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Ukrainians: The Voice of a Community

Winston Lapham and Judy Chan

     Neither of us had any knowledge of Ukraine, its people, or the culture. Entering their community to find out about their use of language was made harder by this fact. Once there, however, we were approached by many vendors and local residents who told us their stories enthusiastically. Their stories revealed to us more than their native language but also a sense of who they were as a cohesive Ukrainian community. The community we studied was located around 2nd avenue and 9th street in Manhattan, New York.

     According to the U.S Census Bureau, there were approximately 11,527 Ukrainians living in New York City in 1990, a 12.2 percent increase from the 10,991 living in the area in 1980. We will introduce a few members of a particular Ukrainian community to best represent the larger Ukrainian population of New York City. They are: a man in his late 50s, employed at the butcher shop, Mr. Surma, the thrift store owner, a woman in her late 40s, owner of the restaurant, and a finally, a woman in her mid-60s, a former resident of this community.


     Wonderfully preserved and conveniently located behind the school, the church signifies its importance within the Ukrainian community. As a result of speaking with many in the area, we found that the church holds daily mass, which is mostly given in Ukrainian. While holding funerals, the church proceeds in both English and Ukrainian, so as to provide for everyone in attendance. We also found that the church offers a Saturday day school, promoting the growth of the Ukrainian language not only within the home but also within the community. Therefore, the children in the community are learning their native language. We also encountered an elderly woman, who had attended the school years ago; she noted that everyday before school at 8 AM, a service was held in the church, further emphasizing the importance of the church.


     Across the street from the church, there is a small, Ukrainian-influenced thrift store, owned and operated by a family of Ukrainian descent. Before entering the store, we noticed that there were about 5 posters on the window, all in Ukrainian. However, there was one English announcement taped to the side, urging people to "Save Taras Shevchenko Place" by writing to the local government. (Cooper Union is pressing to take the name "Taras Shevchenko Place" off all city maps and replacing it with Cooper Union building names). This type of announcement shows the tight connection between the people and their community and the overall spirit of unity that stems from that connection. The store, "Surma", sells many items native to the culture that is useful and helpful to those living in the Ukrainian community. Some of these items include anniversary and birthday cards, history books, clothing, gifts, and memorabilia. Thus, those Ukrainians living in the area not only have the opportunity to remain close to their roots, but they also have the means to teach their children of their heritage, preserving the language and their culture. The store also provides the community with over 15 Ukrainian-oriented newspapers and publications, including the "Ukrainian Quarterly"; however, only one store had such publications in the entire neighborhood.

     We had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Surma, the owner of the thrift store. The first generation immigrant kindly described not only his family's immigration from Ukraine but the immigration of many others as well. Around 1910, his father, an ambitious man, immigrated to this country along with the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants in search of opportunity and fortune. As a result, he quickly enrolled in classes in order to learn the English language. Many other immigrants, however, did not take such initiative, and they settled into ghettos, comfortably surrounded by their native language. After World War II, the second wave of Ukrainians immigrated into this country. These immigrants, however, were already well - versed in English and rather successful: members of the Intelligentsia which included doctors, lawyers, and writers, escaping the perils of Communism. Around the 1970's, the third and final wave of immigrants came to the U.S. These immigrants, who are still coming to the United States today, speak both Ukrainian and English.

     Along with the thrift shop, there are also other establishments owned and operated by Ukrainians, such as restaurants, bars, and even a butcher shop. The "Ukrainian East Village Restaurant" however, draws mainly American customers. The owner of the restaurant lived in the Ukraine; having learned English when she immigrated, she maintains to speak both English and Polish in her household. She speaks English very well; however, she retains a very heavy accent. Across the street from the restaurant, there is a Ukrainian-owned butcher shop, the awning reading "Meat Market" and underneath that, "J. BACZYNSKY". The menu was listed in English only. This shop has been in the community for over twenty-five years. We were able to speak to a man that was multi-lingual; he spoke Russian, German, Polish, Ukrainian, and English. He spoke English well, but he also had a strong accent. When asked what language he spoke at home, he replied proudly that he spoke English because he had the ability to. However, he tended to speak Ukrainian at home to his son, a way for him to teach and preserve the language. He later described his thoughts of America, and his reasoning for immigrating. He has always been very impressed with this country, and he reiterated that America was the land of opportunity.


