Members of Amsterdam’s Ukrainian community joined local officials at City Hall on Thursday to commemorate the country’s 26th Independence Day — an occasion, said organizers, that has particular resonance today given recent geopolitical events in the Eastern European nation and current tensions in the U.S. over issues such as immigration and refugees fleeing war.
Mayor Michael Villa read a proclamation officially recognizing the anniversary, which made reference to the Russian Federation’s current occupation of Ukraine’s eastern region, known as Donbas.
“I think it’s a tribute to our community,” Villa said after the ceremony. “We are who we are because of our different nationalities.”
Villa said the Ukrainian community “has had a big influence” on Amsterdam, and that it’s important to recognize such communities for their contributions to the local social fabric.
Ukraine’s inaugural Independence Day took place on Aug. 24, 1991, when the country’s parliament declared the country free and autonomous.
About a dozen Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans were present for the ceremony, and presented Villa and the city with a certificate of appreciation and a “Pysanka,” a traditional Ukrainian Easter egg meant to bring good fortune.
Those gathered sang the American national anthem before raising the Ukrainian flag at City Hall while singing the Ukrainian national anthem, “Shche Ne Vmerla Ukraina” ("Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished").
Amsterdam resident Sofia Balanda, 4, who was born in Ukraine and recently immigrated to the U.S., performed a poem and song paying tribute in her native language to her Ukrainian roots. Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, was also on hand to make remarks and pay his respects to the area’s Ukrainian community.
The community’s patriarch, Myron Swidersky, was also present and said Amsterdam’s Ukrainian community numbers between 100 and 120.
Master of ceremonies Xrystya Szyjka, who was born in Amsterdam and identifies as a Ukrainian-American, said her community’s history is part of Amsterdam’s story.
“Ukrainians have been in Amsterdam for well over a century and now our history is woven into Amsterdam's history,” said Szyjka. “As we do this under peaceful and sunny skies, we remember all those who have come before us, who fought and died for a free Ukraine, who endured war, famine, terrorist aggression, the traumas of emigration and resettlement, and through all this human and emotional cost, taught us to love Ukraine, to value being Ukrainian.”
Inside City Hall after the ceremony, Szyjka, 53, who teaches English to immigrants in the Capital Region, said her parents spent five years in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S. and settling in Amsterdam as part of a post-WWII wave of immigrants.
She said it’s very important to her and her community to keep traditions like celebrating Ukrainian Independence Day alive.
“I value this for everyone regardless of anything. My parents and many elders in this community came as displaced persons,” said Szyjka. “They taught us to never forget where they came from and what they experienced as war trauma.”
Szyjka said she also embraces and cherishes what the U.S. and her community has to offer, “but we go forward with a duality, and we wish that for everyone...God, country, family, heritage, tradition — and I add others.”
Szyjka said current events in Ukraine and domestically weigh heavily on the local Ukrainian community and across the U.S.
“It’s like it’s happening to us, like we’re there,” she said, of the current Russian annexation of the eastern portion of the country. “We are so aligned with the Crimean Tatars, because they are there experiencing it, and we are one Ukraine. Because of learning this all of our lives, we don’t just put it on for today.”
Being a Ukrainian-American, and working with refugees, Szyjka, who is white, said she identifies with people who are seen as outsiders and may be treated as such.
“Even looking the way I look, I hear ‘Speak English, you’re an American,’” she said. “And I can be nothing else other than a Ukrainian-American. I can be nothing else.”
Szyjka added that she’s sensitive to the current political climate surrounding refugees and immigrants. She’s also been questioned as to why she doesn’t change the spelling of her name to be more English-sounding.
She said she tells such people that her name is part of who she is.
“It’s my identity. My name is my identity — it’s my name,” said Szyjka. “It’s sad that we still have this and it’s intensifying.”