Southwest suburban Ukrainians hopeful, anxious on second anniversary of war

As the Russia-Ukraine war approaches the two-year mark, the Rev. Vasyl Sendeha, priest at Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Palos Park, said Ukrainians remain hopeful but are anxious about their country’s future.

Sendeha said his major worry is who will rebuild Ukraine. The longer the war lasts, he said, it becomes that much harder to answer the question.

“I do hope that the war will be over, but who is going to be there? How many lives have been lost, young people have been lost, how many children who weren’t born who were supposed to be born? How is the future of Ukraine going to be? Not the same, for sure,” Sendeha said.

Olena Levko-Sendeha, Sendeha’s wife, said thinking about the second anniversary of the war, which began Feb. 24, 2022, is heartbreaking.

“When the war just started two years ago, nobody would ever have thought that two years later we would still be there,” Levko-Sendeha said. “But people are strong. The will is strong. They don’t want to give up their motherland. They are protecting it and they don’t want to surrender.”

While Russian President Vladimir Putin said the plan was to conquer Ukraine over the course of a weekend, Sendeha said the Russian army’s strategy over the course of two years has shifted.

At the start of the war, Russia’s goal was to take control of Ukraine as Russian territory, Sendeha said. But the more Ukraine has defended itself, Sendeha said it appears the Russian army has changed tactics with the aim of destroying cities and towns.

The U.S. Senate passed an emergency spending package Feb. 13 that includes about $60 billion for Ukraine. The House has not yet voted on the package.

Ukraine depends on support from the United States, the European Union and Canada, Sendeha said.

“If it wouldn’t be for the U.S., the situation would be very, very different,” Sendeha said. “If it wouldn’t be for the U.S., probably the war would be over and Ukraine would be conquered and destroyed.”

Sendeha said while he isn’t a political person, it looks like political games are being played with aid for Ukraine.

“It’s unfortunate because people’s lives were lost and now we don’t see the end of this war,” Sendeha said.

Sendeha said church leaders have helped many refugees fill out government paperwork, find jobs and housing and learn English. About 25% of the refugees the church helped returned to Ukraine, he said.

Sendeha’s father and brother are still in Ukraine, he said. He offered multiple times to sponsor them and extended family members to come to the U.S., but they want to stay in Ukraine.

“I say, ‘We help others, not even family members, and here we are able to help you,’ and they say ‘no.’ They just want to stay there,” Sendeha said.

Levko-Sendeha, who works for Selfreliance Association, an organization that helps refugees and immigrants with comprehensive services to become self-sufficient in the U.S., said Ukrainians are still coming to the U.S. to avoid war, but the number has decreased.

The anniversary also marks two years for Ukrainians who came to the U.S. under the Uniting for Ukraine program, which allowed Ukrainian refugees to stay in the U.S. for two years, Levko-Sendeha said.

Levko-Sendeha said she’s hopeful the U.S. government will extend the program.

“Right now, people don’t know what to do. It’s not safe to return, it’s not safe to bring their families back home yet, so they have to stay here,” Levko-Sendeha said. “They’re just in this not knowing, not being able to see what’s going to happen with them in six months.”

Ukrainians aren’t losing hope that the war will end, Sendeha said, but it looks like it won’t be over soon.

“As of right now, it seems like it’s probably going to go at least a for year. I hope not. I keep on praying that it’s not going to happen,” Sendeha said.

Sendeha said support for Ukraine appears to have died out, and he encouraged everyone to pray for the country.

“The war is still there. The problem is still there. People are still dying,” Sendeha said.

A prayer service for peace will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 8410 131st St., Palos Park.

A prayer followed by dinner fundraiser and viewing of Freedom on Fire will be held at noon Sunday at Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 8410 131st St., Palos Park.

akukulka@chicagotribune.com