Ukraine’s fight ‘stirs our souls’: Utahns stand in solidarity, denounce ‘mad man’ Putin

Resettlement agencies say it’s too soon to predict whether Ukrainians fleeing the crisis will end up in Utah

As the sun set on the steps of the Utah Capitol on Monday, golden light filtered through dozens of blue and yellow Ukrainian flags flying over the heads of Utahns — and Ukrainians — who had come to show their solidarity for the country that’s under siege from Russia’s military.

An estimated 2,000 people gathered on the steps to stand with Ukraine, along with state leaders including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Senate President Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

“Our Ukrainian friends are reminding us what it means to be American,” Cox said in his speech to the crowd. “They need us. They need a united us. They need the best of us. And we need them.”

He also had a message for Russian civilians: “We do not hold you responsible for the actions of a mad man.” He urged them to push back. “We know your lives are in danger ... You’re putting your own lives at risk to stand up to a dictator, and we need your help to stop him.”

Cox said images of the horror are coming from Ukraine as innocent lives are lost, homes are destroyed and families are broken apart, and Ukrainians are “meeting their moment in ways that have brought tears to all of our eyes.”

“It is breathtaking, and it is inspiring. Famous people. Regular people. Ambassadors. Boxers. School teachers. Moms. Dads. Presidents. All standing up to a maniacal, powerful tyrant,” Cox said. “We’ve watched them fight. It has stirred our souls.”

But it’s more than a “great underdog story,” the governor added. “I believe Ukrainians are fighting for the very things that sit at the foundation of our own country. ... They’re fighting for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Cox, while urging Utahns and Americans to put their differences aside and unite for Ukraine and the fight for freedom, announced that for the second time in Utah’s history, Monday night “we will light the Capitol” with Ukraine’s blue and yellow colors. The only other time it has been done was for the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

Alexandra V. and Dima P. hold a sign during a prayer to support Ukraine at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“Tonight I ask that we follow the example of our brave sisters and brothers in Ukraine and recommit ourselves to self-evident truth and unalienable rights,” Cox said. “May we pledge our lives and our souls to uniting them and joining them in the fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Wilson, Adams, Henderson and Mendenhall also spoke at the rally, sharing similar messages of unity and love for Ukrainians.

Henderson, quoting Sen. Mitt Romney, called Putin a “small, evil, feral-eyed man,” and said he “deserves every bit of scorn and condemnation for his evil actions.” However, Henderson added “we’ve seen bravery by some of the people in Russia who have taken to the streets in protest against his lies and aggression.”

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“They too will suffer the consequences of this unprovoked war with Ukraine, so please keep the Russian people close to your heart as well,” Henderson said. “We’ll stand tall with anyone who has the moral courage to fight for freedom, justice, and higher ideals in the face of a bitter tyrant.”

Many who came to the rally carried signs reading “Down with Putin” and “No War,” along with posters of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s face and his now world famous quote, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Dozens of Utah lawmakers also stood on the steps, at one point unraveling and standing under rolls of paper to represent Ukraine’s flag.

During the rally, a violinist played Ukraine’s national anthem. Some voices in the crowd could be heard singing the anthem as she played. The crowd also broke out into several chants, including one to “stop Putin” and another for Zelenskyy.

Governor orders Ukrainian flag be flown over the Utah Capitol

Earlier Monday, the Utah Legislature unanimously voted in favor of a resolution to denounce “Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine.” The governor also ordered the Ukrainian flag to fly over the Utah Capitol.

‘It’s insane’

To Sergiy Gamanyuk, a man who moved from the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv about five years ago, the rally in Utah’s capital of Salt Lake City was a physical representation of the love and support Ukraine’s allies are sending from around the globe. Even in Utah, a western state of about 3.2 million people.

“It’s very important for them to hear the support,” he said, adding that he wished the U.S. could do more, perhaps by offering supplies, medical support and more.

He, too, came to support his country, his family and his friends who are now trying to survive “in these dark times ... this unprovoked and completely fascist invasion from the government of Russia,” he said.

“I talk to them every day,” Gamanyuk said of his friends and family in Ukraine, who he said are hiding in basements to stay safe because the majority of the bunkers in his city became rusted after World War II.

Yevgen Kovalov holds a Ukraine flag in front of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“It’s very hard ... it’s insane.”

He said he scours the news and checks in constantly on their safety. “I’m trying to be there for them. We’ll see what’s going to happen, but I hope it’s going to stop.”

He was momentarily at a loss for words when asked what can be done for them.

“Somehow, stop Putin,” he said. “I don’t know.”

But then he added Western society — “free society” — must try to “talk to every possible person in Russia right now and help them understand what’s actually going on, because propaganda” from the Russian government is “insane.”

