Across the United States, each June we celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month. As representatives of the United States abroad, our diplomats do the same – offering educational and cultural programming that raises awareness about LGBT human rights issues both at home and abroad.
This year, I was proud to support a bold initiative by our Public Affairs team to bring an a capella ensemble from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington called “Potomac Fever.” At the end of May, as part of our America Days festival in Lviv, I was able to stand on the stage of the Philharmonic with Mayor Andriy Sadoviy and Governor Oleh Synyutka and introduce a gay chorus. Let that sink in for a minute. This was a big step for everyone involved. Just three months ago in Lviv, violent protests disrupted a planned LGBT event. And here I was introducing a 14-member gay singing group in one of Lviv’s most prestigious public venues. It was just more proof of how quickly Ukraine is changing for the better. And I could not be more proud.
For the U.S. Embassy, the program represented a unique and important opportunity to introduce Ukrainians to gay Americans not solely because they are gay Americans, but because they represent to the best of America – with all of its talents and diversity. While the G in LGBT is an important part of Potomac Fever’s identity, they are not singularly defined by it. And we wanted to Ukraine to see that. Their music and stories highlighted the LGBT human rights struggle, making it human and relatable. LGBT people in Ukraine are facing similar challenges every day and we hope that Potomac Fever’s program brought a sense of solidarity and hope.
The fact that a large and peace Equality March took place in Kyiv on June 12 makes me think that it did. It was such a huge accomplishment for everyone involved, from the local activists to city officials and law enforcement. By embracing European values of inclusiveness and tolerance, you showed the world that Ukraine is Europe. And that love wins.
In the past week, I attended two related events: the 74th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, and a ceremony to commemorate Ukraine’s “Righteous Among the Nations” — those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. The two events illustrate the critical work Ukraine is doing to acknowledge and reflect on this dark period in its history while also ensuring that religious diversity remains a point of strength for Ukraine now and in the future.
On September 29th, I joined Prime Minister Yatsenyuk at the commemoration of the 74th Anniversary of Babi Yar. Both my German and Israeli counterparts were in attendance, and I was heartened to see such a representative spectrum of the Ukrainian religious community represented there, a reflection of the unity and religious pluralism that make Ukraine great. This was the third time I attended the annual commemoration, and I have been deeply moved each time. Babi Yar stands out as one of the most tragic episodes in a war full of horrors. It’s impossible to stand in a place that has seen so much suffering and not feel the overwhelming weight of what transpired there. Nearly 34,000 Jews were shot dead in only two days, and well over a hundred thousand – Jews, prisoners, Roma, and everyday Ukrainians were murdered.
But Babi Yar is not the only place of its kind in Ukraine. By some estimates there are more than 2000 such sites in Ukraine alone that serve as reminders of the Nazi attempt to exterminate Europe’s Jews. We must honor this tragic history and never forget the crimes committed throughout Europe seven decades ago, something I know this Ukrainian government understands instinctively. This kind of collective memory and collective remembrance is how European countries can acknowledge their past while ensuring it can never be repeated. By engaging in these acts of remembrance, Ukraine is building a more modern, tolerant, European country.
At the same time, it’s important to stand in solidarity with the survivors, and remember the heroes who risked not only their own lives, but also those of their families, friends, and neighbors by protecting Jews during the Holocaust. That’s why I was honored to join Mayor Klitschko in Kyiv to commemorate the “Righteous Among Nations”—those who served as beacons of hope and kept the light of civilization from going out. These brave individuals selflessly fought to save those they could. In the darkest hours of the 20th Century, these men and women were bright lights. They remind us that we all have a duty to confront evil, defend truth, unite in the face of threats to human dignity, and to strive to stop any who would abuse their neighbors.
By coming together to remember those who died, stand with those who survived, and honor the heroes who saved so many, Ukraine is holding itself up as a powerful example of a multicultural, tolerant European society. It’s the best way of living the words “never forget.”
At the end of last week, I visited Kharkiv, my first trip back since I was there last December. The winter snow may have been beautiful, but I have to say that the weather is a lot better in summer! And what I found was a city full of smart, motivated people who want to be part of a reforming, forward-looking Ukraine that is moving toward Europe.
I started off my visit by meeting with Governor Ihor Rainin. It was a real pleasure spending time with him, and I’m thrilled to have such a strong partner who’s deeply committed to fighting corruption and implementing real reform to make Kharkiv oblast an important part of a modern, European Ukraine.
