Tuesday, December 6, 2022
Dec. 6, 2022

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Ukrainian immigrants in Clark County fear for homeland

Pastor recalls Soviet rule, worries for relatives’ safety

By , Columbian staff writer
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Paul Demyanik, pastor at Ukrainian Baptist Church, pauses for a portrait in his church's sanctuary in northeast Vancouver. He fears for those in his homeland if Russia takes over the country.
Paul Demyanik, pastor at Ukrainian Baptist Church, pauses for a portrait in his church's sanctuary in northeast Vancouver. He fears for those in his homeland if Russia takes over the country. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As the Russian government moves into Ukraine, local Ukrainian immigrants fear for the freedoms of their friends and family.

“Every one of us does have a connection with our relatives,” said Paul Demyanik. “We know truth not from the television or internet; we are calling and writing to our relatives.”

Demyanik’s wife talked to a family member in Ukraine just two days ago. He told her of the companies and embassies fleeing eastern Ukraine.

“It’s big pressure, especially for the kids, because all the news said was ‘be ready,’” said Demyanik.

He’s heard other stories of older Ukrainians promising to stay in their homes.

“Freedom costs, and we will pay that cost,” Demyanik’s heard the older generations say.

“We are praying for them,” he said.

Demyanik is the pastor at the Ukrainian Baptist Church in Vancouver. His church opened in 1997 to help the Ukrainian community.

“Many other people came from the Ukraine, and we got a church to help them to know what to do and how to start a new life in the United States,” said Demyanik.

Now the congregation has more than 200 adults and children. Some came to the area after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some, like Demyanik and his family, immigrated as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Demyanik was born and raised in a small city in the southwest of Ukraine. He grew up in a Christian family and finished school while the country was still part of the Soviet Union.

His parents were persecuted all the time, he said.

His mother was hired to be a typist. But often, when her employer discovered she was a Christian, she lost her job. The same happened to Demyanik’s father, who was persecuted by the KGB, the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency. Demyanik’s father raised him to listen to the Voice of America radio service.

“If I want to know a truth, I should listen to the Voice of America,” Demyanik recalls his father saying, adding his father taught him that Russian media was “fake.”

“It’s the same with Russia today,” said Demyanik.

When asked if he’d experienced persecution when Ukraine was under Soviet rule, Demyanik laughed. “Absolutely, yes.”

Demyanik told a story of buying train tickets for a man who wanted to go to the place where two Christian brothers were being imprisoned. Buying train tickets in the Soviet Union was difficult, but Demyanik knew a way. The two men met for Demyanik to hand off the tickets. They’d only discussed the arrangement previously on the phone.

“I turned around, and two guys came to me and said, ‘Hey, go with us,’ ” recalled Demyanik, remembering the men showing their KGB credentials. They interrogated him about the call and who he bought the tickets for. “That was in 1985.”

The KGB threatened to send people to Siberia, said the pastor. Demyanik knew people who were sent there.

“It’s the reason why our people are so afraid. Because Putin brings that style of life.”

Russian President Vladamir Putin has called the Soviet collapse a tragedy.

“For us, it’s best what was done,” said Demyanik.

Christians weren’t able to practice their faith openly under Soviet control. They worshipped in small in-home faith groups. Other churches that were allowed to operate openly weren’t allowed to invite in outsiders. Doing so could result in prison time.

But that has all changed.

There are not many Protestants in Russia, said Demyanik, while Ukraine has a large sampling of Protestant denominations and a large Protestant population.

“You can preach, you can work, you can open churches. It’s freedom,” said Demyanik.

Demyanik moved with his wife and two small children to the United States in March 1991.

“We came with two suitcases, without money,” he recalled. He worked in plumbing before opening his own auto body and used car repair shop, which he still runs today.

Demyanik’s children graduated from Prairie High School before going on to finish their educations at the University of Washington and Washington State University.

“When you came to the United States, especially from the Soviet Union, you saw a totally light life,” said the pastor. “People can do what they wish. You can work, you can make money.”

The same has been true in Ukraine. But with Russia making moves into the country, Demyanik fears for his people.

“We are afraid because when Russia moves in, we are losing freedom, freedom for all, for the Christian, for other people.”

The Ukrainian-American Cultural Association of Oregon and SW Washington connects Ukrainians from numerous faiths. The association is gathering medical supplies to send to hospitals and the army in their homeland.  The association will also be hosting a prayer service later this week.