Sarah Swistak was a senior reporter and weekend anchor for KAAL-TV News in Rochester from 2008 to 2011. Few people then knew of her Ukrainian roots. Most would have struggled to pin the country on a map.
Today, a transformation is taking place in the midst of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine: the world’s understanding of who the Ukrainian people are. In war, it has forged a national identity globally that it didn’t have before.
Long overshadowed by their country’s history as a satellite state of the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, Ukrainians are writing a new narrative as a people who, having tasted independence and freedom, are determined to defend those values.
They have so far fought the numerically superior and better equipped Russian army to a standstill in many places, even as Russian artillery and missiles destroy its cities and villages and kill its people.
Now living in Mason, Mich., a suburb outside Lansing, with her husband and two children, Swistak (her last name is now Treacher) gets news about what’s happening in her ancestral homeland from a variety of sources. They include her Ukrainian relatives in the country where air raid sirens, indiscriminate shelling and bombing are daily occurrences.
One of her cousins, Olya Melnyk, a resident of the capital Kyiv, is hunkered down in a church basement with her husband while Russian forces bomb and encircle the city. Melnyk has told Swistak that she won’t flee the city, even if it costs her her life.
This interview with Swistak has been edited for length.
What is your connection to Ukraine?
I’m kind of unique in that both of my parents are just about 100 percent Ukrainian. My maternal grandmother emigrated from there during World War II when she was a teenager. They fled in the middle of the night after Germany invaded Russia and Ukraine was caught in the middle. They took only what they could carry and a cow. And then they sold the cow when they got to the train station and made their way over to the U.S.
Have you been to Ukraine yourself?
Yes. I went somewhere in 1996, ‘97. My grandmother wanted us to see the village outside Lviv where she was born and lived before she died. She had a flair for the dramatic. She wasn’t anywhere close to dying. She passed away last year. So she had a long and healthy life.
Her struggles to be free and escape oppression only intensified that pride in being Ukrainian, and helped transfer it to the next generation. I am extremely proud to be Ukrainian. I still cook Ukrainian dishes for my family. Growing up, I always thought it made me sort of unique, to be from an area that not many people had heard of. It was and is a great source of pride for me.
Are you sensing this transformation in how people are viewing the Ukrainian people?
I’m surprised how many people remember I’m Ukrainian. I’ve heard from people from elementary school. I’m like, was that even a topic of conversation? They’ve reached out to me to say that they’re praying for me and my family.
I think a lot of people are blown away by the people’s sense of nationalism, that they’re staying and fighting and holding their ground. They’d rather be free or die trying. I think that’s resonated with a lot of people.
That’s nothing new. It was that way even when I visited. I remember we were walking through Kyiv when my grandmother, my Baba, heard someone speaking Russian. My grandmother was the sweetest little old lady. But I remember her whipping on her heel and turning to this person and yelling at them in Ukrainian, “We fought so hard for our freedom. Be proud to be Ukrainian. Don’t speak Russian.”
What are you hearing from your relatives in Ukraine?
I have a cousin who is taking shelter in the basement of a church and finding opportunities when they can to buy groceries. They also find other people who need help and bring them to the basement with them.
So it’s scary. But the Ukrainian people are so proud to be free. They’re very proud of their country. I messaged my cousin and said, “Are you staying? Are you going to flee?” And she’s very resolute. “We’re staying. This is our country. And we will fight to defend it.” It gives me goosebumps even saying it out loud. She’s prepared to die to defend her country and her freedom.
How are you reacting to what you’re seeing and reading about what’s going on in Ukraine?
There’s like a complete dichotomy for me, because there’s still the journalist side who wants to know, has to know what’s happening. And then there’s another part of me that after I’ve been watching for awhile, I just get sick because I’m not in constant contact with my family there. Sometimes, the whole day will pass before I’m able to get a response back. Am I not getting a response because you’re busy or because something’s happened to you? There are times when it’s just too overwhelming.
What are you learning about the war from talking to your relatives in Ukraine?
It just seems terrifying when I talk to them. They talk about the air raid sirens going off, and how they have to go into hiding. And they talk about tanks rolling through the streets. And they hear the loud boom from the bombs and don’t know how close or far away they are. You don’t have anything to gain by bombing some of these villages. They’re not a strategic target. I’ll take them forever to rebuild even if they make it back.
Do you take heart from heart from the resilience and strength the Ukrainian people have displayed?
It makes me so proud that they value their sovereignty that much, that their country means that much to them. Such a beautiful country. That it means that much that you are willing to risk it all, because very few people would make that sacrifice. On the human side, I’m thinking, “Please, just get out of there! I love you. And I just want you to be safe.”
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