From there, we both headed to the 7th Annual International Economic Forum, a great opportunity to bring together government and business, both local and international. I was especially glad to have the opportunity to finally meet and talk to local businessman Oleksandr Yaroslavsky, whose Premier Palace hotel was itself hosting the Forum. I was surprised and delighted to learn, when I talked to the head of the Kharkiv National University, that he had spent several months in my hometown of La Jolla (a center of research and development, like Kharkiv, with one of the highest concentrations of Nobel laureates) at the University of California San Diego. Governor Rainin and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov both gave very strong remarks about the need for ongoing reform, and I was very grateful for Minister Avakov’s kind words about United States assistance to Ukraine as it continues to implement the changes its people demanded on the Maidan and continue to demand today. As Minister Avakov said, the strategic partnership between the United States and Ukraine is built on actions, not just words.
In my own remarks to the Forum (which you can read in full here), I emphasized Kharkiv’s position as a key regional center, well placed to serve both east and west, which can, and should, play a leading role in integrating Ukraine into the global economy. I also stressed the huge competitive advantage Kharkiv holds as a result of its vibrant IT sector and its workforce of highly skilled IT professionals. I had to mention U.S. projects we’re working on in Kharkiv, including our “Go Women” program supporting women entrepreneurs, our AgroInvest project on sunflower growing and harvesting, support for internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have sought refuge in Kharkiv. One project I’m especially proud of is the state-of-the-art Neutron Source Facility, which produces medical isotopes and which the United States has supported through $70 million in funding, a symbol of Kharkiv’s strong past, and future, in nuclear technology. And of course, I’m very excited about the Kharkiv Patrol Police project (more on this in a minute).
In our meetings and in his remarks to the Forum, I consistently heard from Governor Rainin and his advisors a strong resolve to move towards European institutions and standards as part of a united Ukraine, including embracing the decentralization that the central government has made a priority. Indeed, the Governor argued convincingly that there has been more progress on reform and anti-corruption in Kharkiv than any other oblast. One dramatic symbol of how fast Kharkiv is changing is that new Patrol Police, which was also the next stop on my Kharkiv tour.
Along with Minister Avakov and Governor Rainin, I visited the Police Academy at the Kharkiv National University of Internal Affairs, where the patrol police cadets for the city are still in training. The United States
has so far committed $15 million to supporting the Ukrainian government’s patrol police initiative. I was thrilled that police from my home state’s California Highway Patrol have been training these patrol police candidates (as well as Houston Police Department officers) and I was able to see the cadets in action during some “tactical demonstrations,” including some dramatic high-risk vehicle stops.
In talking to the cadets, many of whom left good jobs for the chance to help build their city’s future, I was struck by the look in these young men and women’s eyes: the hunger for serious, radical reform, which they’re counting on their government to deliver—and
for the international community to support. Their optimism and enthusiasm was infectious, and I wasn’t surprised to hear from Minister Avakov that this was one of the strongest groups of patrol police cadets he’s seen from across the country. It was incredibly inspiring to see these young people who have grabbed control of their future, and who are building the kind of Ukraine that its citizens have so longed to build – rule of law and European standards, just 20 minutes from the Russian border.
After the visit to the cadets, it was time for a more sobering meeting: with IDPs who have relocated to Kharkiv from Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and who are being assisted by our USAID project partner Station Kharkiv. I made visiting Station Kharkiv a priority for my trip, because it’s critically important to focus on the difficult circumstances IDPs like the ones at Station Kharkiv find themselves in, and find ways to help. The people I met with were grateful for the assistance they’d received, and the warm welcome they’d gotten from the people of Kharkiv, but their stories were tragic: families ripped apart, their lives upended by an artificial war they certainly never asked for. I heard with concern their reports of a growing humanitarian catastrophe in occupied Donbas, of lawlessness and high prices for consumer goods on top of the danger of military conflict.
Like the cadets, and like everyone else I met with in Kharkiv, they too want to be part of a democratic, united, European Ukraine. And what was so exciting about Kharkiv was that, as much as anywhere else in the country, that’s exactly what people are building: new structures accountable to the Ukrainian people, governed by rule of law, used not to enrich or empower one family, but to build a better future for people’s children. And as I told the patrol police cadets, Ukraine is not alone in this: it has the support and the hopes of the government and the people of the United States of America.
On September 27, I joined Ambassador Pyatt in Kyiv’s Podil neighborhood for a very special ceremony. Joined by his Canadian and German counterparts, the Ambassador spoke at the dedication ceremony for the Hatikva Reform Synagogue and its new community center in Kyiv. In his remarks, the Ambassador acknowledged the congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Dukhovny, as “a friend and teacher to generations of American ambassadors here in Kyiv.” Pausing to remember the 72nd anniversary of the massacres at Baby Yar and its victims, he spoke about the history of the Jewish community in Ukraine, its resilience, and how he was inspired by the congregation’s return to its roots in Kyiv’s historic Podil neighborhood. Reminding participants that “the guiding principles of tolerance, cooperation, and respect for human dignity that are embodied in this center are essential to Americans as well,” the Ambassador told participants he had great expectations for the center and its future work.
