Chicago’s Ukrainian community defiantly looks ‘evil in the eye’ to mark Russian invasion anniversary: ‘You’re not winning’

Dozens of refugee students, parents and faculty gather at a Ukrainian Village school to commemorate with songs and prayers for peace Russia’s invasion of their “beautiful country.”

Kindergarten students at St. Nicholas Cathedral School hold up sunflowers during a prayer vigil for Ukraine inside the school’s gymnasium in Ukrainian Village on Thursday.
Kindergarten students at St. Nicholas Cathedral School hold up sunflowers during a prayer vigil for Ukraine inside the school’s gymnasium in Ukrainian Village on Thursday. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times
Kindergarten students at St. Nicholas Cathedral School hold up sunflowers during a prayer vigil for Ukraine inside the school’s gymnasium in Ukrainian Village on Thursday.
Kindergarten students at St. Nicholas Cathedral School hold up sunflowers during a prayer vigil for Ukraine inside the school’s gymnasium in Ukrainian Village on Thursday. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago’s Ukrainian community defiantly looks ‘evil in the eye’ to mark Russian invasion anniversary: ‘You’re not winning’

Dozens of refugee students, parents and faculty gather at a Ukrainian Village school to commemorate with songs and prayers for peace Russia’s invasion of their “beautiful country.”

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When Natalia Sydorenko and her daughters fled their native Ukraine after Russia’s 2022 invasion, they never meant to leave for good, and days ahead of the grim second anniversary of that day, they still hold onto hope of returning.

“They still have this love for their motherland,” the former Kyviv resident said of her daughters at a vigil Thursday at St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood. “I really hope that it will be a safe place, and lots of children will be able to go back.”

Hundreds of students, faculty and parents gathered to pray for peace ahead of the Feb. 24 anniversary inside the gymnasium of the small West Side school, which has become a hub for refugee families since the invasion, including Sydorenko’s. About half of the roughly 200 students are refugees, said Principal Anna Cirilli, and dozens more have come through, either graduating or moving elsewhere.

“This is our moment to literally look evil in the eye and say you’re not winning,” said the longtime principal of the pre-K through 8th-grade school. “These children are successful here. They’re prospering and growing so that when it’s time for them to go back, they’ll be able to give back to their community.”

Seventh and eighth grade students at St. Nicholas Cathedral School listen during a prayer vigil for Ukraine inside the school’s gymnasium Thursday in Ukrainian Village.
Seventh and eighth grade students at St. Nicholas Cathedral School listen during a prayer vigil for Ukraine inside the school’s gymnasium Thursday in Ukrainian Village. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

A small group of students led the others in prayers and songs in Ukrainian and English before hundreds of students and other attendees — including U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley and Koledov Serhiy, the Ukrainian Consul General in Chicago — lit candles in support of Ukraine. Another dozen students held up sunflowers, a symbol of the Eastern European country.

The country’s fight against Russia has stalled in recent weeks as the U.S. Congress has delayed in delivering aid, but Quigley said he hoped a package to deliver support to the country could reach there soon.

“They’re evidence of hope for the future and reminds why it’s so important to keep up hope,” the Wrigleyville Democrat said of the students. “It’s for them and for democracy across the world.”

A young student of St. Nicholas Cathedral School holds out bread and salt to greet guests including U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley during a prayer vigil for Ukraine inside the school’s gymnasium in Ukrainian Village on Thursday.
A young student of St. Nicholas Cathedral School holds out bread and salt to greet guests including U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley during a prayer vigil for Ukraine inside the school’s gymnasium in Ukrainian Village on Thursday. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

Sydorenko said her daughters, though only third and eighth graders, felt that same gravity of the event.

“It’s huge for us to be here to have this tight connection with our homeland,” she said, noting her older daughter recited a Ukrainian poem about liberation. “They understand how important it is to tell the rest of the world what is happening in their “beautiful country.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.