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Ukrainian Expo Helps Refugees Get Settled

On Feb. 11, the world marked the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

As the war drones on and fundraising slows, Eastern Europeans in Denver are taking it upon themselves to continue supporting Ukrainians still in-country and the refugees in their community.

“Unfortunately, the war has become background noise in a lot of news. It goes to bear in mind that war is still raging and Ukrainians still need help,” said Slava Fedorchuk, an operation and supplies manager for Sunflower Seeds Ukraine. “That’s why we’re here today trying to spread the word.”

Sunflower Seeds Ukraine was just one of the vendors present at the March 11 Ukrainian Denver Expo and Food Fest, held every second Saturday at 1373 N. Grant St. in Denver.  The organization is a volunteer-based nonprofit, with all donations used for purchasing protective gear—like knee pads, night vision devices and water filters—and providing medical and humanitarian aid. Through contact with family members and friends over in Ukraine, the organization learns what is most needed.

Fedorchuk said the organization got its name from a video that went viral at the beginning of the war in which a Ukrainian woman accosts a Russian soldier. She tells the soldier to put sunflower seeds in his pocket so that the symbol of the country will bloom when he dies. 

“What we are doing now is spreading seeds of health to basically make peace in Europe—defending not just our Motherland, but rather Europe as a whole and democracy,” Fedorchuk said. 

Along with Sunflower Seeds, the outdoor expo exhibits local Ukrainian-run businesses and nonprofits, allowing Denverites to discover and celebrate Ukrainian entrepreneurship, culture and people. 

“Ukraine made us into the people we are today,” said Andrew Iwasko, owner of Mountain to Mountain Coffee out of Dillon, Colorado.

He grew up in Kyiv until he was 18. When the war first broke out in 2022, he and others tried to figure out what roles they could play in this conflict to be of most use to their homeland. He asked himself, “What do I want to do, and how can I use that to help Ukraine?” 

“I feel like most people have exhausted their personal funds, so I needed to find a creative way to raise that money,” Iwasko said. “I figured coffee is a way to do that.” 

Iwasko donates a portion of Mountain to Mountain’s profits to the Eagle County nonprofit Limbs for Liberty, which brings Ukrainian amputees from the war to Colorado to get outfitted with a prosthetic before returning home. The coffee entrepreneur said that Ukrainians have been resilient throughout history, regardless of their occupier. 

“Someone’s always wanted to take over Ukraine. When shit hits the fan, we just have to keep powering through. And this case more so than ever shows me that here in the Denver community, it rallies on and supports. I talk to my cousins, my family back home, and they’re still running their businesses. They’re still living their lives. They’re still having birthday celebrations, so if they can do it, 100% we can do it,” Iwasko said.

Other vendors focus on the Ukrainians who have sought refuge in Colorado. Alex Boyko, who moved from Ukraine 25 years ago, runs a mental health clinic called the Denver and Aurora Recovery and Treatment Center, or DART Center. It works with mental health issues and substance use disorders. In these past months, he has received an influx of Ukrainian refugees trying to work through the trauma of the war. “My immigration was by choice. Now the immigration is by force,” Boyko said. “A lot of people are being forced to leave their country and to come here, and that makes the transition to life here all the harder.”

Natalia Devlin immigrated to Denver from Russia in 2004 and says a large part of the Russian community here in Colorado is rallying against the war. She is the Immigrants and Language Services Coordinator for Arapahoe Libraries, which is “all about” supporting new arrivals in the U.S.   

“We started getting requests from public schools, where somebody arrived from Ukraine—like a kid was enrolled in the school—and they wanted to welcome the kid with, maybe a book or two,” Devlin said. “[They wanted] something to make them feel comfortable as they’re getting acclimated.”

“The value of reading in their native language is really important to them,” Devlin said. “Many [Ukrainians], when immigrating here, only carried books because they knew they wouldn’t be able to get them here. If I can help someone get away from the trauma of leaving their country and war and into the magical world of a book in their own language, that makes me very happy.”

Boyko said the biggest support that people in Denver can offer to Ukrainian refugees is that sense of community. Especially within Ukrainian culture, he said, people are very willing to help and show unity for one another.

“It’s the sense of community that prompts people to feel more welcome, to feel more in place, more at peace with themselves,” Boyko said. “Healing from the trauma of the war, it takes time. We don’t see immediate results. But we do see people getting a little bit better and better every day, every month.”

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