalls some of the war stories his grandmother used to tell him, of how she and her brother were dragged on a sled by their mother through the snow, and how they stayed in a barn for shelter one night to avoid freezing to death.
After the war, Zorian’s grandmother moved to Germany, eventually becoming a news broadcaster and journalist reporting on current news and events in Ukraine. Zorian proudly tells of how his grandmother built an incredible life for herself in Germany and eventually bought a home in America with her new husband, and Zorian’s grandfather. From there, the two of them built a life in America for their children and future grandchildren, working hard to preserve their Ukrainian culture while living in America.
Zorian expressed his extreme pride for his country and fellow Ukrainians, not just hoping for the rest of the world to intervene, but having faith in their strength as a people.
“No matter what happens to us and no matter how long we fight, we’ll get our freedom.”