     We asked our Ukrainian friends if they ever needed help with translations in any situation, whether it be at court, the hospital, or at the police station. We visited the neighborhood post office, located at 11th street and 4th Avenue and inquired the service window whether or not translators were available. The woman replied no, and that sadly, there are no provisions made for those who do not speak English. We also found that there were no signs in languages other than English despite the location of the post office in the densely ethnic neighborhood. Also, we found out that there are many doctors in the area who are bilingual in Ukrainian and English and that they are always ready and willing to help someone who doesn't understand. Also, there are interpreters at court and at the local police station. When asked about facilities outside their community, they could not answer because they have never encountered that necessity. One man, the butcher shop employee, confirmed the fact that there are many Ukrainian doctors, but also added the fact the he has never used them because he could speak English well enough to not use that resource.


     By way of speaking with several Ukrainians, we found that they not only have a strong sense of community, but they also embrace each other. As a result, there are several nationality-oriented organizations in the area dedicated to promoting the success of others, especially new immigrants. As new immigrants arrive in this country, they are warmly welcomed into the community; there are several committees that help these new immigrants orient themselves in such a new environment. Therefore, these committees help with job and apartment searches, not to mention to creation of social clubs to heighten their already existing sense of community. There are Ukrainian sports clubs, musical institutes, and various other meeting places, designed to promote learning and establish a true community.

     One such place, "Dibrova", is an example of a true "home base" for the Ukrainians living in this area. The same posters displayed in the window of Surma were present here, however, there was one addition. One pamphlet describing the Chernobyl Accident was taped in the center, with both English and Ukrainian summaries. Upon entering the building, located on 2nd Avenue and 8th street, we met 4 children in the lounge area doing their homework under the supervision of their grandma. After speaking to one girl, we found out that the building was more than what it seemed. The second floor served as a music school. On Saturdays, Ukrainian language classes would also be held. The range ages of students are from "babies to teens" according to the girl. Also, adjacent to the Dibrova is a bar "LYS MYKYTA" or "Sly Fox" which is mostly visited by Ukrainians. We can tell that the Ukrainian community was extremely tight knit from the proximity of their businesses and services.

     Located on Fourth Avenue and 13th Street, the "Shevchenko Scientific Society" serves as a learning facility for Ukrainians. Inside the building is a small library containing books on the history of Ukraine as well as popular Ukrainian literature. The director of the Society claims that about 60 percent of the available books are written in Ukrainian. The Society also contains lecture halls, an archives section, and an art collection. The hall plays an important part in fostering the education of Ukrainian culture as it organizes scholarly conferences, colloquia, symposia, and weekly public lectures. Along with these community- based organizations, there is also the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Inc. The UCCA brings together approximately 20 Ukrainian organizations and over 75 branches throughout the United States. These organizations were also developed to help Ukrainians maintain their sense of identity and to create a voice for the Ukrainian people.


     As with most cultures, there is a need to preserve the native language. To teach the next generation the language that one speaks helps pass along the culture and sense of identity that comes along with belonging in any ethnic group. Keeping in touch with the "mother tongue" is important and that is why most Ukrainian parents will speak in Ukraine with their children at home. After speaking with many of the locals in the Ukrainian community, we found out that there are not that many children who are not native speakers of English. Many Ukrainian children are born here and learn to speak English at an early age, as their parents and grandparents were the first ones to immigrate to the United States. Also, learning English is seen as an important step in the path to success; learning English is not usually associated with disrespect to Ukraine or the culture.

     Most of these children who attend primary school have a good knowledge of the English language. The people that we spoke to established the fact that their children spoke English at school and that they did not really need much extra help. For the new immigrant children, there are ESL classes offered at the local school and there are local tutors readily available. Most of these immigrant children speak Ukraine.

     The neighborhood school happens to be a private school encompassing grades K through 12. The students we spoke to told us that approximately 60 percent of the school population is Ukrainian, down from the 100 percent Ukrainian population from years ago. Also, one boy let us know that "there are a few blacks, Koreans, Chinese, and Puerto Ricans" that attend the school. When asked what language the students spoke at school, the boy actually replied, "English only". Ukrainian was only spoken in Ukrainian language classes amongst the upper grades. School notices were typed in English, but on the reverse side of every notice was a Ukrainian translation.


     The Ukrainian Museum, located on 2nd Avenue in New York City, stands as a symbol of the spirit of Ukrainians in the community as well as across the nation. Founded in 1976, "its purpose is to preserve, interpret, and present the rich cultural heritage of the Ukrainian people". The museum also arranges a network of activities including educational programs, community events, and fund- raisers. The recent popularity of the museum can only mean a revitalization of interest in Ukrainian culture: its people, their customs, and their language. With this, we come away with a clearer sense of what the linguistic situation is in the community. More importantly, however, is that we come away with a better understanding of who the Ukrainians are.

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