“Is your family safe?” I asked a young woman with short green and blue hair. I regretted the question as soon as I asked it.
“They’re not safe,” she replied sharply. “No one in Ukraine is safe.”
My foot-in-the-mouth encounter occurred as a blue-and-yellow throng gathered in Times Square to advocate for the implementation of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The crowd of two hundred at the “Close the Sky” protest was a tough bunch. Individuals battled numb fingers and gusts of wind powerful enough to whisk Dorothy from Kansas to Oz in a show of support for the battered Eastern European nation – and they were angry.
The slender woman with the green and blue hair was Sarah Horokh, a Ukrainian who moved to the United States last fall to study at MIT. By March 12, her home country was limping through day seventeen of the Russian invasion. At that point, 564 Ukrainian civilians had died as Russian bombs exploded in residential areas and hospitals. Millions ducked in subway stations and bomb shelters, leaving home behind in the hopes of escape.
Horokh’s family and friends remain trapped in the country. “Each silent college supports genocide,” was the hastily scrawled message in block letters on her cardboard sign, thrust up amid shouts of “We NEED more support!”
Other hand-drawn signs danced around her. “No Fly Zone over Ukraine,” “Putin Get Your Bloody Hands Off Ukraine!” and “Put-Im Down He is a Killer” seemed dwarfed by building-sized neon ads for “Galactic Geckos,” Coca Cola and Snoop Dog.
An older woman stood under a blue and yellow umbrella topped with a figurine jet spinning little gleaming silver missiles. She pointed a wordless gaze toward reporters gripping flashing cameras. A senior couple pushed their socialist print newspaper against my chest. “Join SWP [Socialist Workers Party] campaigning against Moscow’s war to crush Ukraine,” its front page headline ran.
Many of those gathered in Times Square that afternoon were similar to Horokh. They wanted Americans to grasp the urgency of the invasion. They wanted a no-fly zone to protect Ukraine from Russian air strikes. And they wanted to feel like they were helping – helping their family, friends and acquaintances survive an increasingly desperate struggle to protect what remains of their home.
Polina Lutsia, a 17-year-old with dark hair poking out of a white hoodie, stood at the back of the crowd selling homemade chocolate chip cookies, Ukrainian flag stickers and hoodies imprinted with “#helpukraine,” “#f*ckwar” and “#peace.” Her business partner Ars Nasikovskiy, a blonde boy of the same age, stood nearby.
“All our family and parents are in Ukraine,” Lutsia said. “They don’t have electricity and they’re in the subway or shelters right now but we’re trying to support as much as we can.” The two send their proceeds to an organization helping Ukrainian children overcome the psychological consequences of armed conflict.
“I Have to Do Something”
Ilona Zbirunnockles’ two small girls clung to her legs, matching blue and yellow flower crowns pinned to their hot pink winter coats. They snacked on granola bars and eyed adults taking their photo. Zbirunnockles moved from Ukraine to the United States as a refugee and joined the U.S. military in 2014.
“Every morning I check in to see who is still alive,” she said of her family members currently in Ukraine. “I have cousins who are driving up to dangerous areas every day to pack as many people as they can in their car and drive west. I’m inspired by their love for their country and love for their fellow citizens and I feel that I can’t just sit by and stay silent. I have to do something.”
One sign appeared smaller than most of the large posters of Putin marred by a red slash streaked across his face. “I am Russian, I stand with Ukraine!” it said in colorful capital letters. Marie Fadeyeva raised up the sign, her two long brown braids tied with blue and yellow bows. She fixed an intent gaze on the organizer through round glasses. “If you are afraid we are not...” his voice echoed through the megaphone.
Fadeyeva grew up in Russia and moved to the United States during high school. She currently attends Columbia University. “I want to believe that people in Russia don’t support this war,” she said. Her hope is tinged with helplessness. The Kremlin shut down the Russian independent media sources she once read. She hasn’t spoken to her family members in Russia who follow the state-sponsored television channels, partly out of the sinking certainty they will disagree with her view on the invasion.
“I don’t think I’ve said the word ‘war’ to anyone except my mom and my dad who are here and my mom’s sister who is in Russia, but the rest of my family members I haven’t even talked to who are in Russia,” she said. “I’m just worried.”
As I headed toward the subway later that afternoon, I found myself marveling at how a scene of such palpable fear could exist among the dancing neon M&M’s plastered on billboards and the grinning Mickey Mouse frozen in an eternal waving motion. The Ukraine flag sticker I purchased didn’t feel like much of a contribution, but I gripped it anyway as the speeding train carried me back to Brooklyn.