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Ukrainian-Americans value their identity — one Putin is trying to erase

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Thousands of miles away from the fighting in Europe, Ukrainian Americans are facing another front in Russia's attack on their ancestral home - a psychological one. From Chicago, WBEZ's Anna Savchenko explains.

ANNA SAVCHENKO, BYLINE: Ukrainians around the world are watching closely and are deeply offended by Russia's efforts to not only deny Ukraine's statehood but to try and erase Ukrainians' sense of identity, one that many of them cling to. That's true for 16-year-old Arseniy Paratsiy living in Chicago. He skipped school on Thursday to attend several rallies organized by Ukrainian Americans here after news of the Russian invasion. Here he is at a rally with scores of others on a bridge crossing a busy Chicago freeway, holding a sign.

ARSENIY PARATSIY: It says, NATO, send troops to Ukraine.

SAVCHENKO: Similar protests have been erupting across the country as Ukrainian Americans try to pressure the Biden administration to take stronger action. That follows not just the invasion but President Putin announcing that modern Ukraine is fictional and has never existed outside of Russia. Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern with Northwestern University says this strikes a chord with many immigrants.

YOHANAN PETROVSKY-SHTERN: That is something that we hear today from Mr. Putin, who says there is no such nation as Ukraine. There is no such language as Ukrainian. Ukraine is not a country. It is, you know, the invention of some socialist politicians of the 20th century.

SAVCHENKO: Arseniy Paratsiy moved to the U.S. from Ukraine when he was 4 and says it's been hard for him to watch the effort to chip away his sense of identity and of his memories of Ukraine.

PARATSIY: Every time I go back, everyone asks me the same question. Where's it better? Here or in America? And my answer is always Ukraine.

SAVCHENKO: Now he wishes he was there.

PARATSIY: When the war started, I was ready to buy myself a plane ticket, go to the frontlines, get fake papers that say that I'm 18 and go fight because I can't really imagine a world that I can't go back to my home country or have to talk a different language or fly a different flag.

SAVCHENKO: Thirty-two-year-old Yuriy Makar feels the same way. He was 7 when his family emigrated to the U.S. He lost his Ukrainian language skills growing up in an English-speaking environment.

YURIY MAKAR: If we did have relatives that we were calling to Ukraine, I was just extremely shy and embarrassed if they asked me to come talk on the phone because I would be stuttering with my Ukrainian.

SAVCHENKO: Now as an adult, he has actively been reconnecting with his Ukrainian roots by doing little things like trying to read the news in Ukrainian. When he tried that before, it would sometimes take him an hour to get through a single paragraph. But mastering Ukrainian again fills him with pride.

MAKAR: So when there's this person that wants to say, hey, this identity that you think you are - it was - it's all made up. No. Like, hell no. Like, Putin, you're not going to steal that from me.

SAVCHENKO: Arseniy Paratsiy says that his 6-year-old sister, who was born in the U.S., shares his connection to Ukraine. When she learned of the Russian invasion, she wrapped herself in a Ukrainian flag and started singing the national anthem. While she may not understand war, she understands what it means to love her country. And for now, that's what many Ukrainians living abroad are trying to hold on to. For NPR News, I'm Anna Savchenko in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Savchenko