As the sun rose over the Manhattan neighbourhood known as the East Village, a hopeful hundred, some missing school, others work, boarded the “Odessa Express” towards Washington, D.C.
The mission of these early risers was to show support for the recently-elected President Poroshenko of their homeland, Ukraine. Some wore traditional Ukrainian clothing, decorated with flower crowns of blue and yellow; others carried the flags of the European Union and Ukraine. They ranged from energetic 16 year olds to long-ago retired seniors.
As their bus made its way through the Holland tunnel and into New Jersey, there was a peaceful chatter amongst the mix of Ukrainians, Belarusian and American patrons on the coach.
It was only the Russian coach driver who seemed drowsy, as he sipped his Starbucks coffee. A banner with the words “Russia” on red felt, shot up above his head, but when he spoke, a thick Brooklyn accent revealed the number of years he’d been in New York.
Upon arrival in Washington after a five-hour drive, the coach stopped behind The White House and everyone disembarked. Supporters converged from different directions, but all were headed towards one central location, assembling as a giant Ukrainian formation. The day was ahead.
A man representing the Ukrainian Congress Committee took up a microphone and began to thank the mass for gathering, “to honour our President and seek help from Obama and the United States government in defending our democracy.”
The crowd waited in the hot sun for Proshenko to arrive, but began the rally without him present. They hoped he would join them after his meal at The White House.
A priest from the St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, arrived to address the “Ukrainian people as a whole, who had suffered so much.” He then recited the Hail Mary, both in English and Ukrainian. Tourists, unaware of the goings on, stopped to join in for the religious synchrony. The hymn was followed by the protesters singing their national anthem, in a solemn and soft tone.
A woman named Alexa Chopivsky, 35, a Ukrainian-American who founded the Transnational Education Group, stated “The west is asleep…We want weapons, but not as an offensive; we just want to defend our democracy. As Poroshenko said, blankets are nice but they cannot protect a democracy.”
To date, the United States has given Ukraine over $60 million in non-military aid packages for such things as engineering equipment, body armor and , radars systems.
Another young woman, Nataliya Bonda, 29, heads the DC bureau of Razom (Together we are Ukraine). Razom is a non-profit organization established to support Ukrainian people in their quest for a democratic society. Its mission depends entirely on volunteers, powered by social networking tools to unite a global network. She firmly believes in the power of social media in modern revolutions. “All Ukrainians are active about the revolution online. It has made us patriotic and proud, without the Internet this movement would never have gotten so big.”
Two hours into the rally, the crowd grew anxious and weary that Poroshenko had still not emerged from talks with Obama. But some saw it as a good sign. “The longer he’s in there [The White House] the better, it means something is stirring,” said Stephanie Saviano, a 20-year-old Ukrainian American, with dreams of becoming a journalist.
A short while later, at around 4 p.m., the Ukrainian president finally appeared, escorted from the White House by secret service personnel. However instead of entering his parked limousine, he began to walk over to the mass of Ukrainian supporters. By the time he reached the group, people were reaching out to touch him, shouting and crying. He greeted his people warmly.
Spontaneously, members of the crowd began singing the Ukrainian national anthem. Their president joined in gleefully and seemed to take great pleasure in being part of this momentous event.
Poroshenko followed by addressing the crowd in a formal speech, “Crimea is not Russian land. No Ukrainian lands will ever belong to Russia. The truth is with us and God is helping us, that is why we will conquer.”
A 52-year-old woman held her daughter close as tears streamed down her face. A wave of emotion rippled through the crowd as they listened intently to Poroshenko’s confident words.
Later Irene Saviono, 45, a Ukrainian New Yorker confirmed that, “The most important thing right now is to show the President our support.” She added that Russian President Valdimir Putin remained the greatest threat. “ If we don’t stop ‘him,’ he will take over Europe again.”
As the evening grew in, the “Odessa Express” pulled in to the curb and the group quickly clambered onto the coach, this time an air of excitement and euphoria was evident. Although Poroshenko had not been able to achieve quite what he had set out to, he was not going home empty handed, as Obama promised an additional $46 million of non-military aid.
The Ukrainians seemed content nonetheless and settled in for the long trek from Washington to New York.