This Orthodox Easter, Ukrainians Are Wrestling With Trauma

Vita Olevych (a Chicago Ukrainian American) is not in the mood for Easter. “We don’t feel like we’re in the right headspace to celebrate anything,” Olevych says. “It’s been such a traumatizing and difficult couple of weeks.”

Olevych and her husband are used to going to church on Easter Sundays. They also enjoy cleaning the house and decorating Easter baskets. Their minds this year are focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They have two relatives who fled to their house in Ukraine and the remaining Chernivtsi family members.. “Our days are consumed by checking the news and calling our family to make sure they’re OK,” Olevych says.

Ukrainians worldwide celebrate Easter as one of their most significant holidays. Many of them are Orthodox Christians, and usually observe Easter the week following Catholics and Protestants. There are several dozen Ukrainian parishes for the religious branch across the U.S. Like other Christians, Orthodox Christians have 40 days of Lent, followed by Holy Week, which leads up to Easter—but members of the Ukrainian Orthodox church also take part in traditions unique to their culture. Most Ukrainian churches will use pussy willows instead of palms on Palm Sunday because it’s a reminder of what grows in Ukraine. Ukrainians also display unique Easter eggs, known as Pysanky.

However, this year Easter brings up difficult feelings for many Ukrainians living in the U.S..Ukraine. While some are looking to religion and the upcoming holiday for meaning, healing, and community, many say they are finding it difficult to feel the joy typically associated with Easter given the trauma caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Olevych feels exhausted. She spent the last month traveling and working to bring her cousin’s 26-year-old wife, Anastasiia Antoniak, and 5-year-old son, Bohdan, from Ukraine to her home in Chicago to escape the war. Olevych flew from Chicago to Romania on March 4th, with her cousin Antoniak and Bohdan. Olevych twice failed to obtain U.S. tourist visas. She was with them when they flew to Mexico on March 4, where she applied for humanitarian parole as they drove across the border from Mexico. Antoniak’s husband, aunt, uncle, parents, and siblings still remain in Ukraine.

Some Ukrainian Americans have found religion to be a more comforting source than other forms of faith. There’s a special spiritual significance for Easter this year, says Olena Lymar, who lives in Chicago and is on the parish board of St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral. “We hope that the resurrection comes after the suffering and death of Christ, and it’s the same idea, that we hope for Ukraine to be resurrected as well,” says Lymar, 25. “We hope that after this terrible time, Ukraine will find light and peace—and that the Ukrainian people will be able to rebuild their country.”

Adrian Mazhur is a deacon at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Manhattan and has noticed a rise in Ukrainians attending church services since the start of the conflict. He believes it’s likely because of the lack of control that people are feeling.

“When we look at our congregation, and look into their eyes, you can see the pain and sorrow that there’s not much they can do,” Mazhar says. “That’s the thing that kills us the most, because there’s so much that we can send, so much money that we can give, but at the end of the day, all they need is safety.” Mazhar is pressing on with community efforts regardless, focusing on gathering food, clothes, and toiletries to send to Ukrainian orphanages and refugee camps. Mazhar, who also works at a children’s hospital in New York, says the church school also decorated pysanky. Later, the church sold the eggs in order to raise some thousand dollars for aid to Ukraine.

Even he has difficulty feeling festive during this time. “In the back of our minds, it’s not going to be the same, because I cannot be happy and joyful when my family, my brothers and sisters, are dying and I’m wondering: when is the next bomb going to land?”

For Father Vasyl Dovgan, of the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Troy, N.Y., celebrating Easter this year means working directly with a colleague in Ukraine to help ensure soldiers on the frontline are equipped with what they need; Dovgan’s church has been sending money to a church in Lviv led by Father Mikola Kavchak to be used for gasoline to help with the delivery of essential supplies.

Kavchak personally delivered food and clothes across the country over the course of the last weeks. TIME interviewed Kavchak by phone, Dovgan translating, and he said that many soldiers’ families have been praying at the church.

Kavchak said that the Easter service will be held on Sunday at his church as it usually does. The Ukrainian government has declared that it’s unsafe for anyone to go outside during the evening, so they are holding it at morning instead.

Kavchak, along with other priests, have been participating in Ukrainian traditions to bless baskets full of meat, eggs and bread. They will take the baskets and deliver them to soldiers at hotspots this weekend as part of an attempt to improve morale.

As Easter approaches, Antoniak is still getting settled in her Chicago home; she recently signed her son up for school in the city’s Ukrainian village neighborhood. The stress and strain of these last weeks has taken its toll.

Olevych and Olevych both stated that in an average year they would attend Easter services at the church. This year, they’re not so sure. “Honestly, we don’t know,” Olevych says. “Lately everything has been in the spur of the moment so I think that’s how Sunday might be…It’s very hard to plan right now.”

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