“There’s a lot of smart people, a lot of good people over there who just do not understand, do not know what is going on,” Gamanyuk said.

A Utah man, Gary Nilsen, of Taylorsville, carried two small Ukrainian flags in his hands as he stood on the steps among the crowd. He spoke in a quiet voice, compelled to show his support for a country on the other side of the world but close to his heart.

Nilsen called the Russian government’s actions “atrocious.”

“It tears my heart up to see this happening,” Nilsen said, but he added he’s “inspired” by Zelenskyy and “the army of people that are defending the country. I pray for them from the depths of my heart.”

Looking around at the rally, Nilsen said “the support in Utah is probably as strong as anywhere in the world.”

“Look at the people here tonight. Nothing but God-fearing, patriotic, freedom-loving people. What a wonderful tribute,” he said. “I just hope and pray that cooler minds prevail over there. ... I hope Putin sees the damage that he’s doing to his country, to his fellow men, as well as to Ukrainians, and he will sue for peace.”

Gov. Spencer J. Cox speaks to hundreds of people gathered to support Ukraine at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Is Utah going to receive refugees from Ukraine?

The invasion of Ukraine has left hundreds of thousands displaced.

According to estimates from the U.N. and the International Rescue Committee, about 100,000 people have been internally displaced since Russian forces invaded — meaning they have been forced to flee their homes but are still in Ukraine — while up to 520,000 made it across the border and are applying for asylum in European countries.

In the coming weeks, the U.N. expects that number to shoot up to 4 million.

On Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden Administration was “certainly prepared” to take in Ukrainian refugees, but officials “expect that most, if not the majority, will want to go to Europe or neighboring countries.”

In Utah, resettlement agencies say it’s too soon to predict whether any Ukrainians fleeing the crisis will end up in the Beehive State. If they do, it won’t happen soon, as the refugees have just begun a resettlement process that can sometimes take years.

“The reality of us getting Ukrainian refugees at this time is probably pretty low,” said Natalie El-Deiry, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City.

As opposed to the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan, where in a matter of days thousands of people were granted humanitarian parolee status and ushered through the gates of the Kabul airport, most of these refugees will go through a far more prolonged process.

Humanitarian parolees likely meet the qualifications for a special immigrant visa, but in the case of Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy did not have time to process their paperwork during the evacuation.

The refugees fleeing violence in Ukraine, however, will go through the traditional vetting process that typically takes between 18 to 36 months. Even then, with neighboring countries willing to accept Ukrainians, most will probably choose to stay in Eastern Europe.

“The preference of individuals is to still remain somewhat close to home,” El-Deiry said.

That’s assuming those fleeing violence can’t return to Ukraine — “the hope is always that they can return home,” El-Deiry said. And given how fast the situation is unfolding, with over 500,000 people displaced in just five days, the humanitarian crisis could spiral, opening new pathways for resettlement similar to what happened in Afghanistan.

“Currently, we don’t know how the situation in Ukraine will impact refugee resettlement in the United States, or specifically in Utah,” Catholic Community Services of Utah said in a statement. “Should the situation in Europe escalate to the point of resettling Ukrainian refugees in the United States, Catholic Community Services of Utah’s Migration and Refugee Services team is eager and ready to assist however possible.”

Both the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services are currently working to provide humanitarian assistance like food, shelter and clothing to Ukrainian refugees. Both organizations say the best way to help is to donate, and “educate yourself, and truly understand what the conflict is about,” said El-Deiry.

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Sophia Baikoush, left, holds a flag of Ukraine at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Where are the Ukrainian refugees being resettled?

Most refugees are currently in Poland, where officials recently said they could field up to 1 million refugees as the invasion unfolds. Around 280,000 have been settled in the country so far, according to the latest count from the U.N. Human Rights Council.

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The U.N. estimates 36,400 are currently in Moldova, 32,500 in Romania and 30,000 in Slovakia.

Hungary reversed course on its yearslong opposition to accepting refugees, often coming from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and opened its borders to nearly 84,500 Ukrainians as of Monday, a figure that includes third-country nationals that can prove Ukrainian residency.

In a joint statement, the Salt Lake City Catholic Diocese and Catholic Community Services urged leaders around the world to prepare to resettle refugees fleeing the violence.

“We join with Pope Francis in his call for prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine and the protection of innocent lives. We encourage our government leaders to welcome any Ukrainian refugees displaced by these senseless acts of aggression and urge people to aid our Ukrainian brothers and sisters by donating to the efforts of Catholic Relief Services, which is already serving people in need in Ukraine. Should the situation escalate to the point of resettling Ukrainian refugees in the United States, Catholic Community Services of Utah’s Migration and Refugee Services team is eager to assist.”

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