Twenty years ago, Oksana Dulysz’s father took a historic journey from the U.S. to his homeland — the eastern European country of Ukraine.
It was historic because the trip to visit his sister marked the first time in decades citizens in the U.S. could meet with their loved ones thousands of miles away. It was the summer after the Aug. 24, 1991, declaration of Ukraine’s independence.
More than 40 Ukrainian-Americans gathered at City Hall in Amsterdam on Friday to remember the hard days that came before the celebration, first held 21 years ago, when Ukrainians declared their freedom from the icy grip of the Soviet Union.
Before then, Ukraininan-Americans were cut off from relatives living elsewhere.
“He couldn’t have any contact with her,” Dulysz said of her aunt in Ukraine.
Dulysz said her parents’ path to America was a difficult one. Prior to their arrival, they spent seven years in a “displaced persons camp” established in Germany and Austria following World War II.
The country’s history is tormented with stories of forced labor, forced famine and massacres. Dulysz and her family were among numerous Ukrainian immigrants who found freedom and employment in the U.S.
Many later put on the military uniform and fought as American soldiers. And though their numbers are dwindling and families have dispersed throughout this country, those in and around Amsterdam expect never to forget Aug. 24, 1991, a day when so many people were set free.
“My aunt and uncles were being punished because they had a sister in America,” Dulysz recalled.
Dulysz’s father, Jaroslaw “Jerry” Dulysz, who died in 2008, was among many who found work in Amsterdam soon after their arrival. He worked in the city’s carpet mills.
“He went to work the next day [after] he came to America,” Dulysz said.
Ukrainian-Americans are working to remember their heritage and ensure their ancestors and what they endured is never forgotten. Myron Swidersky, president of the Amsterdam branch of the Ukrainian-American Citizens Club, said the group is planning to create a website to post memories and videos of immigrants’ recollections.
He said he hopes this year’s anniversary celebration is the start of an annual event in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam resident Ihor Rymaruk, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine with his parents in 1949, still harbors resentment of the Soviets and their influence on his homeland, which, despite different names and flags, he believes continues to this day.
“It kind of leaves a sour taste in your mouth,” Rymaruk said.
He described changes after the Soviet breakup as ones in which the same people simply put another pin on their jackets and turned their coats inside out.
He said a visit to his homeland after the breakup showed him times hadn’t changed much. He lost about five rolls of film during a check-in at an airport, and bottles of aspirin and Tylenol he’d brought for relatives never made it. They were confiscated, he said.
Rymaruk said he gathered some commemorative coins with plans to bring them home, but when he arrived at the airport to return, he was told they were undocumented coins he couldn’t bring home. As it turned out, Rymaruk said there was an easy solution, and he was ultimately able to bring those coins home.
“I pulled a 20-dollar bill out of my pocket,” he said. The official took it and “looked the other way.”
Despite the anguish of its history, Ukraine is gradually coming back.
Today, there’s aspirin and other items people craved decades ago, said Nataliya Romanishin, 45, who moved to Amsterdam from Ukraine eight years ago.
Romanishin, who earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering while in Ukraine, now works in the tax department at City Hall in Amsterdam. Her son is studying electrical engineering.
Despite the greater availability of consumer products today, Romanishin said people in her homeland remain poor. Many travel elsewhere to find work and send money home to support their children and parents.
She said she misses her mother, who still lives in Ukraine. She said her mother has been denied a visa five times so far in an effort to visit the family in the U.S.
Romanishin said freedom in America is something she feels every day.
“I feel more opportunity with jobs and everything,” she said. “If you have a goal, you can have anything you want here.”
Amsterdam City Historian Robert von Hasseln said the city has a varied immigrant population. There were waves of Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian immigrants in the latter part of the 19th century and an influx of Italians in the early 20th century. Von Hasseln said a wave of Puerto Rican immigrants arrived in the late 1940s and early 1950s for mill jobs as well.
He said he hopes all groups with ethnic immigrant memories will work to highlight their heritage in the future.
“You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’re from. Love of the past implies and encourages faith in the future,” von Hasseln said.
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