The new structure, paid for with donations by three North American families, replaced rental facilities which had served the community for 22 years. The new 4,000 square-foot center has a sanctuary with seating for 150, activity rooms, a library, youth center and kitchenette. After the speeches, the fun began! Hatikva’s youngest members, approximately 20 of its Kyiv Reform Kindergarten students kicked off the festivities with song and dance, reminding all of us that the Center has a bright future ahead! A rousing performance by Irina Rosenfeld followed, along with many more expressions of congratulations.
With the new center now open, the Embassy wasted no time in kicking off our cooperative relationship. Just two weeks later, on October 10, Hatikva hosted the first Ukrainian screening of the film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. The movie, a portrait of a great writer whose stories became the basis of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, tells the tale of the rebellious genius who created an entirely new literature. Working in at the end of the 19th century in Western Ukraine, he explored the depths of a Jewish world locked in crisis and on the cusp of profound change and he captured that world with brilliant humor. In an earlier blog we wrote about the Ambassador’s visit to the building in Lviv that Sholem Aleichem once called home.
According to the film’s director Joe Dorman, Sholem Aleichem was one of the men who shaped a new modern Jewish identity. After the screening, Dorman, an award-winning independent filmmaker, answered questions and discussed how he made visits to Ukraine during the production of the film and gained a deeper understanding of Jewish and Ukrainian culture, including the many links between the two. He explained the critical role that Sholem Aleichem’s works played in preserving Jewish identity in the United States, and for Jewish diaspora more broadly. The Embassy was happy to present the film as an interesting cultural link between the U.S. and Ukraine, but also as an example of Ukraine’s multicultural past, and Ukraine’s Jewish heritage. In addition to the Hatkiva screening, the Embassy sponsored public presentations of the film in Kyiv and Lviv, which were well attended.
Recently I joined Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, his family and an audience of over 10,000 on Independence Square to watch the World Breakdancing Championship. Sponsored by Burn Battle School, hundreds of young Ukrainian b-boys and b-girls “battled” (competed) in four categories: best youth b-boy, men’s, women’s and team or “crew.” I was blown away by the popularity of the event and amazed at the skill level of the Ukrainian breakers. Even more impressive was that, although competition was fierce, the atmosphere was positive — even festive — a bit like watching a college football game in my native Ohio.
Because our Embassy was one of the event’s sponsors, the Ambassador awarded the first place prize in the youth category. The winner was a 10-year old dancing tornado from Kyiv: Andrei Kirilin. Taking first was no small feat on Andrei’s side. The youth division included kids as old as 16, and many of the contestants were almost twice Andrei’s size. But in breaking, where preparation, innovation and speed trump strength, “Davids” often best “Goliaths.” Andrei’s victory was a testament to years of training and the support of his studio, Kinder Crew of Kyiv. Backstage, many of Andrei’s Kinder Crew friends were there to support him along with older b-boy mentors, coaches, and family.
Hip-hop and, by extension, breaking, has always faced an up-hill battle in the image department, partly due to a “gangster” motif that has eclipsed other aspects of the movement, and partly due to misconceptions of what b-boying is really about. If my experience on the Maidan showed me anything, it is that breakdancing can set a positive example for young people in Ukraine. No matter how hard two “crews” “ battled”, and no matter the color of their skin or where they were from, when the music stopped and the winner was announced the competitors always came together in the center of the stage, shook hands, embraced and showed signs of mutual respect.
These positive aspects are in keeping with breaking’s American roots. When it emerged from New York’s boroughs in the 1970s, break dancing’s “street” status meant there were no coaches, teams or leagues. For an aspiring b-girl or b-boy, getting in was easy but getting good was hard. You had to learn from somebody. Talk to any accomplished “old” b-boy or b-girl about how they learned and they will smile and rattle off the names of the best b-boys in the previous generation: people who inspired them, took them under their wing, and invited them to join a “crew” that could help them reach the next level. “Each one teach one” is a quiet mantra in breakdancing that still holds true.
Perhaps no other crew has internalized “each one teach one” like Seattle, Washington’s Massive Monkees Crew. Our Embassy was proud to support them as our country’s entry in the Burn Battle School’s team competition. As dancers, Massive Monkees have won at the highest international level. But what sets them apart is how they have parlayed that success into opportunities for their community, and particularly for the next generation. One example is their Extraordinary Futures NGO, which uses dance to teach self-discipline, boost confidence, and broaden the horizons of at-risk kids. In recent years they have even used city support and crowd sourcing to turn their Seattle dance studio, aptly called “the Beacon,” into a community center complete with afterschool programs, toddler dance classes, music and art. No wonder the Mayor of Seattle created a “Massive Monkees Day” in their honor.
