At first glance, it was a typical North Jersey cultural celebration full of ethnic dancing, traditional dress and homemade food.
But the Ukrainian Festival at Holy Ascension Cathedral in Clifton on Sunday was both a joyous and somber occasion.
It was the first time in three years that hundreds of congregants came together to celebrate the annual feast after the COVID-19 pandemic twice canceled it. And because many thoughts on Sunday were with loved ones back in a war-torn homeland, the festival became a major fundraiser for humanitarian aid.
"This year is special because we need to collect as much as we can," said Pastor Oleksii Holchuk, whose siblings and extended family still like in Ukraine. "It's critical."
The festival was held just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed a large military mobilization in a televised address to his nation as Ukraine's counteroffensive continued to push his invasion troops back toward the Russian border. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy implored the U.S. and other nations to continue supporting his country with aid and sanctions against Russia, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week.
On Sunday, while congregants piled plates high with sausage anddumplings on the grassy field behind the church, a Ukrainian solider and two wives of Ukrainian prisoners of war made their plea for help — part of a recent weeks-long campaign in the U.S. that includes drumming up support at community gatherings along with meeting congressional representatives to fortify the government's support.
Yuliia Fedosiuk has spent months telling the world about the plight of her husband, Sgt. Arseniy Fedosiuk, who was captured during the battle for Mariupol last spring, including calling for the Red Cross to visit POWs.
"We need to improve conditions, because we've had some soldiers who were exchanged who look terrible," she said. "I'm afraid for my husband, other families are afraid, so we need help."
Fedosiuk likened the Ukrainians' plight to that of Americans during the Revolutionary War. "We are both fighting against aggressive empires," she said. "Americans can feel our struggle. They understand it. Ukrainians in America are supporting us, too. Because of them, we are winning this bloody war."
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The congregation and surrounding community have already raised $300,000 in cash for the war effort and have sent 15 cargo containers filled with medical supplies to Ukraine.
"We're still doing it," said Wolodymyr Mohuchy, vice president of the church council. "We won't stop until it's over."
Veterans held the Ukrainian and American flags while a congregant led the gathering in both national anthems. Young children wearing straw hats and traditional garments danced and sang on stage.
Among those addressing the large crowd Sunday was Clifton Mayor James Anzaldi, who spoke of both the contributions Ukrainians have made to the city and the geopolitical forces that concerned nearly everyone there. He drew loud applause when he spoke in less-than-flattering terms about Putin.
"We're going to have a bigger celebration when the war criminal is gone!" Anzaldi said.
This article contains information from USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ Ukrainian festival: Thoughts turn to war-torn homeland