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Hernando County residents from Ukraine react to Russia’s war on their home country

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Most of us have been merely spectators to the war going on in the Ukraine−watching the nightly news and seeing the images of bombed out buildings, tanks rolling through towns, women and children fleeing to safe havens or hiding in subways. However, for a small group of Hernando County residents the war is touching them personally.

Many members of St. Andrew’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brooksville have close friends and relatives in that war-torn country. They keep in touch on a daily basis, worry and pray. Most of all, they send money to help the cause that the Ukrainians are fighting for.

Father Mikhail “Mike” Kouts, pastor of St. Andrew’s was born in Ternopil in the western part of Ukraine. He and his parents immigrated to Canada. He came to the United States fourteen years ago and became pastor at St. Andrews shortly after that. In addition to his pastoral duties, Father Mike is a hospital chaplain and says Mass once a week at St. Frances Cabrini. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is part of the Eastern Byzantine Rite and is under the Pope, unlike the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.

Father Mike has a number of uncles, aunts and cousins from both his mother’s and his father’s side in the Ukraine. Many of them are in the army fighting. Mothers and their children have either fled or are in hiding. Although the bombing hasn’t reached Ternopil yet, he has some family in Kyiv, the capital. He is an American citizen and appreciates his adopted country.

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“We [the United States] have beautiful people. They take on the problems of other people. The United States is bringing the peace and power of democracy to other countries. But I wish our government had reacted faster. They waited to make sanctions. I want Europe to help secure the Ukraine,” Father Mike remarks.

He goes on to comment that Putin is not going to stop with Ukraine and that he doesn’t care about people. “I’m praying for the Russian nation and for Putin because to destroy others they will destroy themselves. He’s a sick man.”

One of the parishioners is Stephen Butko. His parents were both born in the Ukraine but immigrated to the United States in the late 1920s. He was born and raised in Buffalo, New York which had a large Ukrainian population. His parents sent him to a Ukrainian school in Buffalo to learn the language. Now he acts as an interpreter for some of the other members of the congregation. Although he doesn’t know of any relatives in Ukraine, it still impacts him.

“Many people are still in the Ukraine. Russia is going after the bigger cities first and then going to the smaller. It’s very heartbreaking,” he states. Butko also believes that the U.S. should have gotten involved sooner. Like Father Mike, Maria Starynska was born in the town of Ternopil. A widow now, her husband was also Ukrainian. She came here in 1999, lived in Detroit first and then moved to Florida. Mrs. Starynska has three grown sons, two of whom still live in Ukraine. Her son, Igor, is here in the United States.

Her son, Naza, is a dentist and her son, Slavko, is a taxi cab driver. Both are married and have children. Naza has two small children, while Slavko has one son. When Slavko isn’t driving a cab he’s working to protect his city. Both of their wives and children have fled to Poland. “I talk to them every day,” says Maria. “They tell me about what is going on. The people are scared; they have stress. It’s much worse than you see on TV.”
Fortunately, her daughters-in-law and grandchildren are safe and conditions in Poland are good. One of them shares a house with another woman and her children. It’s rent-free and all they have to pay for is their food.

“The people there [in Poland] are very nice,” Mrs. Starynska adds. Like many of the Ukrainians here and in the Ukraine, she wants the U.S. to establish a “no-fly” zone. They also want the U.S. to send planes. Svitlanu Vavriv is married to Maria’s son, Igor. She met her husband in the Ukraine and came here just three years ago. Mrs. Vavriv has a twenty-seven year old unmarried daughter, Ilona, who fled Ukraine for Poland. Her daughter volunteers for the refugees packaging food and other duties. Svitlanu is trying to arrange for her daughter to come to the United States, but there’s a lot of legal red tape she has to go through. If Ilona does make it here she’ll only be able to stay six months. Then they will have to go through more red tape for her to get permanent resident status.

“My sister and her two children are still in the Ukraine. I talk to them every day by phone Right now she plans to stay in the Ukraine because she doesn’t want to leave her home,” Mrs. Vavriv remarks. These families are only a small sample of so many Ukrainians living in  America that have to sit by and see their homeland under siege and their families in danger. The members of St. Andrew’s are urging everyone to sign a petition through Change.org appealing to President Biden for the United States to assist with allowing refugees, especially those with immediate family members here, to come to the United States.

The church is also asking for monetary donations. If anyone would like to contribute to this fund they can send a check payable to St. Andrew’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. Mail the check to 8064 Weeping Willow St., Brooksville, FL 34613. On the memo line of the check please indicate that it is for Ukraine.
For more information on the church log onto:

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