Local Ukrainian community rallies in support of Kiev protesters

Supporters display a banner in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Jenkintown before beginning a caravan to Independence National Historical Park to show solidarity with antigovernment protesters in the former Soviet republic.
Supporters display a banner in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Jenkintown before beginning a caravan to Independence National Historical Park to show solidarity with antigovernment protesters in the former Soviet republic. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 28, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Hundreds of vehicles, some from as far away as New York and Washington, rallied from the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown to Independence National Historical Park on Sunday in support of antigovernment protesters in the beleaguered former Soviet republic.

"I feel I have to be in Ukraine at this moment and I can't. I feel I have to stand with all those people and I can't," said rally organizer Olena Mishchuk, 31, of Northeast Philadelphia.

Instead, she and hundreds of native Ukrainians assembled at the center, their vehicles decorated with ribbons and their country's blue-and-yellow flags, and formed a caravan that snaked out of the overflowing parking lot and headed south on Route 611. The cars then cruised south on Broad Street to City Hall, went by the Liberty Bell and the Museum of Art before doubling back to the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception on North Franklin Street.

"We told the police we might have 50 to 100 cars," said Bohdan Pechenyak, 32, who lives in Fox Chase and helped organize the rally.

Organizers said about 300 cars showed up, 37 from New York alone.

In Ukraine, some demonstrators use their vehicles to block streets and make it hard for the government to function, Pechenyak said. Such blockades are "considered one of the more successful initiatives of protest," he said.

Local Ukrainians had been organizing weekly at Thomas Paine Plaza in Center City since November, when protests in their native country began after President Viktor Yanukovych reneged on a deal to sign a trade pact with the European Union and instead accepted financial aid from Russia. Ukraine gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

Last week, after months of demonstrations, police in Kiev used rubber bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades on the protesters, and two people were killed by gunfire. Also, the government passed laws against public assembly.

After that, activists in Philadelphia decided they needed to do more than gather in a city square.

Natalia Smybora, 27, from Montclair, N.J., who is studying political science and human rights at Rutgers University, said what was going on in Ukraine was a travesty.

"The Ukraine is a democratic state, and it's a basic human right for people to stand up for their rights," she said.

On Saturday, with riots spreading to other cities, Yanukovych offered to appoint a top opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, as prime minister. The opposition said it would consider the offer. "We are praying for the best," Smybora said, "and we will win."


kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232 @kathyboccella

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