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‘We’re not sure what tomorrow holds’: Ukrainian Americans in Spokane weigh in on Russian invasion

Ukrainian soldiers stand guard as people try to leave at the Kyiv train station, Ukraine, Thursday. Russian troops have launched their anticipated attack on Ukraine. Big explosions were heard before dawn in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa as world leaders decried the start of an Russian invasion that could cause massive casualties and topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government.  (Emilio Morenatti)
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard as people try to leave at the Kyiv train station, Ukraine, Thursday. Russian troops have launched their anticipated attack on Ukraine. Big explosions were heard before dawn in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa as world leaders decried the start of an Russian invasion that could cause massive casualties and topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government. (Emilio Morenatti)

Anatoliy Mazhan felt a lot of emotions Thursday.

He felt exhausted after barely getting three hours of sleep. He felt scared that Russia might capture Kyiv, install a puppet president and rob Ukraine of its independence. And he felt worried for his family members still there.

But there’s one word that best sums up how Spokane’s Slavic community is feeling, Mazhan said: Stunned.

“We’re stunned that this is happening in the 21st century in the middle of Europe,” he said. “I’m really, really hoping and praying that the Ukrainian government and Ukraine as a nation survives this attack.”

Mazhan is one of maybe 30,000 or so Ukrainian Americans living in Spokane. The Spokane area might be home to roughly 50,000 Slavs, although it’s hard to come up with a precise figure. Many of the county’s Eastern European immigrants are Christian refugees who fled religious persecution in the area that made up the former Soviet Union between the late 1980s and early 2000s.

Thousands of Ukrainian Americans in Spokane have close family members in Ukraine. Tanya Willard, who moved to Spokane from Ukraine’s Donetsk region 17 years ago, said she’s worried about her father and sister.

“They’re the only family that I have left,” Willard said. “You feel helpless; there’s not much you can do.”

Willard’s father and sister are currently in Ukraine’s Odessa region, which is under attack. She said her father and sister moved to the area after fighting broke out in their home region of Donetsk in 2014.

“Now they have to relive all over again this refugee stuff,” Willard said. “(My sister), she’s like, ‘How did we get here? We ran away once, we thought we were safe.’ ”

The bulk of Spokane’s Slavic residents are Christians. They tend to go to church together, regardless of their original nationality.

That means Ukrainian Americans and Russian Americans in Spokane are often close, and the escalating conflict is causing tension between friends and within families.

Some members of the Slavic community are trying to avoid talking about the war entirely because it’s difficult to have those conversations without tempers flaring.

“It’s a very touchy subject,” Willard said.

Inna Mayorov, who grew up in Slavyansk, Ukraine, which is also in the Donetsk region, said she doesn’t want Spokane’s Slavic community to become divided.

“It’s our responsibility to not let that happen, not to feed that anger with anything,” she said.

She noted that some in Spokane’s Ukrainian and Russian communities haven’t been happy that she’s sharing videos of aerial attacks and explosions on Facebook.

“I just want people to see what’s really happening,” she said. “That’s really happening in the 21st century.”

Mazhan, who came to the U.S. from Slavyansk in 1998 as a 13-year-old, explained that, even within families, there are people who have different views on the conflict. He said there’s often a generation gap.

“The reason probably why is older generations, a lot of them, still listen to Russian news,” Mazhan said. “It’s ridiculous how some people even believe the Russian propaganda.”

Willard said she sees the difference of opinion within her own family. She said she tries not to judge anyone for their beliefs.

“We are not there (in Ukraine), we don’t feel what they feel,” she said. “We don’t have to go into bomb shelters.”

For now, many Ukrainian Americans say all they can do is hope and pray.

“The situation is unraveling really fast,” Mazhan said. “We’re not sure what tomorrow holds.”

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