Ukrainian-Americans Watch as Russian Conflict Grows
Legend has it that the first Ukranian to arrive in the New World was Levrenty Bohun, a doctor who accompanied Capt. John Smith to Jamestown, Virginia in 1608.
The Ukrainian embassy in Washington admits it is just a legend, but it illustrates the long-standing ties between the two countries.
Today, close to 1 million people of Ukrainian origin live in the United States and they're closely following their country's ties with another super power: Russia.
Dr. Olya Zaporozhets, assistant professor of counseling at Regent University, grew up in Ukraine and still has family there. As the conflict has grown, she has monitored developments closely, often checking the Ukrainian press online several times a day.
"This is the country that's in my heart," she explained. "It's the most dearest country to me-it's my home."
Although her parents live just a few hours from the border of Crimea, Zaporozhets said she doesn't fear for their safety, at least not right now.
In Atlanta, Irina Levterova does fear for her brother, an attorney, who lives in Kiev and recently found himself involved in the conflict helping the injured.
"He's my only sibling," she said. "I worry about him being in front of the special forces. I worry about him doing something heroic and getting injured or worse."
For many Ukrainians, the current conflict brings fears of history repeating itself, of times past when borders were disregarded and minor disagreements escalated. The Crimean War, in fact, started in 1854 after a dispute over church keys.
Even so, Zaporozhets says, Russia's invasion of Crimea caught many off-guard.
"None of us could truly believe that Russia would attack us because we've always been thinking of us as brother nations and people who fought world wars together, who developed our countries together, who rebuilt our countries," she said. "We married-there are so many connections."
Many Ukrainians fear Sunday's referendum is carefully staged and the outcome pre-determined. Zaporozhets believes Russian President Vladmir Putin will not stop with Crimea.
"He wants to fight," she said. "He wants the entire Ukrainian territory. He wants it being subdued to Russia."
Dimitri Lotovski protested against the Soviet Union in the 1990s, before he and his family left for the United States. Today he believes, Russia is headed toward fascism.
"The signs are right there," he said. "Annexing Ukraine. Controlling media. Replacing communism with nationalism and persecuting minorities."
For Lotovski, Zaporozhets, Levterova and other Ukrainian Americans, it's a time of great concern. And despite social media and other technology connecting them to Ukraine, the conflict remains one they can only watch from afar.