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Iowa Ukrainians reflect on the war in their home country

Kassidy Arena
Blue and yellow ribbons lined the square in Chariton in honor of its large Ukrainian community. The town was the home of a Ukrainian Cultural Festival for several years.

Chariton is the home of just a little more than 4,000 people. A few years ago, it was also home of a Ukrainian Cultural Festival in honor of the town's highly-concentrated population of Ukrainians. But this year, the perspective has shifted from celebration to solemnity as Ukraine’s independence is under threat.

Blue and yellow ribbons—the colors of the Ukrainian flag—line the square on every light post and gazebo rail. Just a few days ago, the entire town was invited for a group prayer on the square. Luda Kosmin was at the community-wide event.

“It was wonderful, because a lot of different churches spoke and prayed and supported us. I mean, they're wonderful people. I love our community here," Kosmin said. She added she feels at home in Chariton.

Kosmin was born in Bucha, a city in the northwest of Ukraine, when it was part of the Soviet Union. She moved to the U.S. when she was 15, so she can still remember the KGB coming to her house as a child.

There was a time, she recalled, when she was six years old and the KGB had come to her house after neighbors had turned them in for practicing their religion, which wasn't Russian Orthodox. They were Pentecostal. Kosmin remembered hiding under her bed while KGB agents questioned her parents.

Much of Bucha has now been attacked since Russian forces invaded Ukraine and went to war last month.

Serhii Nuzhnenko
People look at the gutted remains of Russian military vehicles on a road in the town of Bucha, close to the capital Kyiv, on March 1.

Kosmin nodded her head as she counted how many countries she has lived in. She and her family moved from Bucha, Ukraine, to Austria, to Italy and finally to the United States. Then from New York to Washington and finally, Iowa.

She said she is offering her heartfelt prayers for Ukrainians and Russians alike. She admits she honestly didn’t think hearing the news of war in Ukraine would affect her so deeply.

“At first I was like, you know, war. You know how you kind of don't have an idea at all? But then when it happened, it hit me bad and I don’t know…maybe because I kind of grew up there," she said.

It’s also hit Jacob Wagner. He’s from the capital city of Kiev and emigrated to the U.S. in the early 90s as a refugee. While talking in the basement of his Chariton church, he couldn’t help but to think about his extended family and friends who may be hiding in their own basements.

“It kind of reminds [of] those people that run ran down from the bombs in Ukraine, they spend their life sitting in a basement…Similar to this," he said.

His friend and brother-in-law Alex Primakov clarified: "Right now?"

Kassidy Arena
Alex Primakov is a pastor at Chariton's Slavic Pentecostal Church. Primakov said his father is a pastor for the more traditional-style church service, while he relates a bit more to the younger crowds.

"Right now," Wagner responded. "Yeah.”

Primakov and Kosmin are siblings. Wagner joked almost everyone in Chariton knows each other and almost all Ukrainians in Chariton are related in some way.

Primakov came to the U.S. when he was 8 years old.

"Everything was definitely different. I didn't even know that there was something outside. I was so young, but I didn't think there was anything different. I thought, you know, Soviet Union was the only thing," he remembered.

He thanked God his father had the courage to leave the Soviet Union, even though no one in the family could speak English. (Wagner said he learned English from listening to public radio while growing up in the projects.) On the flight to the U.S., Primakov recalled he had a little dictionary. But it was in German.

"So I was learning German on my way to the United States. Does that make any sense? But yeah, we're glad that we're here," he chuckled. "I want to thank all the Iowans [for] putting up with us and being patient with us. We had a lot of adjusting, you know? And I think from the Iowa side, I think they adjusted toward us."

Primakov’s father is considered the first Ukrainian to settle in Chariton, in the 90s. Eventually his family and friends followed him because, they say, rural Iowa reminds them of their home in Ukraine and it was free of religious persecution. Primakov and his father are now pastors at the Slovak Pentecostal Church.

Primakov said he’s always seen his home country of Ukraine and neighboring country of Russia sort of like siblings, so it’s hard to see the two fighting. But for Primakov, he doesn’t think the U.S. should get too involved in the dispute beyond sending humanitarian aid.

