Provo residents attend candlelight vigil with Ukrainian refugees to commemorate year since war began

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More than 100 people attended a candlelight vigil at Kiwanis Park in Provo in recognition of the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The event was hosted by UNITY for Ukraine, a non-profit organization working to help Ukrainian student refugees continue their education while they are displaced from their homes.

Nadia DeVol, the event coordinator for UNITY for Ukraine, joined the non-profit when they started it last October. While they have been active on social media for the past several months, this will be their first in-person event.

“On the surface and in the media, you see the war, but there are humans behind that,” DeVol said. “Not only is there a war, but there’s a refugee crisis that needs healing just as much as the war needs healing.”

UNITY for Ukraine invited several Ukrainian refugees to speak at the event to share their experiences with their American neighbors. The candlelight vigil was held outside in 40 degree weather, intentionally chosen to remind attendees what temperatures Ukrainian citizens have endured over the past six months.

Two fires were lit to help keep the crowd warm, along with complimentary hand warmers and hot chocolate.

The speakers spoke in their native Ukrainian tongue and a translator shared their words in English to ensure that everyone was able to hear the experience of the refugees.

Marianna Tronchuk, a refugee from Ukraine, spoke about what happened to her a year ago when the war first started. By the second week of fighting, her mother made her leave Vinnytsia, a city near the center of Ukraine, out of fear for her safety.

“I really love my country, and I wanted to stay there. I had plans like everyone else, but my mom wanted me to leave to go to Poland,” Tronchuk said. After arriving in Poland, the language barrier and the number of other refugees made it hard to find jobs.

While living in Ukraine, Tronchuk met with missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was baptized. After the war started, she turned to the scriptures — the one thing that could help calm her fears for her nation, her family and her future.

She said she found peace in Alma chapter 9, as Alma spoke about justice that would come for the wicked and how the righteous would be in heaven with God. “It’s OK. God is still with us,” Tronchuk said. “He’s going to help us, even when it feels like the world is going to fall apart.”

Some of the missionaries that taught Tronchuk reached out to her and offered to help her come to Utah. Tronchuk accepted their invitation. She had already finished community college at the Vinnytsia Professional College of Construction, Architecture and Design of KNUCA in Ukraine, and is currently attending BYU and studying graphic design.

“I really want to go to Ukraine, I want to go visit my family,” Tronchuk said. “I really miss them a lot. Since the war started, I understood how much I love and appreciate them. I really want to be close to them again.”

BYU junior Lauren Schmalz heard about the event from her Instagram feed. Schmalz came to the event to help spread awareness of the war that is still raging in Europe. “Awareness is a big thing,” she said, “especially with the world being ‘used to’ war. We need to make sure that we’re not.”

Schmalz said from the stories she has been reading, many people did not think that the Ukrainian people would be able to last three days fighting against Russia.

Okeksandr Lavrinenko arrived in the United States with his family six months after the war in Ukraine started. “We had hopes that it would be over very fast,” Lavrinenko said. His family still has a home in Ukraine, but he said that he had to think about his future and the future of his children.

Lavrinenko brought his family to Utah because he had served as a missionary in Provo and St. George when he was younger.

As the refugees reflected back on the anniversary of the war that drove them from their homes, they thanked their American friends for the support that they had shown them. “Ukraine is not broken, and we will win thanks to our American friends,” Tronchuk said. “The Ukrainian people will remember the support that Americans gave to help their families.”

Lavrinenko agreed with Tronchuk. “As a Ukrainian, I believe that the more support Ukraine gets, the better it will be. It can be a very long conflict, but it can be over soon. It’s possible.”

As the final speaker, Lavrinenko taught the group how to say Ukraine’s rallying cry, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!” or “Sláva Ukrayíni! Heróiam sláva!”

“It’s easy to forget if it’s not affecting you personally,” DeVol said, “and the only way for the Ukrainian people to feel supported is to not be forgotten.”

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