AUGUSTA – Oleg P. Opalnyk smiled as Katerina Parashchuk, a 2-year-old Ukrainian refugee, played with his cell phone on the floor Saturday at the Augusta Armory.
The toddler, her two older siblings and 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 featured the debut performance of Pihcintu’s “Song for Ukraine.”
Nearby, sitting in the front row with the rest of his family, Katerina’s father, Sviatoslav, recorded the multicultural chorus on his phone as they sang lyrics of “Song for Ukraine,” including “We are with you, we will be there. We are with you, stay strong and take care. We are with you, and will always be. Until every single 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 is now helping refugees fleeing Russian attacks find refuge in Maine.
It’s a circuitous route, from Ukraine to Maine, for the family, which also includes wife, Tetiana, and 9- and 12-year-old children, 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 into Poland. Then they had to fly to Mexico, because without visas they could not fly directly into the United States. They waited in Tijuana before being allowed to cross the border into the United States with “humanitarian parole” status. 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 on their way, too, and expected in Maine, with the Opalnyk’s help, next week. They’re working with friends and their church in Maine to help the refugees.
Opalnyk said while it’s good that Ukrainian refugees are being allowed into the county quicker than they would be otherwise, he said it would be better if they could also get work permits faster than the months-long process required now.
“We’re constantly in touch with more people to help,” Opalnyk said. “Send them here and we’ll help with whatever they need. The government should issue them a work permit right away, so they can go to work and feel like they are contributing. And there is a worker 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 maintain the identities and cultures they had left behind.
Fullam said the members of the chorus who performed Saturday “understand what is going on in Ukraine, because they’ve experienced it for themselves.”
Jacki Medeiros of Richmond, a longtime member of Greenheart Foreign Exchange who also donated all profits from her Pampered Chef sales booth Saturday, said over the years she has helped place 150 Ukrainian foreign exchange students in the region. That history was part of her motivation to organize the fundraiser along with Amy MacDonald of Hallowell, who hosted a booth selling Park Lane Jewelry. She also donated 100% of her proceeds.
They first planned to do a Facebook fundraiser, 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 Ukrainian and two Russian foreign exchange students.
MacDonald said she was moved to help refugees because “watching the news everyday, I was in tears” about what was happening in Ukraine.
Oleg’s brother, Andrii Opalnyk, as well as Sergiy Sytnik and Alina Terzi, each of whom are Ukrainian-born but have been living in Maine for a few years, attended the event wrapped in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Andrii Opalnyk said the city he is from, Bucha, near Kyiv, where he earned his college degrees, is being occupied by Russian troops. He came to the United States in 2014 at the urging of his brother, spending nine months in a detention center before he was released as a political asylee.
Regal Naseef, another organizer of the event and Lions Club member, said in addition to the vendors, other companies donated food and items for a raffle to benefit refugee aid programs. Volunteers from several Lions Clubs and Greenheart Exchange students from many countries helped as well.
She said proceeds of the event would go to Foursquare Disaster Relief efforts, through Calvary Foursquare Church in Gardiner. She said the funds would immediately go toward relief efforts on the ground, including food, supplies, transportation and shelter, in addition to helping Ukrainian refugee families in countries surrounding war-torn Ukraine, such as Poland and Lithuania.
Pastors of the Gardiner church, Oliver and Chelsey Newkirkasked Oleg Opalnyk to contact them with information on how they could help meet the newly arrived refugees’ needs.
Crafts, home products and many other items were available for purchase, the Falmouth Lions Club sold hot dogs, and Richmond-based Ye Olde English Fish and Chips food truck sold lobster rolls, fried seafood, burgers and fries.
David Bennett of Parsonsfield sold beautiful, one-of-a kind wooden bowls at his Fire Wood Works booth. He makes the bowls with a lathe and said he was willing to donate 50% of his profits to help Ukrainian refugees because “it’s a worthy cause. This whole situation shouldn’t be happening today. ”
Stephen Tilton and Mike Robinson of RMT Farms in Litchfield sold soap and other skin care items made with oil from emus raised on their farm. Tilton said the emu oil has natural healing properties and absorbs easily into the skin. They both said taking part 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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