Senior Americans of Ukrainian descent who started their public work in the Plast Youth Organization addressed each other among themselves as “señors.” What is a popular image of a tourist? A person who likes to travel, who is cheerful and carefree, and whose only worry is to learn, see and hear as much as possible. But I have encountered tourists visiting Ukraine who are a far cry from such an image. They are people of Ukrainian descent who keep regularly coming, year in, year out. They are like migratory birds: they come and go, neither staying in Ukraine for good, nor giving up their regular visits to, and sometimes rather extended stays, in Ukraine, the land of their forefathers. They come to Ukraine as missionaries, as volunteers, they come not to have vacations but to work helping us sort out and solve our problems without being paid a kopeck for their efforts. Not only do they offer their help gratuitously, they pay their own expenses by themselves or using loans from people like themselves, those who love their distant native land. I personally know several dozens of such people. It is about one of them, Volodymyr Volovodyuk that I want to tell you. In fact, Mr Volovodyuk will tell his story himself. In the past few years he came to Ukraine thirty one times and I have made a condensation of my talks with him for Welcome to Ukraine Magazine.
Volodymyr Volovodyuk has lived a dramatic life. When he was a twelve-year old boy, in 1944, he, together with his parents, had to flee from his native village of Ivachiv Dolyshniy in the western Ukrainian lands of Ternopilshchyna. They had lived through cruel years of Nazi occupation and then they learnt that the advancing Soviet Army was bringing not only liberation from the Nazi rule but a possible arrest and deportation to a Siberian concentration camp.

The thing is that there was a decree issued by Stalin which called for rounding up and deporting to Siberia of all the kurkul (“wealthy peasant” in the Soviet terminology; the term was used very loosely and anyone who was suspicious to the Soviet authorities could be treated as kurkul, “an enemy of the people”) families from all the territories “temporarily occupied by the Nazis” and then “liberated by the Soviet Army.” Tens of thousands of western Ukrainian families were seized, bundled into railroad carriages and sent “on the road to hell.” The Volovodyuk family decided to flee rather than passively await arrest. Overcoming many obstacles, they managed to make their way to Austria where they settled down in a little town, Retz. They even found jobs but in the first months after the war, the KGB (Soviet Secret Service), entering Austria with the Soviet Army, launched an actual hunt for those who had run away from Ukraine and settled in Austria. The Volovodyuks had to move to Vienna but it was not safe there either, and they had to escape once again. On their way to Salzburg, they were stopped and nearly arrested by a Soviet Army patrol, but a couple of bottles of schnapps proved to be a bribe overruling an order to arrest the likes of the Volovodyuks. After many months of fleeing from place to place, of struggling for survival, they found themselves across the ocean in 1947. Volodymyr Volovodyuk and his family had left behind in the old world their house with an orchard, their native village with a beautiful river flowing by, fields with the green grass of home. The image of his native place was carved in the boy’s heart for good and in far-away America he has cherished the memory of his land ever since.
: I finished American high school and went to study at the New Jersey University, Department of Machine Building. I studied well, was among the best students and for my academic achievements was exempted from having to pay for my education. After getting my bachelor’s degree, I found a job.

Volodymyr Volovodyuk with his wife.

The Volovodyuk family celebrating Christmas at their US home.

I wrote my dissertation for the next degree in the hours after work and then went to work for the Foster Wheeler Development Corporation, a big machine-building company. I rose through the ranks and reached the vice-presidentship of this corporation. Then I retired, and that’s all the basic autobiographical data I can report. Nothing special. In America, to be successful you have to work very hard.
Herhel: Yes, I’ve heard many people say that. But could you add a few words about your private life? Or is it something Americans in general and businessmen in particular do not talk about?
Volovodyuk: Oh, it’s perfectly all right. I’m married. I met my future wife near a church…We have two grown-up daughters who are married. The elder one is married to an American not of Ukrainian descent, though we wanted her, of course, to have a Ukrainian American husband. But, you know, you cannot impose your will on your children in such matters, can you? But our younger daughter is married to a Ukrainian American whose ancestors lived in the city of Lviv. Now we have four grandchildren — two grandsons and two granddaughters. So, in this respect we’re just like anybody else (laughs).
Herhel: You have a nice home, your children have found their place in life, you have enough money to live on. What makes you come to Ukraine over and over again? Living conditions here are not as comfortable as the ones you’re accustomed to. What drives you to travel such long distances? Is it a call of your native land?
Volovodyuk: Well, there are several reasons for that. Probably, one of the reasons is my restlessness. I can’t stay at one place for a long time, I have to be active, I have to be doing things. In my student years I did a lot of public work. I took an active part in the work of a Ukrainian youth organization, Plast, I joined the Ukrainian Sports Club, I worked for some other Ukrainian public organizations in America. When I began working for the Foster Wheeler Development Corporation, I did not have much time for anything else but my work there. But when I learnt that Ukraine had become independent, I felt as though I got my second wind! I forgot how old I was, I was vigorous, I wanted to do something for Ukraine! But for the first time, after so many years of living in the US, I came to Ukraine in 1988, three years before Ukraine’s independence. I came as a member of a tourist group. In 1991, several small organizations of Americans of Ukrainian descent combined their efforts and created the Co-ordination Committee of Assistance to Ukraine. At first, I headed the Committee’s Fund of Assistance to Schools of Ukraine. Through this Fund, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education of Ukraine, I had 2.5 million manuals printed at my own expense and then I donated them to schools in Ukraine, free of charge. Later, I headed the committee itself. Now, at the expense of the Ukrainian Diaspora we are running several programmes: course of Ukrainian studies for teachers and military men; courses of Ukrainian official and business language. We organize trips of children from eastern and southern parts of Ukraine to the western Ukrainian lands of Halychyna where they stay for some time to improve health, or just to relax. Also, we help with whatever we can, magazines and newspapers of democratic orientation. We provide assistance to individual students, writers, poets, journalists.
Herhel: Doesn’t it make you tired, going back and forth like that? You have to travel long distances!
Volovodyuk: No, it does not. I know I’m doing something that helps Ukraine, and it makes me happy, it makes me feel young again.

I do hope Mr Volovodyuk will never feel tired, neither in his body nor in his spirit, and he and many other people of the Ukrainian Diaspora like him, will go on being healthy, and vigorous. Their help is appreciated in Ukraine, they give us a great moral and psychological boost, too. President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma has awarded Volodymyr Volovodyuk, a US citizen, a medal “For Meritorious Achievements.” The citation reads in part: “for active work in organizations of the Ukrainian Diaspora in the USA, for many years of charity work.” This year Mr Volovodyuk turns seventy. There is so much youthful vitality in him, in spite of his years.

By Olha Herhel