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Azovstal free protests Seattle USA dispora
Anton Yefremov holding a Free Azov sign in Downtown Seattle. Source: Myron Malyy

Ukrainian diaspora in the US rally to voice support for Azovstal defenders

Seattle activists, wielding a cardboard cage, rallied to spotlight the 1,900 Ukrainian soldiers languishing in Russian captivity since the Mariupol siege.
Ukrainian diaspora in the US rally to voice support for Azovstal defenders

Dozens of people joined a rally in Seattle, Washington, on 19 May to raise awareness for the plight of Ukrainian soldiers still held in Russian captivity. May marked the second anniversary of the defense of Mariupol, where thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were taken prisoner after the siege of the city ended on 20 May 2022.

The rally in Seattle was part of a wider chain of protests organized around the US which were intended to raise awareness for the 1,900 soldiers still in Russian captivity.

The soldiers who fought till the end in Mariupol were hailed as heroes by the Ukrainian government. Drawing Russian forces into a prolonged siege of the city and later the Azovstal steelworks, forced Russia to expend more resources and manpower, preventing them from deploying those soldiers and resources to other areas of the front.

Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces stated, “We gained critically needed time to build up our reserves, regroup our forces and get help from our partners.”

Azovstal free protests Seattle USA dispora
Activists in Downtown Seattle. Source: Myron Malyy

The Ukrainian soldiers who led the defense of Mariupol ended up changing the trajectory of the war. As a result, the soldiers from Azov were subjected to the most brutal torture endured by Ukrainian prisoners of war. Norman, a drone unit commander from the 109th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, commented on the captivity of Azovstal soldiers: “This is the scariest and worst scenario, to end up being captured. The fate of those who are there and those who wait for them is very hard.”

The Seattle rally was organized by two local activists, Lina Ngo and Anton Yefremov. Lina is a Ukrainian refugee of Vietnamese descent, and Anton Yefremov is a Ukrainian-American and is the Vice President of Ukraine Defense Support. Both have said they have friends who are fighting on the frontlines and rally supporters of Ukraine through Ukraine Defense Support to raise funds to buy supplies such as drones and night vision equipment for the soldiers.

Speaking about the motivation of organizing the rally, Lina said “The support from activists and local organizations remains strong, but we still need more constant involvement from people. The longer the war goes on, the louder and more actively we need to speak out about it.”

She further commented, “While some people remain active, overall engagement has decreased because the war has entered a new stage, and media coverage has lessened.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself previously stated, “Attention equals help. No attention will mean no help. We fight for every bit of attention.”

Anton said that he stays motivated to continue the fight and continue organizing rallies because the Ukrainian diaspora is the backbone of support for the Ukrainian soldiers abroad. “We stay involved because it’s not a choice – it’s a responsibility that we must carry,” he noted. The official account of the Association of Families of Azovstal Defenders also reposted a social media post about the rally in Seattle.

Andrij Dobriansky, communications director for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, also commented on the Seattle protest: “Since the War against Ukraine began in 2014, Ukrainians outside of Ukraine have communicated regularly with family and local community members serving in Ukraine’s Armed Forces. These personal connections remain the backbone of support between diaspora organizations and those manning the frontlines.“

The rally in Seattle began with the organizers gathering individuals at the Space Needle, Seattle’s prominent city icon. The group built a makeshift cage out of cardboard to illustrate to the public how the Mariupol defenders are still being held prisoners. There were also flyers printed that provided details of the defenders and the need to raise awareness for their plight.

Following the gathering at the Space Needle, the group moved to the Seattle Center, holding banners with messages in support of the Azovstal defenders. The organizers provided information flyers for other rally attendees to hand out to passersby.

Azovstal free protests Seattle USA dispora
Lina Ngo giving a speech at the Westlake Park in Downtown Seattle. Source: Myron Malyy

Lina then began shouting chants such as “free Azovstal defenders,” “arm Ukraine” and “Russia is a terrorist state” with the group repeating these chants to gain the attention of people nearby. Some cars drove by honking, others waved at the protestors. Lina, with a never-ending amount of energy, traversed back and forth along the street leading the chants.

Valeria Biletska, whose son fought at Azovstal and is still in Russian captivity, attended the rally. The Bilsetska family is originally from Kherson and Valeria immigrated to the Seattle area shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion. Once Lina told the group that Valeria was in attendance at the rally and that her son was still in captivity, Valeria couldn’t hold back her tears. Members of the rally quickly gathered around her to offer their sympathies and exchange hugs to offer support.

Azovstal free protests Seattle USA dispora
Valeria Biletska holding a banner at the rally. Source: Myron Malyy

Valeria is also an artist and has donated numerous pieces of her art (Petrykivka) for auctions to buy equipment for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.Valeria mentioned that she had shared pictures from the rally with other families waiting for their loved ones to be released from Russian captivity.

Azovstal free protests Seattle USA dispora
Activists holding a cage in front of the Pike Place Market in Seattle. Source: Myron Maly

The group marched from the city center to the waterfront, where they continued their chants. Passersby occasionally stopped to take photos of the people holding banners. Eddie Priymak, a local Ukrainian-American from Washington state who marched with the group said, “The main reason I attended the rally was to spread awareness of Russian war crimes.”

Eddie also noted that the treatment of Ukrainian POWs has been horrific and the US public must be made aware of it. “Similarly, by spreading awareness we can potentially influence our government authorities to pressure Russian authorities to release the Azovstal defenders,” he remarked.

Oleksiy Tymofeev, a drone unit commander from the 108th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade fighting in Zaporizhzhia Oblast commented on the protest that was held in Seattle: “We also had a car rally in Zaporizhzhia in support of the guys from Azovstal. I have a friend who still hasn’t returned from there.”

Oleksiy gave thanks to everyone who attended the Seattle protest and for those remembering the soldiers from Azovstal who are in captivity. “Unfortunately, this fundamental issue can only be resolved when the Armed Forces of Ukraine stand at the ruined walls of the Kremlin,” he said.

Speaking of the continued engagement of the Ukrainian diaspora in Washington, Lina said in general, people seem to be losing interest as “fewer and fewer people are coming to the rallies.” However, dedicated members of the Ukrainian diaspora like Lina and Anton, remain resolute in their fight for Ukraine and the Ukrainians abroad.

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