Hundreds of Milwaukee residents representing more than 40 local organizations gathered at Historic City Hall on April 9 for a candlelight vigil to support the children and families of Ukraine, Milwaukee’s sister city Irpin, and all the lives lost since the start of the unprovoked invasion of their independent nation.
After nearly eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine, 3.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and 60% of them are women and children. UNICEF has estimated that since the start of Russia’s brutal war on February 24, a Ukrainian child has become a refugee almost every single second. More than 1.5 million children have been force to flee their home so far.
At the historic bronze seal of Milwaukee in front of the entrance to City Hall, vigil participants placed candles next to rows of shoes from small children in a symbolic gesture to represent the young lives lost every day.
“We want to remember the more than 200 confirmed children who have been kіIIed,” said Solomiya Kavyuk, a member of Ukrainian Milwaukee. “I want you all to remember that when Russia kіIIs our children, they are trying to erase our future. When they kіII our elderly, they are trying to erase our past that has been tainted with their aggression.”
Frustrated by weeks of Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces have committed horrific war crimes in their path of destruction. Evidence has mounted that proves innocent civilians were executed by Russian soldiers, in conjunction with residential homes specifically targeted by long-range artillery fired from Russia.
President Joe Biden called the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin a war criminal in an address to the nation, after details of Russian massacres surfaced in early April from liberated cities like Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin.
Local community and religious leaders joined Milwaukee officials at the vigil to condemn the ongoing war. Speakers included Pastor Mykola Lymar, St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church; Rev. Vasyl Savchyn, St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church; Boris Nayflish, Irpin-Milwaukee Sister City Liaison; Bishop Paul Erickson, Greater Milwaukee Synod-ELCA; Bishop James T. Schuerman, Archdiocese of Milwaukee; Ahmed Quereshi, Past President of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee; Miryam Rosenzweig, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Milwaukee; Sarvesh Geddam, Hindu Temple; and Darryl Morin, National President of Forward Latin.
Jonathan Volodymyr Pylypiv, President of Wisconsin Ukrainians, thanked the crowd for standing with the people of Ukraine. Pylypiv’s group has been coordinating local donations and shipping those vital supplies to aid in the war effort.
“There is a genocide going on against our people. We have children, we have men, women, people of all ages, all religious backgrounds, being kіIIed and slaughtered in Ukraine,” said Pylypiv. “There are bodies still buried under the rubble, bodies in shallow graves. These are people who cannot wake up the next day to be with their children. New refugees and orphans are being created every day.”
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley talked about how important it was that the local community showed solidarity with Ukraine. He said what was happened there, because of Putin, was inhumane. He then called on residents from across Milwaukee County, the state of Wisconsin, and the nation to get involved in the cause to help Ukraine.
“We need your three T’s,” said County Executive Crowley. “We need you to give your time, supporting individuals who live right here in our own county, so they can support their families back in Ukraine. If you do not have the time to volunteer, we are asking for your talents. Because many of you can use your talents to get more people to the table and bring more awareness to what we are seeing. But more importantly, what we need right now is your treasurer. We need money to be donated to the people of Ukraine, so they can continue to defend themselves and ensure a future of peace.”
Halyna Salapata, founder of Ukrainian Milwaukee, said that it has been a very hard time for Ukrainian Americans in Milwaukee, with little prospect for the situation to become easier. She talked about the children who were kіIIed, the families separated, and the countless heartbreaking stories – including her own personal experience.
“My husband’s cousin joined the Ukrainian Army in the first week of the Russian invasion, and he has been missing for the last four weeks. We ask his wife every day if there have been any updates. But there is none,” said Salapata. “There are so many other instances of people putting their lives at risk for the lives of other Ukrainians. As I speak right now, my brother is driving to Kyiv to deliver resources to those who need them most. That is what he has been doing for the last few weeks. I am holding my phone, and I am waiting for him to text me that he arrived safe.”
Salapata said that as anxious as those situations were, she did not dare try to call her brother before he sent a text in order to protect is safety. She also recently found out that a friend’s father in Ukraine had been diagnosed with cancer.
