‘Faith in the future.’ Ukrainians prepare to celebrate their first Easter in Chicago after fleeing Russian war.

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As the mother’s fingertips touched the soft buds of a pussy willow branch blessed by a priest a few minutes prior, the familiar texture took her back to her homeland, war-torn Ukraine.

To begin Holy Week, 48-year-old Bohdana Stasiv and her son Maksim, 24, celebrated Palm Sunday at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood.

The mother and son are preparing for their first Easter in the safety and refuge of the United States since fleeing the war and arriving in Chicago in October.

“It is not hard to celebrate here, because all of the traditions are offered to us,” Bohdana said after church, speaking through an interpreter. “It reminds me of what is back home, and it makes me feel at home.”

Since palm trees don’t typically grow in the colder climate of Eastern Europe, Ukrainians have traditionally substituted pussy willows during the Palm Sunday observance. The ritual blessing of willow branches, a Ukrainian symbol of spring and rebirth, has been passed down for generations, Bohdana said.

Maksim added that he associates pussy willows — which adorned the cathedral and were distributed to parishioners after the service — with the coming resurrection of Christ.

“The willow tree was dormant during the wintertime,” he said. “And Christ was in the tomb and He rose on the third day. In the springtime, (the willow) blooms and offers us a time to reflect and to have faith in the future.”

The mother and son came from a small town called Stryi, about 40 miles from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv near the Polish border.

As Russian missiles rained down on their country, Maksim’s health was deteriorating.

He suffers from short bowel syndrome, a condition where the body can’t properly absorb fluids and nutrients, which can result in malnutrition or death. Logistical problems and damaged infrastructure amid the war made it increasingly difficult for him to access lifesaving medications.

Every day, Maksim needs to take total parenteral nutrition, liquid nutrients administered intravenously, to avoid malnourishment. Without it, he fell ill and was admitted to a hospital in Poland for several weeks in September.

After regaining his strength, he and his mother flew from Poland to Chicago, where he was treated at Stroger Hospital and has since been released.

“Now my health is better, because I take the medicine that I need,” said Maksim, who lives with his mother in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood.

Yet they constantly worry about their family and loved ones back home, particularly Maksim’s father, who is still living in Ukraine.

It is difficult for the mother and son to see media images of the devastation in their country. Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago, and there are no signs of cease-fire for Easter.

“It shouldn’t be this way in the 21st century,” Bohdana said.

As is the custom, after church they gently tapped one another with the willow branches and recited a common saying, which roughly translates as: “It is not me hitting you. It is the willow hitting you. In a week, it will be Easter.”

They bought a Ukrainian Easter bread, called a paska, at the cathedral. They plan to return to church with an Easter basket, to have it blessed by a priest.

When Bohdana was a child, these rites and all religious practices were forbidden under the regime of the Soviet Union. She recalled harboring willows branches and Easter baskets in secret, years before Ukraine declared independence in 1991.

“These traditions we continue here, from back home, are absolutely necessary ... to carry through to the future,” Maksim said.

‘Small part of eternity’

Halia Didula returned to Ukraine to celebrate a wedding.

Instead, she grieved at a funeral.

The 25-year-old had moved from Lviv to Chicago in August to study social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, on a two-year scholarship that had been planned since 2020.

Halia had shared her story with the Tribune in February, at the one-year anniversary of the war, as she was preparing to travel home to attend her sister Ganusya’s wedding in March.

The marriage was to be a simple church ceremony, no party after, because her sister’s fiance, Dmitriy, was fighting in the Ukrainian army.

In early March, when 23-year-old Ganusya picked Halia up from an airport in Poland, she seemed distraught. She had seen her fiance two weeks earlier, but he had been preoccupied with military operations since then, and their contact had been brief and infrequent.

A few days later, they learned that Dmitriy had been killed by a Russian drone attack.

“For me, it was the hardest time in my life,” Halia said. “I knew that Dmitriy was killed and I knew that (my sister) would never be as happy as she was with him.”

That first night after his death, a tearful Ganusya awakened Halia.

“Please hug me,” Halia remembered her saying. “I can’t close my eyes, because Dmitriy is always in my mind. I still see him.”

The soldier’s funeral was attended by thousands, with mourners spilling out behind the pews, Halia said.

Halia recalled going on a walk alone with Dmitriy just before he went off war. He told her he didn’t want to fight but felt he had to, that it was his responsibility to defend her, her sister and their families.

“He was always saying this is the only way he could live during the war, to be a soldier,” Halia said. “He could not imagine to live as a civilian.”

Now Halia is back in Chicago, but she plans to take a leave of absence from school when the semester concludes in May and to move back home.

