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Ukrainian refugees may turn to Northeast Ohio to escape war, continue cultural legacy

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Posted at 6:25 PM, Feb 24, 2022

CLEVELAND — Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine could lead to hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding neighboring Poland and, eventually, the United States. If and when they do, history suggests that many of those refugees will relocate to Northeast Ohio, which already has the highest concentration of Ukrainian-Americans in the state.

From the moment the first wave of Ukrainians settled in Tremont — before relocating to Parma a few decades later — Ukrainians have left an indelible impact. From churches to businesses to city hall and healthcare, their immigration story has become part of the region’s DNA.

“My parents were political refugees. Our family as well as thousands of others came to Cleveland and found an already existing social and economic infrastructure,” said Andy Fedynsky, the director of the Ukrainian Museum Archives in Tremont. “Many of them in the late 19th Century — most of them — came for jobs. Why Tremont? Well, it’s where the neighborhood meets the industrial valley. It’s where the jobs were.”

Fedynsky was born in a refugee camp that was set up in the aftermath of World War II. Although he has spent the vast majority of his life in the United States, including a stint on Capitol Hill serving as a senior advisor on the former Soviet Union, Fedynsky still keeps very close ties with friends and family still living in Ukraine.

Watching Russian missiles, rockets and bombs rain down on his native country was shocking, heartbreaking, and everything in between.

“Ukraine has survived a lot of tribulation over not just the 20th Century but before. Ukraine will survive this,” Fedynsky said. “It’s not just Ukraine’s fight. It’s the civilized world. It’s to maintain international order, which is basic to the kind of life that people want: freedom, democracy, a civil society, prosperity. It’s the same thing that the Russian people want and — for some perverted, insane reason — Putin doesn’t want them to have it.”

The Ukrainian Museum Archives has one of the most important and vast collections of Ukrainian artifacts and cultural relics. Many of the exhibits at the museum have survived despite the attempts of maniacal megalomaniacs like Hitler and Stalin. Started in 1952, the museum seeks to preserve what was being lost in Ukraine.

“The mission is to preserve and share Ukrainian culture and the immigrant experience,” Fedynsky said. “We maintain contacts with the country with our heritage while contributing to America.”

Joe Cimperman, the president of Global Cleveland, a refugee and immigration advocacy organization, said the region’s various non-profits and other immigration organizations stand at the ready to welcome and help resettle any Ukrainian refugees that escape the war.

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“We have certainly been welcoming people from Ukraine for decades. Cleveland is home to many people who are Ukrainian. We know that people are going to be leaving the country and we are welcoming them because it’s what we do,” Cimperman said. “The tragedy is that it’s almost like if you were to close your eyes and remove some of the dates it feels like history is repeating itself. I have talked to as many Russian people as I have Ukrainian people and they are sick. They are sick about this. There is no desire from the peace-loving Russian people to see war.”

In addition to significant geopolitical ramifications, the unprovoked and unnecessary Russian invasion has cultural implications as well, especially for those living in Northeast Ohio.

“The Ukrainian community and the Russian community share a faith: the Orthodox faith. There are so many connections. Somebody said to me this morning it’s like cousins that are fighting. The truth is what happened is sickening,” Cimperman said. “I hope people are waking up to the fact that what is happening in Ukraine is going to affect East 9th and Euclid. It’s going to affect State Road in Parma. And it’s going to affect Crocker Park.”

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The bombs and explosions around Ukraine on Thursday have reverberated around the globe. Fedynsky worries that the ripple effect is just getting started.

“It’s distressing. It’s very...,” Fedynsky said as he fought back tears. “We exchange birthday cards and phone calls. Facebook messages. And so we worry about not only their well-being but their lives. I know some of them. They said they’re going to fight in the streets — and you know they mean it.”

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