Return to Ukraine: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that recorded news from areas across Ukraine, including Milwaukee's sister city of Irpin, from June to July of 2023. It was the second time in the span of a year that the award-winning Wisconsin news organization traveled to the country during the war. The purpose of this journalism project was to document a humanitarian aid mission by the Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, and report about conditions 17 months after Russia's brutal full-scale invasion.

Local Ukrainian Americans celebrated their vibrant ethnic culture on July 9 during an annual community picnic in Franklin, while holding in their hearts the many family and friends still living under brutal Russian occupation in Ukraine.

Hosted for the second year by the Milwaukee-based nonprofit Wisconsin Ukrainians Inc. (WUI), the event took place on the 500th day since Russia launched its full-scale invasion.

“We were feeling that the war was going to be over last year, and obviously it’s not. So in order for us to keep ourselves sane, we have to do something to get out of the negative news bubble of what Russia is doing to our homeland,” said Halyna Salapata, founder of Ukrainian Milwaukee and president of Wisconsin Ukrainians Inc. “I don’t know anyone who has not been affected by the war. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost a friend or family member – or is not connected to someone who has been wounded.”

From the performances of talented musicians and dancers, to the aroma of traditional Ukrainian dishes, the picnic was an immersive experience that allowed residents from all over Wisconsin to experience Ukraine’s unique culture.

“We would like to express our deepest gratitude for the overwhelming support and incredible turnout at our annual Ukrainian picnic. It was a joyous celebration of Ukrainian culture, traditions, and unity, made even more special by the presence of each and every one of you,” the organization said in a social media post.

The event was considered a resounding success, thanks to the efforts of dedicated volunteers and generous sponsors all working to preserve and share Ukrainian heritage. While the Ukrainian community came together to support their homeland with the fundraising event, they also came together to support themselves cope with prolonged stress and trauma from the war.

“We had so many refugees who fled Ukraine, who had absolutely different plans and different dreams, who were building their future in Ukraine, who did not plan on leaving their homeland behind,” added Salapata. “But here they are today, and they have to connect. They have to meet each other. They have to talk to each other. They have to support each other.”

County Supervisor Peter Burgelis, who has been a leading advocate for Milwaukee’s Ukrainian community, also was also in attendance. In April of 2022, he introduced a resolution that supported the people of Ukraine and condemned the unprovoked aggression and war crimes committed by Russian Federation soldiers.

“I’m a first-generation Latvian-American. My parents fled Russian aggression and came to the United States as children. I understand the meaningful impact of continuing and celebrating one’s cultural heritage,” said Supervisor Burgelis. “I also understand the challenges of immigration, the horrors and lasting impact of unprovoked evil.”

Supervisor Burgelis came to the Ukrainian picnic to show his support for Ukrainians in Milwaukee County. He said that seeing young students recite Ukrainian poems on stage brought back memories of himself doing the exact same thing in Latvian when he was growing up.

“It was a joy to celebrate Ukrainian culture with the community,” added Supervisor Burgelis. “I’ll continue to bring visibility and awareness so that the continued fight for an independent and sovereign Ukraine is not forgotten. Glory to Ukraine and glory to the heroes!“
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy marked the 500th day of the war by hailing the country’s soldiers in a video from a Black Sea island that became the symbol of Ukraine’s resilience in the face of the Russian invasion.

The island took on legendary significance for Ukraine’s resistance, when Ukrainian troops there reportedly received a demand from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombed. The answer supposedly came back, “Go (expletive) yourself Russian warship.”

Speaking from Snake Island, Zelenskyy honored the Ukrainian soldiers who fought for the island and all other defenders of the country, saying that reclaiming control of the island was “proof that Ukraine will regain every bit of its territory.”

The annual picnic in Franklin saw an attendance of almost 800 people, and Wisconsin Ukrainians was able to collect more than $20,000. Salapata said that 100% of the proceeds would go to helping Ukraine meet its humanitarian needs.

Founded in March 2022, the grassroots nonprofit organization Wisconsin Ukrainians has raised more than $540,000, and around $250,000 in charitable donations of humanitarian aid and medical supplies.

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Series: Return to Ukraine

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Milwaukee Independent has reported on Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine since it began on February 24, 2022. In May of 2022, Milwaukee Independent was the first news organization from Wisconsin to report from Milwaukee’s Sister City of Irpin after its liberation. That work has since been recognized with several awards for journalistic excellence. Between late June and early July of 2023, Milwaukee Independent staff returned to Ukraine for a second assignment to report on war after almost a year. The editorial team was embedded with a Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, on a humanitarian aid mission across Ukraine. For several weeks, Milwaukee Independent documented the delivery of medical supplies to military and civilian hospitals, and was a witness to historic events of the war as they unfolded.

Return to Ukraine: Reports about a humanitarian mission from Milwaukee after a year of war