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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

For some Americans, Ukraine’s fight feels close to home

A prayer service for Ukraine at St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedria in Parma, Ohio, Feb. 25, 2022. The Russian invasion deeply affects Ukrainians in the United States, but it also resonates with a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor in Texas and a Taiwanese American family in Georgia.

By Ruth Graham, Elizabeth Dias, Miriam Jordan and Karen Zraick

They refreshed their newsfeeds and prayed. They tried to sleep, and didn’t. Some feared for loved ones they worried over by name. Others felt the conflict in Ukraine filtered through their own experiences, shifting their plans and their sense of stability.

For many Americans, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this past week was appalling but abstract: a violent but far-off clash whose heart-rending images and geopolitical implications could be made to disappear with the closing of a screen or the click of a remote.

But others across the United States watched with an intimate sense of foreboding. Their families and friends, memories and hopes are bound up in different ways with the country whose capital was being rocked by missile strikes Friday.

In Parma, Ohio, it is the first thing the Very Rev. John Nakonachny thinks of each morning, he said. He recalled a young woman attending services at his church, St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, who was in such shock and sadness for her parents in Ukraine that she could barely speak.

He remains appalled by the idea of Orthodox Christians being forced into battle against one another.

“These soldiers lying in the snow, I bet all of them had a crucifix around their necks,” he said. “Brothers killing brothers, Christians killing Christians.”

Other vantage points awakened strains of unease: A Taiwanese American family in Atlanta felt anxious about what the invasion meant for their future . A North Carolina father wondered about the fate of his adopted daughter’s unknown siblings. And a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor in Texas was transported back to her own ordeal fleeing Poland.

‘I hurt for them’

Ruth Salton, 100, who watches CNN and reads the newspaper every morning on her iPad, has watched with alarm as familiar images appear on the screens: civilians fleeing their homes, separating from their families, running in the streets.

Salton, who is Jewish, fled her home in Poland in 1939 and eventually landed in a remote labor camp in Siberia, where she performed hard labor for a year. After the war, she joined an underground movement to help Jewish Holocaust survivors escape to what is now Israel. She made her way to the United States and now lives in suburban Dallas with her daughter’s family.

“I feel for them, I hurt for them, and I exactly know how they feel,” Salton said. “We were running, we were on trains, it was the same thing. You do not know how it feels when you have to run and to be afraid. The worst thing in life is not death; it’s being frightened.”

Putin has pledged to “denazify” Ukraine, a move that has been criticized as an attempt to justify his attack on Ukraine’s democratically elected government. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and has relatives who were killed by Nazis in the Holocaust.

Salton’s daughter is the founding president of Congregation Beth Israel, the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where a gunman took four hostages last month. Salton was not in the synagogue that day but attended services on the eve of her 100th birthday — less than a week after the hostage situation.

“I think the whole world should stand up and fight for freedom,” she said. “If we don’t help them, who will?”

‘We’ve always wondered’

In North Carolina, Glenn Jonas recalled the emotional three weeks he spent in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and Odessa in 2001, when he and his wife and their 5-year-old daughter traveled to the country to adopt their younger daughter, Gracie. The infant was living in an orphanage and weighed only about 7 pounds at 3 months old, he said.

The orphanage director placed the little girl in Jonas’ arms first, and it was “love at first sight,” he said. “I’m not a person who believes in destiny, but I do have a sense of God’s plan.”

Although the Jonases have never traveled back to Ukraine as a family, Glenn Jonas follows the news closely and feels connected to the country through his daughter. He knows almost nothing about her birth family.

“We’ve always wondered if she had siblings,” he said. “If she had siblings and if they were boys, they would be in the military right now. You think about these things. This has impacted us more deeply than I would have thought.”

His daughter is 21 and a college student at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, where Jonas is a professor of religion and an associate dean. He is also the interim pastor at a small Baptist church, where congregants have been praying for the soldiers from nearby Fort Bragg who have recently been deployed to Poland. His daughter’s boyfriend, a member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, is among them.

‘What would the U.S. do now?’

From Atlanta, Sheryl Chen and Doug Weinstein have watched with disbelief as Russian troops advanced on Ukraine. They feel for innocent Ukrainians swept up in a senseless war, they said. But they are also troubled by the incursion for another reason: Putin’s military aggression toward Ukraine could embolden his ally, President Xi Jinping of China, to invade Taiwan, where is Chen is from.

The couple had planned to spend the summer in Taiwan so that their 6-year-old son, Daniel, could practice Mandarin while enjoying his grandparents’ company.

“What happens if we are over there and China decides to invade?” said Weinstein, who is a lawyer.

Instead, they are considering for the first time whether they should help Chen’s parents, who have a successful business in Taiwan, immigrate to the United States.

For now, they are closely watching how far the United States will go to defend Ukraine, and what signal that might send to Xi, who has asserted that it is a foreign policy imperative for China to regain control of Taiwan, which it claims is part of a unified nation.

Chen wondered whether President Joe Biden would deploy battleships to international waters near Taiwan like former President Bill Clinton did before the self-governing island held its first direct presidential election in 1996. The U.S. response came after China held military exercises and fired missiles near Taiwan.

“China is more powerful economically and militarily than ever,” Chen said. “What would the U.S. do now? I am scared for my friends and relatives.”

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