Rockford’s Ukrainian-Americans worry about what’s next for homeland

Ukraine may be more than 5,000 miles away but the escalating conflict with Russia hits close to home for Ukrainian-American Rockford residents.

“To me, they are my brothers and sisters,” said Peter Nogacz, a first-generation Ukrainian American, of the protestors in Ukraine.

What began as a peaceful protest has spiraled into an international power struggle between Russia and Ukraine. In November, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned an agreement that would result in closer trade ties with the European Union in favor of a closer relationship with Russia.

The decision was reached with no public involvement, and outraged Ukrainians who want further independence from Russia gathered in Kiev to protest. In February, protests turned violent with approximately 100 protestors and police killed. Yanukovych fled Ukraine but is insisting he still holds presidential power, and Russian forces have invaded the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.

The United States has imposed sanctions on Russia to convince Russian president Vladimir Putin to back off of Ukraine, but Nogacz said that may not be enough.

“I can’t say the United States is handling it poorly,” he said. “I’m all for them handling things diplomatically. But if we don’t help Ukraine, for me as an American citizen, I’ll be extremely disappointed.”

Nogacz has never been to Ukraine, but the culture has been part of his life in a very big way. His mother’s family fled Lviv, in western Ukraine, during World War II, when his mother was only 1 year old. They went to Argentina and eventually came to the Ukrainian Village in Chicago. Nogacz’s father fled Zolitniki, a village near Ternopil in western Ukraine, at around the same time. He went to Germany before also settling in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village.

That’s where Nogacz was born. Ukrainian was his first language. He went to Ukrainian schools and attended Ukrainian Catholic church.

So moving to Rockford caused a little bit of culture shock.

“When I first moved to Rockford, I was pretty convinced I was the only Ukrainian,” he said. “If I do anything Ukrainian, it’s going back to Chicago in my old neighborhood.” However, Nogacz said the Ukrainian community in Rockford is growing slowly. “It has a long way before we can have our own church in Rockford, for example. But it will come with time,” he said.

Another Rockford resident, Galina Kasyanyuk, moved from Ukraine to the United States with her husband in 1998. She came to Washington state before settling in Rockford, where her husband’s brothers were living.

Both Nogacz and Kasyanyuk still have family living in Ukraine. Kasyanyuk also has a family member in the Russian military. She fears what might happen if her Ukrainian relatives are called on to fight their own cousins.

“Ukrainians have relatives in Russia, and Russians have relatives in Ukraine,” she said. “It’s insane. It’s so sad.”

While the violence that has ensued is not the ideal situation for Nogacz, he said he was hopeful when he first heard of the peaceful protests against President Yanukovych.

“I was very much supportive of getting rid of the former president, Viktor Yanukovych,” he said. “He is very pro-Russia, and for Ukrainian patriots who want to see Ukraine free from Russia’s grip, it was heartwarming. I want to see them break free.”

Kasyanyuk said she does not have any animosity toward the Russian people. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, she understands what she described as the manipulative power of the Russian government and media. She does not think Putin’s actions are representative of what the Russian people want or believe.

“I pray not only for Ukrainian people but also for Russian people,” she said. “It’s just sad.”

While the situation has escalated to a point that may seem beyond control, Nogacz encourages Americans to contact their representatives in government to voice their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“Right now I’m just watching and hopeful,” he said.


—Jessica Cabe is a Rockford resident now studying at Syracuse University. She’s a graduate of Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.