Utah Ukrainians push for defense assistance as Russian offensives continue

The Utah Ukrainian Association held a protest Saturday at the state Capitol, as organizers continue to do what they can to help their loved ones remaining in the country

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katya Osipenko, 17, from Orem, waves the Ukrainian flag, during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, organized by the Utah Ukrainian association, on Saturday, March 12, 2022.

Elder Parker Christopher stood with his mother at the state Capitol steps on Saturday afternoon with dozens of other Utahns protesting Russa’s invasion of Ukraine. But he wasn’t there in person.

Christopher was actually thousands of miles away, translating for Ukrainian refugees in Austria after he was evacuated from his LDS Church mission in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is located 26 miles from the Russian border.

His mother, Julie, brought a life-size cardboard cutout of her son to the protest since she knew if he were back home in Utah, he’d want to be there.

“I‘m very proud of him,” Julie said. “He was called to Ukraine, and then as COVID came, he had to serve in El Paso, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. They finally got to Ukraine and he was sent to Kharkiv, and he was so happy to finally be there — and then this happened.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Julie Christopher stands with a cut-pout of her son Elder Parker Christopher, as she listens to speakers, during a rally against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, organized by the Utah Ukrainian Association, on Saturday, March 12, 2022.

Leading in a crisis

Yulia Holko serves on the board of the Utah Ukrainian Association and has helped plan various opportunities and events like Saturday’s protest. But while she organizes fundraisers and donation drives, she’s also waiting for updates on her loved ones who remain in Ukraine.

“We’re trying to do our best to just pour all our efforts into helping and not fall apart,” Holko said.

But Wednesday’s news of the maternity hospital bombing in Mauripol along with the increased bombings of western Ukraine made it a hard week for Holko.

“I’ve been trying to talk to friends and family and asking if some of them want to leave to Poland,” Holko said. “But the answer I’ve been getting is ‘We want to stay and help on the ground as much as we can.’ Some people have told me that they have no right to take someone else’s place in line because so many people are trying to escape from eastern Ukraine where the situation is much worse.”

But her family also has very small children, and they’re usually awake all night due to the air raid sirens. Holko said Russian planes trigger the sirens even when they aren’t bombing as a form of psychological warfare.

“People cannot sleep, and the kids are stressed,” Holko said. “It’s a very difficult situation.”

Further donation efforts

During Saturday’s protest, the association had booths set up with lists of opportunities and petitions to benefit Ukraine. One of those petitions urged Ukraine-friendly nations to establish a no-fly zone over the country, which would defend civilians from Russian airstrikes.

Holko said at this point, the association’s main priority is to push as hard as they can for defense assistance to Ukraine — and they are also collecting donations for this type of assistance.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Albina Rasmussen listens to speakers as she gathers on the Capitol steps for a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, organized by the Utah Ukrainian association, on Saturday, March 12, 2022.

“We’re basically collecting some items for the needs of Ukrainian territorial defense, which is a volunteer force protecting civilians, and also for people on the ground in Ukraine from the most heavily bombed cities,” Holko said. “We’ve kind of put together a task force, there are about a dozen people and we have been in constant contact with various organizations on the ground, with various friends on the ground.”

People can donate supplies from the organization’s list of most requested items at four drop-off locations in Salt Lake City, Provo, Draper, and Taylorsville. The list includes supplies from military first aid kits to thermal imaging goggles.

The organization has also helped with the Driven to Assist community donation drive, which has already raised $2 million. Holko said since that drive is mostly focusing on refugees, they have honed in on the needs of Ukrainian citizens remaining in the country to make sure all areas are covered.

“It’s amazing how much the community is coming together and how many initiatives are taking place and how much has been done,” Holko said. “But in addition to sending aid, we’re really trying to lobby and petition and make our voices heard. And that’s what we would encourage everyone to continue doing as well.”

More information on how to help the Utah Ukrainian Association is available on its website and Facebook page.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.