Life is so uncertain in Ukraine: Missiles could kill her family and friends at any moment, she said, and she wants to spend as much time as possible with her loved ones.

She plans to spend Easter at St. Nicholas, which is near her Ukrainian Village apartment.

“For me, Easter is the example,” she said. “Jesus was killed for us, and we should be strong in our life and live for Him.”

Her grief, in some ways, has strengthened her faith.

“This life is just a small part of eternity,” she said. “If I am Christian and I really believe, I should believe that Dmitriy is happy, that he is risen. He was defending us and the value of freedom, as God gives freedom to everyone.”

Trauma of war

The first explosions sounded like a double boom on Feb. 24, 2022.

The blasts awakened Marianna Slyvka around dawn. Still groggy, she and her husband peered out the window of their fifth-floor apartment in Kyiv, saw nothing out of the ordinary and went back to bed.

There was another pair of explosions, followed by a few more. Then she stopped counting.

The Slyvkas were stunned to learn that Russia had invaded Ukraine, launching the largest ground war in Europe since World War II.

For several days, the couple and their three children — ages 12, 6 and 3 — stayed at a crowded bomb shelter at a local school. By night, when the Russian fire typically quelled, they returned home and slept in their hallways, away from any windows or doors in case of an attack.

Their 3-year-old had recently been sick with lung inflammation and was still on antibiotics. The breathing conditions in the shelter weren’t ideal, and they worried his health would suffer. The family left Kyiv a few days after the invasion and drove to the home of Marianna’s in-laws, near the border of Moldova.

As they left the nation’s capital, one side of the highway was “completely packed with civilian vehicles, bumper to bumper, for days,” Marianna said, through an interpreter.

On the other side, the family saw an enormous line of new Ukrainian tanks heading into the city. Ukrainian military planes flew close to the ground, whirring overhead.

A few days later, the family left Ukraine through Romania and continued driving until they arrived in Germany in early March, where a former classmate of Marinna’s husband greeted them.

As they drove across Europe, volunteers offered them food and drinks every time they stopped the car, Marianna said.

“The heroism that I had seen in Ukrainian people … in just a couple of days, people got together and started organizing to defend their home,” she said. “And in that same time, complete strangers all around the world and in Europe were very, very willing to help us in any way they could.”

More than 8 million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded in Europe since the war began, according to United Nations data.

The Slyvkas lived in Germany until August, when a family friend in northwest suburban Crystal Lake sponsored them for entry into the United States via the Uniting for Ukraine program, a fast-tracked process the Biden administration launched in response to the war almost a year ago.

They settled in northwest suburban Niles. Marianna’s husband, who used to own a small clothing manufacturing business in Ukraine, now works as a truck driver.

She said her younger two children initially struggled due to the trauma of war. Her 6-year-old son would pick at his cuticles anxiously, until they were raw and bleeding. At first he didn’t want to go to kindergarten, saying he had no friends, she said.

Her 3-year-old son began having tantrums if even the slightest thing didn’t go his way, like dropping a cracker. These were behaviors they hadn’t exhibited before the war and the family’s evacuation under duress, she said.

But Marianna said the boys are both much happier now; her kindergartner made several friends and ends every school day with a smile.

Although her family is thriving in the Chicago area, she’s always scared for her loved ones back home.

Marianna used to send them photos of her kids before going to bed.

“Then I’d wake up in the morning to the news that there was a bombing and this civilian building is gone, or this residence or school building got bombed,” she said. “So I had a very difficult time knowing that my children were here, safe and happy, but that everything in Ukraine is being destroyed. Now I made a new routine where in the morning, I check the news. If everything is fine, I send the pictures.”

The Slyvkas are Orthodox Christians and will celebrate Easter on April 16, in accordance with the Julian calendar, which is also observed by millions of Serbians, Russians, Greeks, Romanians and other ethnicities around the world.

The family plans to worship at Holy Protection Parish of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in the Humboldt Park area.

In Ukraine, the family would have gathered with a large crowd of extended relatives and friends. This year, the celebration will likely only include the five of them.

Per tradition, Marianna intends to dye Easter eggs using the skins of red onions. The custom goes that on Easter, everyone grabs an egg and tries to crack the eggs of other family members, while declaring, “Christ is risen!”

The owner of the last egg to remain unscathed is said to have a special blessing, “so we make sure the kids win,” Marianna said, laughing.

“These traditions were passed down to us from the people that came before us,” she said. “We have a responsibility to pass them down ourselves, seeing as nothing — not even the Soviet Union or anything else — could destroy them. So why would we let them slip away now?”