Massive Monkees brought this spirit of civic activism with them to Kyiv. Over the course of three days they taught classes, visited summer camps, hosted hip hop films, judged dance contests and performed for thousands of young Ukrainians. They talked about breakdancing’s celebration of diversity and demonstrated its ability to break down barriers and to build young people up. But Massive Monkees weren’t alone in delivering this message. Their trip was supported by a national network of Ukrainian crews and dance studios. At each event they were joined by veteran Ukrainian b-boys and b-girls who shared their own experience with the younger kids or were there as chaperones, trainers and mentors.
In the end, one can say that this year’s Burn Battle School was a success because hundreds of kids competed and thousands more came to watch. But what is more important is that it proved that breaking is alive and well in Ukraine. Clearly, local b-boys and b-girls have developed a thriving community that stretches from Kyiv to Sevastopol, Lviv to Lutsk ….And that’s a good thing.
On September 28, 1941, signs were posted across Kyiv, ordering the city’s Jews to gather the following day on the corner of Melnykova and Doktorivska Streets (present day Melnykova and Dorohozhytska Streets). Those who gathered were led to Babyn Yar, a ravine northwest of Kyiv, where Nazi soldiers shot some 34,000 Jews on September 29-30. This was the start of a bloody campaign, which over the next two years claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Jews, Roma, Ukrainian nationalists, prisoners of war, and others — an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 in all.
For nearly five decades, the Soviet authorities refused to acknowledge the extent of the brutality, particularly against Jews, at Babyn Yar, instead preferring to more generally focus on Nazi violence against the Soviet people. The collapse of communism introduced a period of openness and discussion about the massacre of Kyiv’s wartime Jewish population at Babyn Yar. Visiting U.S. dignitaries — including former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have since visited the site to remember the innocent victims, to learn from past mistakes, to continue the fight against bigotry and hatred, and to take a stand against violence and tyranny.
On September 18, Ambassador Pyatt followed this tradition of remembering when he joined Chief Progressive Rabbi of Ukraine Oleksandr Dukhovny to honor those murdered by the Nazis at Babyn Yar. Rabbi Dukhovny explained the tragedy that befell Kyiv’s Jewish population and others who opposed Nazi rule. Rabbi Dukhovny also shared the heroic stories of survivors and Ukrainians who defied Nazi orders and protected Jews during the occupation of Kyiv. Ambassador Pyatt left a visitation stone at the Menorah Monument — a Jewish tradition honoring the dead.
President Clinton stated during his 1995 visit to Babyn Yar, “In the quiet of this place, the victims of Babi Yar cry out to us still. Never forget, they tell us, that humanity is capable of the worst, just as it is capable of the best. Never forget that the forces of darkness cannot be defeated with silence or indifference. Never forget that we are all Jews and [Roma] and Slavs. Never forget.” It is in this spirit of remembrance that Ambassador Pyatt and the entire Embassy will continue to advocate for justice for Ukraine’s many religious, ethnic, and other minority groups to ensure that this type of tragedy is not repeated.
The United States is associated with many positive emotions at Nadiya, an NGO focusing on children and youth with special needs located in Drohobych, L’vivska Oblast. The organization, in operation since 1991, has received various sources of support from U.S. grants as well humanitarian assistance over the years. In June 2012, the NGO’s relationship with the United States was strengthened further when I arrived as the organization’s first U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer.
Peace Corps has given both Nadiya and me an exciting opportunity to work together on local community development projects while participating in a cultural exchange program. Since arriving in Drohobych, I have been overwhelmed with the hospitality and openness of my organization and community. People consistently take the time to genuinely listen to and understand what I have to say, even with my broken Ukrainian. They have accepted me into their lives, up to the point that it is not uncommon for me to hear myself referred to as “наша Ліза” (our Lisa). They even go as far as declaring our organization an extension of the United States on U.S. Holidays as a way for us to celebrate American culture together.
Needless to say, when Nadiya found out that the new U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt would be coming for a visit, the mood was jovial. Around 20 of Nadiya’s youth with special needs, volunteers, and parents anxiously waited for Ambassador Pyatt outside the building on that Monday morning. We had practiced saying “Welcome to Nadiya” in English several times before his arrival and it was a proud moment when everyone welcomed the Ambassador in unison.
Ambassador Pyatt graciously listened to information about our projects over the past year, made possible through U.S. support, and congratulated us on our successes. He then enjoyed a brief tour of our facility and a cup of tea with our youth and volunteers. Everyone was really encouraged to hear so many positive remarks from the Ambassador. People cannot stop talking about his visit to Nadiya.
From all of us in Drohobych, we would like to say thank you, Ambassador Pyatt, for taking the time to see us at Nadiya! I am sure this day will be remembered for years to come.