AUGUSTA — Oleg P. Opalnyk smiled as 2-year-old Ukrainian refugee Katerina Parashchuk played with her cell phone on the floor Saturday at the Augusta Armory.
The toddler, his two older siblings and his parents had fled their war-torn homeland and arrived in Maine on Wednesday.
On stage Saturday, 16 members of Pihcintu, the Portland-based refugee girls’ choir, sang for the crowd gathered for the “Maine to Ukraine Market” event. The performance included the first performance of Pihcintu’s “Song for Ukraine”.
Nearby, seated in the front row with the rest of her family, Katerina’s father, Svyatoslav, recorded the multicultural chorus on his phone as they sang the lyrics to “Song for Ukraine,” including “We are with you, we will be there”. We are with you, stay strong and take care of yourself. We are with you, and always will be. Until every soul in Ukraine is free.
In addition to the choir’s performance, the “Maine to Ukraine Market” fundraiser featured vendors pledging at least 50% of Saturday’s profits to help fund efforts to help Ukrainian refugees.
The newly arrived Ukrainian family is staying in an Auburn apartment owned by Opalnyk, who came to Maine from Ukraine in 1999 and now helps refugees fleeing Russian attacks find refuge in Maine.
It’s a winding road from Ukraine to Maine for the family, which also includes his wife, Tetiana, and children, 9 and 12, Alex and Max.
The family drove from their home in the kyiv region of Ukraine, where Sviatoslav was a dentist, to the Polish border, abandoning their car on the side of the road and walking towards Poland. Then they had to fly to Mexico, because without a visa they couldn’t fly directly to the United States. They waited in Tijuana before being allowed to cross the border into the United States on “humanitarian parole”. Opalnyk and his wife, Tracy, sent plane tickets to fly the family from San Diego to Maine.
Another Ukrainian family – a single mother and her daughter – are also on their way and expected in Maine, with the help of Opalnyk, next week. They work with friends and their church in Maine to help refugees.
Opalnyk said while it was good for Ukrainian refugees to be allowed into the county faster than they otherwise would be, he said it would be better if they could also get work permits faster than the months-long process currently required.
“We are constantly in contact with more people to help us,” Opalnyk said. “Send them here and we’ll help them with whatever they need. The government should issue them a work permit immediately, so they can go to work and feel like they are contributing. And there is a labor shortage here.
He said it was great to see all the support at the Maine to Ukraine Market event. And he said the music was great too.
Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus was formed in 2004 by Maine songwriter Con Fullam, who said he wanted to help the many young refugees in the Portland area retain the identities and cultures they left behind.
Fullam said the choir members who performed on Saturday “understand what is happening in Ukraine because they have experienced it themselves.”
Jacki Medeiros of Richmond, a longtime Greenheart Foreign Exchange member who also donated all proceeds from her Pampered Chef sales booth on Saturday, said that over the years she has helped place 150 foreign Ukrainian students in the region. This story was part of her motivation to organize the fundraiser with Amy MacDonald of Hallowell, who ran a stall selling Park Lane jewellery. She also donated 100% of her profits.
They originally planned to do a fundraiser on Facebook, but as interest in helping Ukrainian refugees spread, they turned it into a live event at the Armory that drew nearly 30 vendors. Their goal for the day was to raise $10,000.
“Ukraine can use all the help we can give,” said Medeiros, who over the years has hosted five foreign students from Ukraine and two from Russia.
MacDonald said she was moved to help refugees because “watching the news every day I was in tears” about what was happening in Ukraine.
Oleg’s brother, Andrii Opalnyk, along with Sergiy Sytnik and Alina Terzi, both born in Ukraine but living in Maine for a few years, attended the event wrapped in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Andrii Opalnyk said his home town of Bucha, near kyiv, where he received his university degrees, is occupied by Russian troops. He came to the United States in 2014 at the request of his brother, spending nine months in a detention center before being released as a political asylum.
Regal Naseef, another event organizer and Lions Club member, said in addition to vendors, other businesses donated food and items for a raffle to benefit refugee aid programs. . Volunteers from several Lions Clubs and Greenheart Exchange students from many countries also helped.
She said proceeds from the event will go to the efforts of Foursquare Disaster Relief, through the Calvary Foursquare Church in Gardiner. She said the funds would go immediately to relief efforts on the ground, including food, supplies, transportation and shelter, in addition to helping Ukrainian refugee families in countries surrounding war-torn Ukraine. war, like Poland and Lithuania.
Pastors of Gardiner Church, Oliver and Chelsey Newkirkasked Oleg Opalnyk to contact them with information on how they could help meet the needs of newly arrived refugees.
Crafts, home goods and many other items were available for purchase, the Falmouth Lions Club sold hot dogs and the Richmond-based Ye Olde English Fish and Chips food truck sold lobster rolls , fried seafood, burgers and fries.
David Bennett of Parsonsfield sold beautiful, unique wooden bowls at his Fire Wood Works stand. He makes the bowls with a lathe and said he’s willing to donate 50% of his profits to help Ukrainian refugees because “it’s a good cause.” This whole situation should not happen today.
Stephen Tilton and Mike Robinson of RMT Farms in Litchfield sold soap and other skincare items made from oil from emus raised on their farm. Tilton said emu oil has natural healing properties and absorbs easily into the skin. They both said participating in the event was well worth giving up 50% of their profits for the day because it was such a good cause.
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