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Crowd shows solidarity for Ukraine at rally in Riverhead

They came with their stories and worries. One woman said through a translator her sons are in the Ukrainian army and fighting Russian invaders north of the capital city. Another woman, also speaking through a translator, said she walked dozens of miles to the Polish border a week ago to escape the fighting and, through a series of lucky breaks, got to an airport in Poland and eventually a flight to New York via Istanbul. She said she left family members behind.

Both of them, along with dozens of Ukrainian-born Riverhead town residents and more than 100 others, braced a cold wind Monday as they gathered at the flag pole at Town Hall to show their support for the Ukrainian people in their brutal war against Russian aggression. Yellow and blue Ukrainian flags flapped in the wind. 

Dozens of signs were held up: STOP RUSSIAN AGGRESSION, BOYCOTT RUSSIAN IMPORTS, STAND WITH UKRAINE, with several aimed at the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin. PUTIN – BURN IN HELL. PUTIN – WAR CRIMINAL. Passing cars and trucks honked their horns in support.

Town and Suffolk County officials spoke and all of them made he same point: “We stand with the people of Ukraine.”

Rev. Bohdan Hedz, pastor of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church on Pond View Road in Riverhead who organized the rally said he hoped support of his home country will remain strong. In an interview last week, on the first day of the Russian invasion, he said he had just made an anxious call to his mother, who lives near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Since then he has spoken to her every day. On Monday, when asked about his mother, he said, “She’s OK.”

He said reports that Russians were dropping cluster bombs on one city — bombs that release thousands of smaller bombs meant to kill large numbers of people that are banned under international treaty — “is just like them. This is what they do. And if they are not stopped, they will keep going. Ukrainian freedom is everyone’s freedom.”

At Monday’s rally, Rev. Hedz said he was heartened by the size of the crowd and by people who have dropped off packages of food and toiletries at the church to be sent to Ukraine. He said Putin had in his own dishonest way justified the invasion by labeling the Ukrainian government as being filled with Nazis and drug dealers. To everyone in the crowd, he said, “Welcome to the club… We have a Russian speaking president who is Jewish — and he’s a Nazi?”

Drawing a lesson from American history, he said, “Today, for the Ukrainian people, is 1776. This is what is happening in Ukraine. This is our 1776.” But then he added an ominous note: “I hope it’s not 1939,” the first year of World War II.

When the speakers had concluded, Rev. Hedz led a rousing rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem. Dozens of voices in the crowd sang along in their native language.

Since the first day of fighting last week, many of the area’s church leaders have talked to their congregations about the fighting and offered their prayers in support of the Ukrainian people. At Saturday’s 5 p.m. Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Mattituck, Polish-born Father Ryszard Ficek, who is the pastor at Our Lady of Ostrabrama in Cutchogue, spoke emotionally about the war. He said a town in Poland where he has family is filled with Ukrainian refugees fleeing the fighting. Father Ficek also conducted the Sunday morning Polish-language Mass at Our Lady of Ostrabrama, attended by more than 40 Polish speakers who listened in hushed silence.

After the service, one congregant, Magdelena Preis-Kuczynski said, “What is going on is unbearable. Unbearable. Russian wants to take away everything and go back to the Soviet time. I cannot understand it. This Putin has to be stopped. He’s a mad. He’s a mad person. My sister in Poland is working to help refugees. They are helping with shelter, food and clothing. Children are out in the cold. It’s terrible. It’s so terrible.”

At St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church in Greenport, Father Piotr Narkiewicz said in an interview Sunday evening that he is in touch with more than a dozen priests in Ukraine whom he met at his seminary in Poland. “They are sending out messages,” he said. “They are sharing their experiences. One of them said he really appreciates our prayers and support. He said, ‘We feel you are with us and God is with us.’ And he said something remarkable. ‘We pray for those who defend us and also for those who attack us. We are all human beings.’

“Another one said, ‘The fight inside me is the hardest one – not to give up to hatred.’”

As for his own feelings, he pointed out that he is a historian as well as a priest. His study of history tells him that “the Russian people live in fear. We need to understand there is no democracy in Russia. Stalin starved the Ukrainians. That has not been forgotten. I don’t hate the Russian people — but I don’t trust the Russian government.”

At his church in Riverhead, Rev. Hedz said his message has been consistent every day: “We pray for the people of Ukraine, for those who are caught in this. We ask God to give them strength. But we know this: the Russians will not stop. They will keep rolling.” As he keeps in touch with his mother in Ukraine, his wife, Lina — Eastern Rite priests can marry — talks daily to her family in eastern Ukraine.

As Monday’s rally broke up, Ukrainian speakers gathered to talk. One of them, a man who said his first name was Roman, said he came to the U.S. 20 years ago and has never lost his love of the country of his birth. He pointed to a woman standing near him. “She walked to the Polish border and she was with a woman who had a baby with her,” he said.

He pointed out another woman and translated for her. “Her name is Anna Marininik. She has three sons in the Ukrainian army.” Asked if she is in touch with her sons, Roman said she has not been able to get through on the phone or the computer, “But she prays now that they are OK.”