“For the first time in the last 13 years, I said to myself that maybe my father was lucky that he did not live long enough to see this nightmare in Ukraine,” added Salapata. “We can only continue going through our day-to-day lives in hope that this war is going to end soon. And we can focus on rebuilding Ukraine. We are all sad, anxious, and of course angry. Some days it feels like there is nothing we can do. But here we are today. And thank all of you, at least we can be together and support each other.”
Alderwoman and Milwaukee Common Council member JoCasta Zamarripa spoke on behalf of Alderman Khalif J. Rainey, chair of Milwaukee’s Sister Cities Committee. He was unable to attend the vigil due to a non-COVID related illness, and she read a statement from him.
“In times of humanitarian crisis like this, acts of compassion and generosity can make a huge difference. In recent years, we have been able to establish a closer relationship with our sister city of Irpin – a suburb of the capital city of Kyiv – and I feel a sense of duty to assist them at this time. As we watch from afar, I strongly encourage residents to help organizations in increasing their capacity to respond to the current crisis.”
As faith leaders and other representatives addressed the crowd, many held back tears as they honored Ukraine’s dead children. Candles were lit, and Ukrainian patriotic songs were sung. Despite the heavy mix of emotions, there was a strong bond of solidarity that offered hope for an end to the terrible war.
“As I look at the memorial behind me, I see the shoes of children that my own kids could fit,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson. “And when I listen to the stories of families that are trying to escape from the death and the destruction that is raining down in that country, I see stories of mothers that are traveling untold miles trying to escape with small children in tow. And it reminds me of my own wife and my own children. And so I think all of us can find a way to humanize with what is happening in Ukraine right now.”
In the early days of the war, Mayor Johnson had a video chat with Irpin Mayor Oleksandr Markushyn. He recalled how shocking it was to see his counterpart wearing body armor. Mayor Markushyn had just come off the frontlines trying to stop the 40-mile Russian convoy from entering the capitol of Kyiv. Mayor Johnson said that was something no Mayor or person in any community across the world should have to endure.
“But the reason I find hope is because of the resistance, because of the fight that is present – not just in Irpin – but in the resolve of the people of Ukraine. They are fighting for their homes, they are fighting for their families, they are fighting for their country and that makes me proud,” added Mayor Johnson. “I know that it makes the Ukrainian community right here in Milwaukee proud too. So even through all of the heartache, all of the death, all of the destruction, there is reason for hope. Our Milwaukee community has stood up in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. And as Mayor, I am proud of my city and more proud of each and every single one of you – who throughout this entire conflict have stood up in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, our friends, our family, back in Ukraine.”
Co-sponsors of the vigil included Wisconsin Ukrainians, Ukrainian Milwaukee, St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Crusaders of Justicia, Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, Forward Latino, God Touch MKE, Greater Milwaukee Synod ELCA, The Hispanic Collaborative, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, Islamic Society of Milwaukee, Jewish Community Relations Council, Mexican Fiesta, Milwaukee Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied For Hope Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Milwaukee Metropolitan Community Church, Milwaukee Zen Center, Moravian Church Western District, NAACP-Milwaukee Branch, Presbytery of Milwaukee Church, Sikh Religious Society of Wisconsin, Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, The American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin, The Baha’is of SE Wisconsin, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Hindu Temple of Wisconsin, The Religious Society of Friends, UMOS, Unitarian Church North, Unitarian Universalist Church West, United Church of Christ, SE Wisconsin Association, United Community Center, United Methodist Church, Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, Wisconsin Conference SE District, Wisconsin Council of Churches, and Wisconsin Council of Rabbis.
Milwaukee has a small but thriving Ukrainian American community, and Irpin is a sister city. Follow our special coverage at mkeind.com/ukraine for updates on Putin’s invasion, and about how the fight by Ukrainian people to preserve their democracy is having an impact on the families and businesses here in Milwaukee. 🇺🇦 Слава Україні! Героям слава!