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Gig Harbor’s Ukrainian community worries, prays and pleads for help

Posted on March 4th, 2022 By:

For most Americans, the brutal Russian invasion of peaceful neighboring Ukraine is at least in part a media spectacle. It’s a tragedy, but a far-off one.

For Andrey Petrenko, it’s personal.

The 47-year-old father of three, who has made his home in Gig Harbor since 2007, is consumed with worry for family, friends and others in his native Ukraine – and determined to rally support for them as much as he can, as soon as he can.

He stays up to date in the rapidly changing crisis on Facebook and Instagram and by texting and calling family and friends. He follows American media, but feel he gets more nuanced, authentic accounts from Ukrainians on the ground. (The major English-language news source, which he doesn’t mention, the Kyiv Post newspaper, is also good, but the Post’s website could be cut off at any time.)

“My cousins, my second cousins, brother, sister, my aunts, all of them,’’ are under threat, he said.

Petrenko, who is from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, doesn’t know exactly where they all are.

“Some have moved close to the Polish border,’’ he said. Others are unaccounted for. None are involved in the fighting, to his knowledge.

Like the more than 1 million Ukrainians who have already fled the country to seek refuge from Russian tanks, bombs and missiles, many of his relatives are making the same exhausting, unnerving journey – or want to.

“Elders, especially, find it’s near-impossible, and have to take shelter at home or wherever they can, in the subway, in parking garages,’’ he said. “They can’t sleep for five days straight.’’

For refugees, the road is dangerous. Fleeing civilians sometimes share their escape route with Ukrainian soldiers and military equipment heading to the combat zone. Meanwhile, the risk of attack by Russian forces is ever-present.

“It takes 50 to 60 hours to get to the border,” Petrenko said. “Then you have to cross, register and get food and shelter. Most people go to Poland or Moldova. Ukraine has good relations with those countries.’’

Andrey and Natasha Petrenko fly a Ukraine flag in front of their Gig Harbor home. Andrey said he has been taking the flag with him when he leaves his home ever since Russia invaded his native country on Feb. 24.

Andrey and Natasha Petrenko fly a Ukraine flag in front of their Gig Harbor home. Andrey said he has been taking the flag with him when he leaves his home ever since Russia invaded his native country on Feb. 24.

 

The self-employed construction worker has received help in speaking out from Gig Harbor Mayor Tracie Markley, who put him in touch with Gig Harbor Now. Markley knows a number of Ukrainian Americans who attend her church, Peninsula Life Church, a non-denominational Christian church in Gig Harbor.

“I know probably 12 or 14 personally,’’ she said of local Ukrainians. ‘’They’re phenomenal families, really active in our community.’’

Peninsula Life Church has an in-house band, according to Markley, and that’s a good fit for music-loving Ukrainians.

“They all play instruments. The bass player, the drummers, are Ukrainians. I sing. They’ve been teaching me a few words of Ukrainian.’’

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That’s how the mayor got acquainted with Andrey Petrenko, a drummer.

These days, however, the Ukrainians she knows are doing more than jamming in the band. “They’re up all hours of the night. They get up-to-date, factual information from over there.’’ Texts, videos and photos are sent here from Ukraine, some 5,500 miles away.

“They’re very devoted to their country,’’ Markley observed. “They love America but Ukraine is still in their hearts. They don’t usually show a lot of emotion, but they feel strongly about this.’’

Asked how local people here can help Ukraine, Markley said recommended contributing to organizations actively involved in humanitarian aid, like the Red Cross.

In Ukraine itself, “the faith community is also very involved,’’ she said, referring to activist Ukrainian churches in the embattled country.

For his part, Petrenko emphasized that speed is essential — as is sending aid through credible channels, so it gets to the people who need it most. Sending money, he said, can help the Red Cross help Ukrainian churches and loyal Ukrainian officials in this hour of need.

“We are in spiral.  We need water. We need clothes, a tent, sleeping bags, but some of those things can take months’’ to reach people, he said. Better to keep it simple and quick. “Five bucks can help.’’

The war is a dramatic reversal of fortune for Ukraine — and for Ukrainian Americans, who usually have a low profile in this country. With a population that the 2020 U.S. Census put at just over 1 million, Ukrainians account for 0.3 percent of the American population.

Andrey and Natasha Petrenko discuss the war in Ukraine in their Gig Harbor living room. Andrey's shirt bears the name of Donbas, a region of Ukraine that was central to Russia's illegitimate pretext for invading. Andrey said his family roots are in the Donbas area.

Andrey and Natasha Petrenko discuss the war in Ukraine in their Gig Harbor living room. Andrey’s shirt bears the name of Donbas, a region of Ukraine that was central to Russia’s illegitimate pretext for invading. Andrey said his family roots are in the Donbas area. Vince Dice

Washington state, where Ukrainians number a little under 100,000, has the fourth-highest Ukrainian population, however. Petrenko, who moved to Washington in 2000, puts the number unofficially at 120,000, and believes the state is giving strong support to Ukraine.

He praises Microsoft’s efforts to root out Russian disinformation about the war, the proactive stance of churches here, the presence of the six-year-old Honorary Consulate of Ukraine in Seattle, and the Renton-based Ukrainian Association of Washington State (accessed through Facebook) as sources of strength.

Most of all, Petrenko, who met his wife in this country, where their children were born, just wants something positive to happen in his homeland. “I don’t want to bring attention to me. I want to bring attention to what’s going on.’’