By Jack Quach
On March 12, Bogdan Koval sat with his aunt on a Saturday afternoon, the blue and yellow of Ukraine’s flag draped across his shoulders. A small group of fellow Ukrainians surrounds him on a park bench among the pollarded elms of the Music Concourse in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Underneath the bright hues of the midday sky, a light, crisp breeze carries the notes of an approaching spring season.
But on that day, it was hard for Koval to look toward a fresh future. His aunt is his only relative in the U.S. The rest of his family remains in Ukraine and its war-stricken capital city, Kyiv. For the past several weeks, he has spoken daily with them over the phone as they shelter from continuous shelling from Russian forces.
“It’s difficult,” he said. “They’re already starting to feel a scarcity of basic supplies, such as medicine.”
The 28-year-old began living in San Francisco — and the United States — in 2014, when he fled Ukraine as a refugee the same year as Russia’s armed conflict with and annexation of Crimea. Since Ukraine came under siege by Putin-led Russia, he has anxiously waited for news from his family members, unable to return to his home country. At the Golden Gate Park music event, Koval made a plea for Americans to spread awareness of the tragedies experienced by those in Ukraine.
“Innocent people are dying. Their lives have been shattered for years to come. This needs to be stopped.”
Through tinted sunglasses, Koval watched Ukrainian performers on the stage of the Spreckels Temple of Music recite poetry, sing their national anthem and share testimonies of heartbreak for family and friends fighting for freedom on the other side of the globe.
He represented one of hundreds of San Franciscans who attended the “Slava Ukraini!” humanitarian relief concert. The basis of the concert’s name, translating to “Glory to Ukraine,” has ascended to both a rallying cry for the people of Ukraine and a signal of unity from those of supporting nations.
The free event formed as a collaboration between groups including the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, the Ukrainian American Coordinating Council and music organization Sunset Piano. Enlarged QR codes were posted at the front of the central stage and appeared among the green benches of the concourse. They invited audience members to donate to the World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit currently supporting the millions of refugees escaping the war by providing meals. As more Ukrainian cities evacuate their citizens, the number continues to surge.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine officially began on Feb. 24. The predicament quickly turned dire, as many civilians faced the brunt of military attacks and offensives. Citizens faced the dilemma of whether to leave as a refugee or stay in bunkers while the cities of their budding independent nation stared down pummeling missiles and airstrikes.
For Olga Troxel, a 17-year resident of San Francisco who is half-Ukrainian, the harmonies of Ukrainian songs and lines of poetry were “amazing and very touching.” Troxel’s best friend is a journalist from Kyiv who chose to stay in Ukraine to document the war’s developments. Her daily conversations with her friend always carry an air of both worry for her safety and of inspiration for her bravery in reporting amidst intensifying dangerous conditions.
Rec. and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg worked with Sunset Piano to organize performances and donation collections in two weeks, once news of the war in Ukraine broke out. As soon as they reached out to musicians and volunteers, he said, “everyone just said yes.” To Ginsburg, the concert represented a piece of what San Francisco residents can do to try and alleviate the “destruction to humanity” that “touches everyone.”
“The ‘Slava Ukraini!’ concert was born out of a feeling of just being devastated by what’s going on,” Dean Mermell said. Mermell is a director of the local Sunset Piano organization. His late father lived in the small West Ukrainian town Mukachevo. He said that the thought of the ruin that could come to his father’s hometown provided additional fuel for taking an active voice in advocating for the safety of refugees. While Mukachevo currently has not experienced heavy violence, it serves as a key haven for some refugees to take much-needed shelter.
The blue-hued sky on March 12 joined vibrant yellow sunflower petals in creating an atmosphere of solidarity. Volunteers sat on the band shell’s steps and cut and tied long-stemmed sunflowers, each showcasing a tag emblazoned with “Slava Ukraini!” and ways to donate to the World Central Kitchen.
Volunteers from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a nonprofit consisting of LGBTQ+ “nuns,” walked through the crowd handing sunflowers (the national flowers of Ukraine) to attendants and asking for donations.
“San Francisco is the hub and the home of peace. We are here to protest the war, and it’s in San Francisco style,” said Sister Roma, a prominent member of the organization. “All members of the community are coming together to support our friends in this country that are so tragically being attacked and need our help.”
Gathered around Koval were audience members wearing and waving the colors of Ukraine’s flag. They aren’t related, but “we’re like family,” Koval said. The group met through their church, one of only two main Ukrainian churches — one orthodox and one Catholic — in the City.
In San Francisco, the number of residents with Ukrainian heritage hovers at around 500. San Franciscan Ukrainians found themselves relatively unnoticed before the onset of the invasion, Koval explained, but the recent national support for the country led to a new recognition of the community — and a renewed strength found through each other.
“I still believe that my people, my nation, is going to win this and prevail,” Koval said. “But it hurts me to realize that it’s going to come at the cost of the lives of people who just wanted to live in a free and liberal country.”
Donations to the World Central Kitchen can be made at donate.wck.org/team/412268. Support can go toward the UNICEF fund for refugees and the International Rescue Committee.