GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — West Michigan’s Ukrainian community held a candlelight vigil Friday at 6 p.m. on the Gillett Bridge to commemorate one year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Today is a very sad and a very big day for all Ukrainians around the world,” Anna Kovalenko said.
She and her husband were already living in the states when they heard the early grumblings of a possible Russian invasion. Kovalenko traveled to Ukraine to help get her mother to safety.
“We were on a very high level of stress, and we were gaging the danger every day and every second,” she said.
Iryna Wells and her family, who are now refugees in West Michigan, had to escape on foot by way of the Slovakian border.
“We had no choice but to run,” Wells said. “We lived a wonderful life that any young family would dream of. We didn’t lose it, it was taken overnight.”
Organizers of the event hoped the vigil would remind people that the war is not over and that their friends and family overseas still need help.
“The longer this goes on the more death it will cause, the more economic impact it will cause globally,” Oleksandr Kovalenko said. “We felt it here in the U.S. because of the war: the inflation, the gas prices, the supply chain issues all of that was caused by the war. So the quicker we can help Ukraine end this war on the Ukrainian soil, the quicker the world will go back to normal.”
Oleksandr Kudiienko was living in Southern Ukraine with his wife and four children when Russia invaded the country last February.
“They arrived there, invaded everything. We stayed there, didn’t understand what was going on,” Kudiienko said.
Once Kudiienko realized his country was under attack, his family fled from Ukraine, going to Poland before arriving in West Michigan. While he escaped the Russian terror, he said there are so many who can’t.
“Maybe they don’t have enough money, for example,” Kudiienko said.
He was one of the dozens at Gillett Bridge in Grand Rapids, as the community looked back at one year since Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Also in the crowd was Olga Gengle, who fled Ukraine in 2015, but her parents were in Mariupol when the invasion began a year ago.
“It was no power, no electricity, it was no connection. I couldn’t call my parents and didn’t even know they were alive,” Gengle said.
Her parents took refuge in Switzerland, but unfortunately, their Mariupol home was bombed. Even now, Gengle said her parents have hope they’ll someday return to their home country.
“They still wait and they still hope that Ukraine can take back Mariupol,” Gengle said.
As the State Anthem of Ukraine sang loudly over the Grand River, Ukrainians said the world should not forget the lives lost and the many still in danger.
“I want everybody to be aware and know that it’s very important to support Ukraine right now,” Gengle said.