When there’s daylight in Seattle, it’s usually night time in Ukraine. But that time difference doesn't matter to many Ukrainians here, who are anxious for news of the crisis unfolding in their motherland.
“We have 32 channels from Ukraine so we can watch every day,” said Peter Drogomiretskiy during a recent interview at his home in Brier, Wash. He sometimes watches Ukrainian news coverage with his wife, Valha Drogomiretskiy, until 3 a.m. and only sleeps a few hours before work.
The Seattle area is home to a booming Ukrainian population. It’s the fifth largest in the country, and one of the fastest growing. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Washington is home to 53,445 people of Ukrainian ancestry, and more than half the population lives in the Seattle metro area. Large communities are located south of Seattle around Federal Way, and also north of Seattle near Lynnwood.
The Drogomiretskiys moved to the Seattle area 22 years ago. They’re part of what’s called the fourth wave of immigration from Ukraine, which started in the late 1980s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“There was no work,” Peter Drogomiretskiy said. “That was the reason to look for a better life.”
Peter Drogomiretskiy said the Ukrainian community here is pretty tight. He’s president of the Ukrainian Association of Washington State, which he said has mainly operated since 1971 as a cultural heritage group. But it's shifted gears recently as the situation in Ukraine worsened.
“We’ve never been involved in political debates like we are right now in this time,” Peter Drogomiretskiy said. “In the past 22 years I’ve been here, we never had this [type of] situation in Ukraine.”
Members of Peter Drogomiretskiy’s association have held several local rallies to support the protest in Ukraine. They’ve also raised about $20,000 that Peter Drogomiretskiy said mostly goes to help people injured in the street violence.
“I remember the last $2,000 we sent – the man was shot by riot police in the head and he got some trauma,” he said.
A question at the heart of this crisis is whether the country should align more with the European Union or with Russia. It’s led to deadly street protests, the removal of President Yanukovych, major economic instability and escalating conflict with Russia.
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Brothers, Never Our Brothers
On a recent spring evening, the Drogomiretskiys invited two other Ukrainian families to their home. The adults chatted in the kitchen, where Valha Drogomiretskiy nudged her guests toward platters of smoked fish and egg salad.
The sound of laughter and kids playing drifted in from the formal living room next door. Then, a loud thud on the floor. A 6-year-old girl was teaching her younger friend how to somersault. It felt a bit like a family reunion.
Talking in the living room, everyone shared how they get news from Ukraine. Much of it comes from social media.
Olha Krupa, an assistant professor at Seattle University, who spends summers in Ukraine, mentioned how she's seen rifts between Russians and Ukrainians crop up on Facebook.
“Basically somebody from Kharkiv would unfriend somebody from Moscow who were best buddies and now they’ve fought over something they’ve seen on TV on different channels,” Krupa said.
Here locally, the members of this gathering said Ukrainian and Russian immigrants tend to get along just fine.
Yuliya Shadyrya left Ukraine when she was 15 years old. As a kid, she spent summers in Russia and has a lot of ties there.
“Right now, I’m extremely, extremely disappointed in Russia,” Shadyrya said. “It just doesn’t fit in my brain how a nation can call you their brother, then at the same time attack.”
From across the room, Krupa suggested those feelings of disappointment are more common in eastern Ukraine. But the feeling is different farther from the Russian border, like where she’s from in Lviv.
“Like we don’t consider them our brothers,” Krupa said. “And we never had.”
In the next room, Ukrainian cartoons kept the kids entertained.
Both Krupa and Shadyrya said they often talk with their daughters about the situation back home. Shadyrya said she puts it in terms her five-year old can easily grasp, as a Robin Hood story.
“Yanukovych is kind of like Prince John,” she said. “He collects taxes and taxes, and he’s always hungry for money. Then, people are kind of like Robin Hood, like laughing at him but also suffering.”
Back in the kitchen, Valha Drogomiretskiy set out dessert plates and coffee. She caused a stir as the other women got a glimpse inside her fridge. It’s well-stocked with groceries from the nearby Ukrainian market, including Russian items others are boycotting.
When asked if she’s throwing away a container of Russian mayonnaise, Valha Drogomiretskiy hesitated.
Krupa joked that Ukrainians never throw food away. With an apologetic shrug, Valha placed her Russian mayonnaise back in the fridge.