The UCC’s

The UCC’s solidarity event was one of many that the culture center has held to help bring Ukrainians together as a unified community during the Russian invasion of their homeland.

When Laryssa Reifel was a young girl, she was raised learning the customs and cultural traditions of her parents and grandparents, who arrived in the United States from Ukraine in 1950. She attended Ukrainian school every weekend as well as Ukrainian dance classes and Ukrainian Scouts. Though she was born in Chicago, Ukrainian was Reifel’s first language. She learned English from Sesame Street.

Reifel’s connection to her Ukrainian heritage is both encompassing and emotional. Her grandparents were able to escape the country during the Nazi and communist invasions of WWII and made their way through Austria to Poland, where they lived in a deportation camp for two years. While half of her family escaped, the other half were murdered in a gulag in Siberia.

Throughout its history, Ukrainian culture has come under threat as invaders have looked to take control of the country. Today, Reifel watches on from the U.S. as the Russian state tries to undo the tremendous progress and success of independence that millions of Ukrainians have fought and died for over the past century and beyond.

“It’s been devastating for me personally because one of the great successes of my grandparents’ generation was not only that they built out all of the infrastructure for being Ukrainian in the diaspora, but they also were part of driving toward Ukrainian independence in 1991,” Reifel said.

“Our lives were very Ukrainian in America because they had to be, because Ukraine was occupied by the Soviets and so the only choice for the diaspora was to keep our culture, our language and our people alive outside the borders of our own country. When you grow up with that, it’s a tremendous responsibility. Millions and millions of people were murdered by the Russians, and so it becomes this obligation to carry on outside of the borders of Ukraine if you can.”

After moving to LA in 1998, Reifel became involved with the Ukrainian Culture Center and currently serves as president of the organization dedicated to preserving the history, art and culture of Ukraine. 

Southern California is home to one of the largest Ukrainian populations in the United States, many of whom either still have loved ones in Ukraine and can only communicate over the phone or have watched in anguish as a war ravages their home from halfway around the world.

“I would say the Ukrainian community here in LA is characterized by more recent immigrants as compared to the community I come from in Chicago,” Reifel said. “A lot of the ones that are here in LA came in the last 10 to 20 years, so they’re very tied to what’s going on there. They still have friends that they went to school with, and some have parents or grandparents there.

“For them, it’s really close to home, and when they call home and can’t get anybody to answer the phone for three days, it’s a total panic. Imagine doing that a couple of times a week and then sitting down on your couch and watching CNN. Everyone’s emotionally spent.”

After the Russian armed forces launched their first attack on the country on Feb. 24, the invasion of Ukraine has seen attacks on cities such as Odesa, Dnipro, Kharkiv and the capital, Kyiv, as well as the continued destruction of Mariupol, once home to roughly 440,000 people. The invasion has also caused the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians alike with little progress in the way of peace talks.

At the time of writing, more than a quarter of Ukrainians have now fled their homes, according to reports, as the Russian state continues its invasion under the guise of reunification.

“I come from generations of independent-minded Ukrainians who were never part of this story that we’re somehow Russian and part of the Russian historical saga,” Reifel said. “It’s all a lie, but that’s what imperialists do. They take over countries and they corrupt them, all the way down to stealing their history.”

Reifel and her team at UCC have been working tirelessly to help the Ukrainian community in LA. At one point, they worked 18-hour days for over a week and a half straight. 

The leadership team has held medical kit drives and a solidarity event at the center, which was on April 6 and saw 19 representatives of the LA council’s general in attendance, all while working jobs outside of the UCC.

“Suddenly this culture center has been at the epicenter of this for the entire community, and we have no paid staff,” Reifel explained. “We’re getting around 25 phone calls into the center every day, plus Facebook messages and emails. Overwhelmingly what we’re fielding is people wanting to give, which is fantastic. People are walking to the center with cash and they’re coming with clothing.”

While the sheer amount of support from various communities across LA County has been graciously welcomed by the UCC, the culture center is not a relief agency and Reifel insists that they cannot accept all forms of aid.

While those on the ground in Ukraine have urgently asked for medical equipment and military supplies, Reifel explains that people in Los Angeles can help by giving money to the Ukrainian National Bank and the military, attending rallies, and engaging with members of Congress to urge them to establish a no-fly zone over the country.

To learn more about the UCC, find upcoming events and support the Ukrainian community both in LA and overseas, visit ukrainianculturecenterla.com.

Ukrainian Culture Center LA

ukrainianculturecenterla.com