A small gift shop in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood has become a gathering spot for people looking to show their support for Ukraine.
Customers snap up blue and yellow ribbons and small Ukrainian flags from the shelves in the packed store. They buy anything noticeably Ukrainian they can pin on themselves or their cars as the Russian invasion sows anxiety well beyond the country’s borders.
But they also come shopping for a sense of belonging.
WBEZ reporter Anna Savchenko spoke to three people about what the store means to them.
Amman Hussain, college student
Nineteen-year-old Amman Hussain walked into the Delta M gift shop with a group of friends in search of a vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian shirt, on a recent Sunday. A rally was kicking off just across the street on Chicago Avenue, and like the sea of customers in the store, he didn’t want to go empty-handed.
He settled on a black shirt with blue embroidery on the front.
Hussain is a college student from India who was visiting Chicago on spring break. He grew up in a Ukrainian neighborhood in Dubai and said he was “raised Ukrainian.”
His family comes from land near the Indian-Chinese border that’s been disputed for decades. The war in Ukraine hits home, he said, because his people, the Assamese, have been “discriminated just for who we are” as Ukrainians have.
He studies Russian in college because learning about Slavic culture is his way of reconnecting with the Ukrainians and Russians he grew up with.
But with friends in both countries, he feels torn.
“My heart is both in Russia and Ukraine … so I’m very much split because these two peoples, their cultures have affected a lot of my life in a positive way,” Hussain said, recalling with a smile the Russian cartoons he watched as a kid.
“I’m just glad that at least the average citizen in Russia is against this war.”
Oksana Odeskevich, store clerk
Odeskevich moved from Ukraine in the 1990s.
In the five years that she’s worked at the gift shop, she has never seen as many customers as on the first day of the Russian invasion in February.
In the beginning, the customers were mostly Ukrainian. But within a day or two, people from all over the Chicago area began pouring into the store. The phone has been ringing off the hook with people calling to ask about the different flags they carry.
The store has always attracted customers from all over the world, who admire the store’s religious icons, paintings and ceramics as though they were visiting a museum, Odeskevich said.
But they also come to share their stories — of their parents, grandparents and where they moved from. What she likes most is the people she meets and the connections she makes.
“These conversations don’t take much time, but they mean a lot to people,” Odeskevich said.
Jeffrey Grimes, teacher
Jeffrey Grimes was trying on a cream-colored vyshyvanka shirt while his two young sons roamed the store recently, looking at mugs, stickers and military caps.
His great-great-grandparents moved to the U.S. from Ukraine after World War I. But he didn’t have anyone to speak Ukrainian with growing up in Joliet, so he ended up learning Spanish instead. Now, he’s married to a Mexican American woman and has embraced Hispanic culture. He’s a Spanish teacher at Joliet Central High School.
“I always tell my students … My heart might be Mexican but the blood that pumps through it is Ukrainian blood,” Grimes said.
The war has made him want to reconnect with his Ukrainian roots and to show his sons how beautiful culture can be.
“If I didn’t think it was beautiful, I would have never learned how to speak Spanish and I wouldn’t have immersed myself in the neighborhood I grew up in,” Grimes said.
At checkout, he grabs a handful of Ukrainian flags. He wants to lay them by the graves of his grandparents after the rally in support of Ukraine.
“For where my grandfather came from, I think they deserve the same thing, the same right, the same respect, the same opportunity to flourish as a culture and be proud of who they are,” Grimes said. “They ain’t trying to hurt nobody. They just want to be happy.”
The cash register chimes and Grimes walks away with a few flags in his hand, his children at his side and a deeper connection to his family’s homeland.
Reporter Anna Savchenko covers higher education for WBEZ. Follow her @annasavchenkoo.