Demonstrators, including members of Western North Carolina's large East European community, rally Saturday in Asheville's Pack Square Park to express solidarity with Ukraine as its people resist Russian military invasion. Photo courtesy of Eduard Chernous

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Western North Carolina is home to thousands of East European immigrants who have spent the last week glued to screens — watching their former homes become the setting for the worst attack on European soil in decades.  

“You’re first worried — you’re trying to contact and make sure people are safe, that they’ve got enough money, enough provision,” said Eduard Chernous of Buncombe County, who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine when he was a child. His fiancée and several family members currently live in Ukraine. 

“There’s always a sense of hysteria in the beginning.”

Chernous first heard that Russian President Vladimir Putin executed attacks on Ukraine in the early morning of Feb. 24 from a fellow Ukrainian American friend.

After the friend explained what happened, Chernous opened Telegram, the app he uses to message people overseas, and found several missed calls from his Ukrainian friends and family. 

“It was all kind of like zero to 100 really quick,” he said. 

The next week, Chernous said, was saturated with phone calls to family in Ukraine, figuring out how to help his home country and countless hours of prayer. On Feb. 26, he helped lead a demonstration in downtown Asheville’s Pack Square Park, where roughly 200 people gathered in solidarity with Ukraine. 

“My main mission in all this is not to only provide physical needs and emotional needs but also provide a real hope for people because right now that’s what they’re needing,” Chernous said. 

America responds

Also in the aftermath of Russia’s first attacks, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said killed numerous Ukrainian military members and civilians, U.S. lawmakers imposed sanctions on Russia. 

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order Monday that directed the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission to review and suspend any products made by Russian entities. The order also called for the state’s purchase and contract division to terminate contracts with Russian entities as soon as possible. 

“This order sends a strong message and helps ensure no public dollars or operations from North Carolina will benefit Russia and its unjustified aggression,” Cooper said. 

Some Ukrainian immigrants, such as Vasyl Shymonyak, member at large for the Ukrainian Association of North Carolina, said moves like this aren’t all for naught. 

“It’s better than nothing,” Shymonyak said. “You have to remember some symbols are very important to Russia.”

Shymonyak, who immigrated to the U.S. from western Ukraine in the late ’90s, helped organize a Feb. 26 demonstration in Raleigh, where he lives. More than 300 people attended, he said. 

Before the demonstration, however, Shymonyak said he didn’t look away from his computer screen after hearing about the attacks.  

“I was sitting by the computer, calling friends, calling relatives, to see what is going on,” he said. “(I was) trying to figure out what we need to do in the future, what kind of help people need there. That’s all I did for four days.”

Eastern Europeans in North Carolina 

North Carolina has a sizable Eastern European population, with census data showing more than 37,000 immigrants from the area throughout the state. That’s about 4% of North Carolina’s total foreign-born population. 

In Western North Carolina, however, Eastern Europeans constitute roughly 9% of the region’s foreign-born population, which accounts for about 4% of WNC’s total population, according to census data. 

Almost a third of Eastern Europeans in Western North Carolina immigrated from Ukraine.

Women hold up signs expressing their opposition to war and solidarity with Ukraine during a rally Saturday in Asheville’s Pack Square Park. Photo courtesy of Eduard Chernous

Chernous said he and his family have several friends who also immigrated from Ukraine in Buncombe County. They also have friends who immigrated from other Eastern European countries, such as Moldova and Russia. 

“We have a really big community as a whole,” Chernous said. “It’s very tightknit.”

Similarly, Andrey Medvedev regularly gathers with fellow Eastern European immigrants at Russian Chapel Hills, a vineyard he owns in Polk County.

Medvedev immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 2009 for two reasons: He wanted to start a winery in the United States and was anxious about Russia’s political future.

When he found out Putin invaded Ukraine last week, Medvedev, who fought for the Soviet army in Afghanistan from 1985-87, said he was shocked. 

“I’m against war,” he said. “I don’t want war anymore. I know war. I have touched it with my hands. I know what it is in reality, not on a TV screen.

“I’ve got many friends who are now Ukrainians, who were my brothers in Afghanistan. We saw the war together, shoulder to shoulder. And now my country is fighting these people — I cannot stand it.”

Shymonyak said he feels similar disbelief, but more so, he feels angry. 

“There are no words to describe it,” he said about watching the attacks unfold in his home country. 

“Honestly, there are no words. You feel so mad. I can’t even describe it. I’ve never had the feeling before.”

What can you do?

If you’re interested in assisting humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, here’s a list of some organizations accepting donations:

Shelby Harris

Shelby Harris a Carolina Public Press staff writer, based in Asheville. Email her at sharris@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her.