Ukrainians reflect on independence day amid war: ‘We’re not really celebrating joyfully’

The Rev. Vasyl Sendeha, priest at Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Palos Park, remembered fondly the first celebration of Ukrainian Independence Day.

Sendeha said he was 13, living in Olesko, Ukraine, when the country gained its independence from the Soviet Union Aug. 24, 1991, which has become Ukraine’s Independence Day.

Under the Soviet Union, Sendeha said Ukrainians weren’t allowed to display flags or wear clothing embroidered with the Ukrainian flag. When he went to the first celebration of the country’s independence, Sendeha said he remembers seeing homemade yellow and blue flags and clothing.

“I remember riding in the car and we had these little flags that we made for me and my brother and we were just sticking them out of the window. It felt so good. Finally, our country’s free. We can be who we truly are,” Sendeha said.

Now, amid the war Russia launched on Ukraine, Sendeha, his wife, Olena Levko-Sendeha, and parishioner Ivan Bryndzia shared how bittersweet Aug. 24 has become. While it remains a day of celebrating the country’s independence, they said they look forward to honoring a new day: The day the war ends.

“That date is going to be really celebrated. It’s going to be a new day celebration of freedom and independence. That one will be really celebrated joyfully,” Sendeha said.

Throughout his time in the U.S., Sendeha said he’s been pleased with how Ukrainians have come together to commemorate Aug. 24. Ukrainians in the U.S. celebrated by displaying flags and gathering together over food and music, he said.

While there have been moments where it was difficult to celebrate Ukraine’s independence, like during regimes that were pro-Russia, Sendeha said it has been most challenging amid war.

“We’re not really celebrating joyfully. It’s more in terms of prayer, because we have services where we get together to pray to thank God for the blessing and to pray for peace and the end of this war,” Sendeha said.

Bryndzia, who grew up near Sambir, Ukraine, remembers being in first grade for the first celebration of independence day and everyone having the day off to celebrate. As he grew older, Bryndzia said, through Sendeha translating, that he remembers going to parades.

“Now, it’s hard to even feel this day as a celebration because the war is going on and people are dying,” Bryndzia said.

Levko-Sendeha, who grew up in Pochaiv, Ukraine, said she remembers people proudly singing the national anthem and displaying flags after Ukraine gained its independence. She would go to the town center where a celebration, complete with concerts and speeches, was held each year.

When she came to the U.S. with her family in 2000, Levko-Sendeha said the celebrations shifted from the town square to churches, where special masses were held.

“We were still celebrating, and that was a big day for us,” Levko-Sendeha said.

Levko-Sendeha said she went to Chicago Thursday for a Ukrainian Independence Day celebration. Even though it was very hot, she said it was nice to celebrate as a community.

“It’s not as festive because what’s going on there. It keeps on going and people are still losing the lives. It’s not as joyous,” Levko-Sendeha said.

During the Republican Party presidential candidate debate Wednesday, the candidates had different positions on continued support from the U.S. to Ukraine.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis both said they would like to cut funding to Ukraine, while former governors Nikki Haley and Chris Christie were supportive of continuing aid.

Levko-Sendeha said the U.S. can’t stop or cut funding.

“A lot of people’s lives depend on the help of United States, on the help of the world. They cannot stop. In my opinion, they actually have to increase the help,” Levko-Sendeha said. “They have to do as much as they can and even more than that.”

Ukrainians are grateful to the U.S. for supporting Ukraine, Sendeha said, and he’d like to see the aid continue.

“We’re very thankful that U.S. has been supporting so much Ukraine because if it wouldn’t be for U.S., things probably be very different. I hope that they’re not going to stop doing that,” he said.