SCHENECTADY – At one point during Valeriia Polishchuk’s escape from the war in Ukraine, she and her 11-year-old son met a stranger in Moldova in the middle of the night. The person drove the refugees across fields of darkness, and Polishchuk, 35, recalls thinking that she had no idea where she was or where she was going.
She and her son had fled their home in the port city of Odessa, where Polishchuk worked in massage therapy, carrying not much more than heavy coats to guard against the February cold.
In some ways, Polishchuk said, she had no choice but to trust strangers.
“People, they help me, and they give me a place where I can sleep in the night,” she said on a stormy Thursday evening near the Music Haven stage in Schenectady’s Central Park. “And in the morning, they give me coffee.”
Thursday’s Tribute to Ukraine concert, headlined by Kyiv-based DakhaBrakha, was about carrying on that flame of giving to the Ukrainian people, especially at a time when the war has dimmed from consciousness for many Americans. Not only did food and beverage proceeds at the concert provide aid to local Ukrainian refugees through the Ukrainian-American Cultural Center, but the Ukrainian flags waved and the yellow and blue clothing worn by attendees helped spread the message of solidarity. The floor seats were about half-to-two-thirds full, with plenty of people in lawn chairs and on blankets filling the grass terraces of the amphitheater on a rainy evening.
Irene Kuzma sat in a wheelchair in the front row, her leg extended in a black cast. A broken bone – the result of a mountain biking injury – wasn’t going to keep her from driving to the concert from the Hartford, Conn., area. In part, Kuzma was motivated to come because her daughter, Alina Kuzma, was the lead singer of the opening band, Korinya.
But Kuzma also wanted to show support for Ukraine, where she has personal roots, having lived there with her family, including Alina, in 2005.
Recently, Kuzma said she got a heartbreaking call relaying that her 25-year-old cousin, a captain in the Ukrainian army, was killed in the war.
“It just changes life here and makes everything seem trivial, but this [concert] is a positive, good thing to do,” Kuzma said.
That’s why Kuzma was undeterred by her broken leg and the weather.
“If we can’t endure a little rain while they’re going through a rain of bombs, that’s kind of ridiculous,” she said.
Polishchuk endured the fear of raining bombs and arrived to safety in upstate New York only by trusting people throughout her travels in Europe and Mexico. She was eventually connected to Oksana Lupe, a Ukrainian native who came to upstate New York 27 years ago to study at RPI. Settled in Ballston Spa, Lupe said she wanted to do what she could to help fellow Ukrainians. When the war broke out in February, she contributed to supply and fundraising donations to help people in Ukraine, but she wanted to do more. She has since taken in several refugees, including Polishchuk and her son.
“It’s nice to help because when I came here there were some people helping me,” Lupe said. “So it’s people helping people – pay it forward, you know? I’m helping others as best as I can.”
The refugees Lupe has taken in are part of an estimated several hundred Ukrainian war refugees in the Capital Region, according to Viktor Holovashchenko, president of the Ukrainian-American Cultural Center, based in Watervliet. Holovashchenko, a software engineer at GE, has been in the U.S. more than two decades. But he has cousins and other family members still in Ukraine, and he said he has recently lost the ability to communicate with them on Facebook messenger, because, he believes, Russia has interfered with the connection. Holovashchenko said he is optimistic that Ukraine will win the war and peace will come, but he said he is grateful for support in the meantime.
Thursday’s concert was helping to continue to spread awareness, he said.
“Non-Ukrainian Americans here in the region, they come and support us, and they have shown so much kindness to Ukraine. It really touched us very deeply,” Holovashchenko said. “They really want justice for Ukraine and freedom for Ukraine.”
An hour before the opening band was set to play, Nancy Crowe, 58 of Colonie, sat alone in the grass, her T-shirt soaked in rain. She said she was “enjoying the air conditioning,” a joke referencing the scorching heat earlier in the day.
In all seriousness, Crowe said she came out to support the people of Ukraine. A former Army officer stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, Crowe knows what it’s like to be in a combat zone.
“I fully support Ukraine in this,” Crowe said. “I figured this rain is nothing compared to what we’re supporting.”
By the time DakhaBrakha took the stage, the rain had stopped and silvery clouds glowed in the sky. The self-dubbed Ukrainian “ethnic chaos” band has been traveling the world and performing concerts in part to share Ukrainian culture but also to spread a message that, together, people can help bring peace to Ukraine.
Touching their hearts before taking their places on stage, the quartet, whose band name translates to “give/take,” opened the show with a halting, almost guttural, four-part harmony.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.