“Anything other than military because we get involved in a lot of places and a lot of people die. Right now a lot of people die, but it's just… it's going to be catastrophic. Right now it's a small war; it could be a huge war," he said.

He has heard about other places in the U.S. where people of Ukrainian descent and people of Russian descent are dividing up their communities. He urged people to remember that in his eyes, all people are children of God. And people need to listen and respect one another, no matter nationality.

Kassidy Arena
(From left to right) Luda Kosmin, Jacob Wagner and Alex Primakov pose for a photo in front of their church in Chariton. They are all originally from Ukraine, and all chose to live in the town that reminds them of their homes. Ukraine is often referred to as the "breadbasket" of Europe.

"My heart goes out for [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky. My heart goes out for Ukraine. My heart goes out also for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, because he's also a human being and for Russian people. My heart goes out for every single human being because we're all created in God's image," Primakov said.

He added he doesn’t know what will happen in the future, and he doesn’t know what he can really do to help right now. But there is one thing. He can pray for all those involved and support his community.

“Just let the Ukrainian people know that you guys are supporting them. And then, you know, at the same time, don't make a hater out of Russians, because the people, Russian people that are here, they had nothing to do with it," he said.

Wagner politely waited until his friend was done speaking before interjecting. He said he has a completely different opinion about U.S. involvement.

"I think what's going on right now is kind of an attack on a whole democracy," Wagner said.

If we don't stop him, Ukraine will not exist. He will eliminate Ukrainians as a nation.
Jacob Wagner

He said an important action the U.S. can take is helping establish a no-fly zone. The Biden administration has repeatedly said it would not do this, saying it could lead to a broader and more deadly war.

“A lot of people say, well, the United States has no business in Russia. Yes, we do. Because if we don't monitor them, they will come here, they will go to Ukraine, they'll create some kind of problems in the world that's automatically going to involve us," he said.

Wagner has friends in Ukraine right now, fighting for their democracy. One of his friends already sent his wife and children to Poland for safety.

"Every day, he talks and kind of updates me and it is kind of tough. It is tough what's going on there. But yeah, there's not much we can do. There's not much except pray and kind of wait for a moment," he said.

To show solidarity with Ukraine, Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division to pull Russian-made alcohol from store shelves.

Although Primakov understood the action, he urged people to do their research before taking a step to boycott a certain product or business. Sometimes, he explained, a product with what appears to be a Russian label could very well be Ukrainian, or even American.

Again, Wagner and Primakov had different perspectives on that.

"You see, this [is the] difference between me and Alex, if I have to stop eating Russian food, I will stop eating Russian food all the time. [Only] American food because Russian food will offend me," he explained.

The war in Ukraine hasn’t been an easy topic to discuss for many Ukrainians. Some in Chariton admitted they couldn't talk about it right now, it was just too soon. Even if people aren't yet able to talk about it, Wagner, Kosmin and Primakov all agree they love their community and will stick together.

The local school is organizing a way to help Ukrainians, and so are other individuals, other churches, other towns.

"When I speak, chills [are] going through my body. Like these people, strangers, and willing to help from good, kind heart," he said. He held his hand over his heart in demonstration. "One good thing Putin did, he united the Ukrainians. Almost united the whole world."

Kosmin said she holds all the people involved in the war in her heart.

"It's really hard," she said. "I'm thinking like, How can I help? But praying is the only thing I can do. I mean, I can send money and we did. We did send a lot of money but but it's just hard to get the financials to certain places right now."

Kassidy Arena
Primakov lived in Des Moines for a while, but he said it wasn't for him. He and his ten children hope the town will stay small. "We love the people. And the community has just been great to us," he said.

Primakov and Wagner are ready to help rebuild their home country if the opportunity arises. Wagner said he wants his four children to walk on the same ground he did when he grew up. He plans to start some sort of fund to send to Ukraine to help rebuild. If Ukraine survives, he said, it could be a completely different country.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines