PENN STATE Ukrainian Society members and community members gather to show support for Ukraine following the Russian invasion of the country on Feb. 28. The group plans to hold another rally on March 3 at the Old Main Plaza.
UNIVERSITY PARK — Standing at Allen Street Gates in solidarity with dozens of others during a Feb. 24 rally in support of the country where both her parents immigrated from, Penn State Ukrainian Society President Maria Smereka was able to smile for the first time that day.
This was hours after Russia had invaded Ukraine, and the weight of what was happening was carried heavily by those connected to the country but living in Central Pennsylvania.
“Speaking for most of us there, that was the first time we smiled that entire day, because with the events that transpired overnight, that was surreal. That was heartbreaking, horrible and tragic, and so I, myself, smiled and I found that I could find some solace standing in solidarity with other people. I received the same feedback from a lot of the officers and others involved,” said Smereka.
Smereka’s parents immigrated to the US with her two siblings shortly before she was born. She grew up in a Ukrainian community in Pittsburgh and has traveled many times to her parent’s home country.
Most of her extended family still lives in Ukraine, and as she watches the violence unfold there, she cannot help but worry for them and the many others in danger.
“I think I speak on behalf of everyone who sits on the
Ukrainian Society. We are extremely stressed and we are not sleeping. We are deeply concerned about everything that is going on. For the people who are dying, for innocent civilians, for soldiers to people who have taken up arms to fight for their country and defend their families. So, we are all extremely concerned,” she said.
Smereka added, “I personally feel guilty for being here in the US right now where we are safe. Seeing all the videos of what is happening, the innocent civilians being bombed just breaks my heart.”
Her only comfort is gathering together with others to show support for the cause. The rally boasted an “unexpectedly high turnout” as Ukrainian, Ukrainian American and other community members rallied to show support.
“There were Russians, Russian Americans, people from all different backgrounds coming to show their support and we really appreciated that,” said Smereka.
As the conflict continues, the organization plans to hold another “We are for Ukraine” rally at Old Main Plaza on March 3 from 5 to 7 pm, and Smereka encourages community members of all nationalities to come be a part of the event. The event will include speeches, poetry, Ukrainian songs and a candle vigil for fallen soldiers and civilians during the conflict.
“Those looking to support Ukraine, come to the rally to stand in solidarity with us,” said Smereka. “We decided to get together to raise awareness and to encourage people to donate to Ukraine organizations and also contact their representatives, because we wanted to see a change.”
The group started a Venmo fund that will provide support to soldiers and send humanitarian aid to the country.
“There isn’t much that we can do with an ocean between us, but funds are always crucial. In order for the army to get the supplies they need and the civilians to get the supplies they need and the medical aid, that is what we are focusing on,” said Smereka.
Penn State president Eric Barron released a Statement on Feb. 28 to support those affected by the conflict.
“Our hearts are with all who are directly in harm’s way as a result of this direct attack on Ukrainian sovereignty, in clear violation of international law,” Barron wrote. “The implications are deeply troubling: these include the humanitarian toll that is already being felt in Ukraine and around the world; and the potential long-term, global impacts. Our world and our collective fate are intrinsically tied together as a global society and this attack has created a level of fragility.”
Barron followed by encouraging Penn Staters of all backgrounds to “learn and explore this troublesome time together” by engaging in conversations with one another. He continued by acknowledging that there are students, faculty, and staff at Penn State who are from Ukraine and Russia or have ties to the region. He said Penn State has “been directly in touch with affected members of our campus community and will continue to offer them our support.”
The statement also listed on-campus resources for those who might need them, including counseling and psychological services, the Penn State Crisis Line, International Student and Scholar Advising and more.
“As a community, we must continue to offer compassion and support for one another, including all of our faculty, staff and students who are impacted,” Barron wrote. “Our hearts are heavy as we continue to watch the events unfold, and we remain hopeful for the return of peace to that region and the world.”
Smereka said the Ukrainian Society appreciated Barron “expressing his concern and reaching out to the greater community. And showing us that we are supported by Penn State.”
She has asked the University to take its support a step further by sharing its rally information and the effort to raise funds.
She encourages the greater community to attend the rally and support the cause because “this isn’t an issue that is isolated to Ukraine. I think national news has made that clear. This is an issue that affects all of Europe. It affects people living in the US It affects everyone around the world, especially with the recent threats of nuclear power being detonated and released. It is an issue that affects everyone and the only way to make an effective change is to all come together.”
Geoff Ruston, managing editor of StateCollege.com contributed to this report.