More than 100 people gathered outside Riverhead Town Hall this afternoon to rally against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, voicing their support for the East End’s Ukrainian-American population and calling for the end of the war in Ukraine.
The lawn was a sea of blue and yellow, as people carried and donned the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Participants carried those flags along with signs bearing messages both in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and condemning the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Blaring horns of passing motorists on East Main Street signaled their support for Ukraine. A Ukrainian flag is being flown on the flagpole outside Town Hall in support of Ukraine and the local Ukrainian-American community.
Ukrainian cities and towns have endured air raids, missile attacks and shelling by Russian forces since Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine Thursday after weeks of denials that an invasion was planned, even as Russia amassed troops and military equipment along Ukraine’s borders. In response to the invasion, the European Union, the United States and numerous other nations have imposed sanctions on Russia in an attempt to weaken Russia’s economy and hamper its ability to wage war in Ukraine.
The rally was organized by the parish of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Riverhead, one of the few Ukrainian churches on Long Island and the only on the East End. Parishioners at the church have been praying for peace and an end to the conflict that has plagued Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea and Russia-backed rebel occupation of territory in Eastern Ukraine in 2014.
“Today, for Ukraine, it’s 1776. That happened in the United States, right now, this is happening in Ukraine. This is our 1776,” said Father Bohdan Hedz, the church’s pastor.
“I only hope that 1939 will not happen,” Hedz continued, comparing Putin’s invasion to that of Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland. “It doesn’t seem that [way]. I pray and hope, and it seems that Europe finally realized, the world finally realized, what Ukraine has been saying all along. And it’s very important for all of us here to spread that awareness, to talk to your friends, to talk to your family, to talk to your neighbors about what is going on in Ukraine. Your voice counts. Your support counts.”
Local government officials said they were in support of the church’s mission and the rally. In attendance were members of the Riverhead Town Board, Suffolk County Legislators and Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman.
“Ukraine is a free and independent democracy, which is a shining light in the face of communism and tyrants,” Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said. “The Ukraine has every right to defend its borders, to protect its citizens and to protect its freedom.”
Kaiman said the county government is deeply concerned about the current situation in Ukraine and that he and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone stand with the Ukrainian people.
“The people of Ukraine are standing up for themselves, not just for Ukraine, but for the entire planet,” Kaiman said. “Everybody knows how this unfolds when a tyrant starts with one country, he then moves on to the next. If we lose Ukraine, we lose neighboring countries as well, we lose democracy, we lose freedom. And so the Ukrainian people are standing for freedom throughout the world. We in Suffolk County know here that freedom is precious.”
“Our prayers go out to the Ukrainian people. It’s hard to believe in 2022 that you see the events unfolding in the world, it’s hard to believe that you can see this happening today,” Legislator Al Krupski said.
After officials spoke, Hedz led the rally in singing Ukraine’s national anthem.
The rally drew a crowd of people from all different backgrounds, including people with roots in other Eastern European countries like Lithuania and Poland.
Anna Marynyak, a Ukrainian woman who is currently staying in Riverhead, said through a translator that just before the invasion, she walked three days from her city in Ukraine to Poland, where she flew to the United States. All her family, including her children and grandchildren, are still in Ukraine. She is the only one in her family who has a green card and came to the United States in the hope of finding a way to bring her family here.
Nick Andreadis of Mattituck, who immigrated to the United States at age 12, said he stays up most of the night to make sure his and his wife’s family in Ukraine remains safe from bombing. “I don’t go to bed until the sun comes up. So I get a sense that they’re at least a little bit safer because most of the bombing is at night,” he said.
Andreadis, who hosted a Ukrainian exchange student, said he tried to get her out of the country, but couldn’t because of military traffic and crowds. “What you see on TV, that doesn’t even describe how bad it is. I mean, it’s all littered with debris and wrecked buildings and burnt-up buildings. It’s amazing,” Andreadis said.
Andreadis said if Putin conquers Ukraine, it could lead to further war in Europe. “If he gets through [Ukraine], who’s next? The Baltics? Poland?… And then it’s gonna be a major NATO country and… then it’s World War III. So this is like the last stand before World War III,” he said.
Hedz said the support for Ukraine shown at rallies like the one in Riverhead today indicates Putin will lose the war. “You have big rallies going in New York City. They have big rallies in all the major cities of the United States, and the world for that matter. And Mr. Putin will lose. I have a very confident feeling about it,” he said.
Hedz said the initial shock of the war for Ukrainians on the East End is over and they are confident Ukraine will prevail. “There is an upheaval. There’s an uplift in the spirit that we will overcome, no matter what hardship will still await us. We are in this together and we will be victorious,” he said.
The St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church is accepting donations from the community to send to people displaced by the conflict and to soldiers in Ukraine. They are accepting hygiene products, over-the-counter medicines for the flu and clothes of all sizes — especially those made for cold weather. Donations can be dropped off at the church, which is located at 820 Pond View Road in Riverhead.
RiverheadLOCAL video by Marian Piedrabuena
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