In NYC, Ukrainian-American kids use artwork to show national pride

NEW YORK -- Violent clashes in February between anti-government protesters and police in Kiev's main square, known as the Maidan, left dozens of people dead. When Ukrainian authorities banned protesters from wearing helmets, some demonstrators got creative -- donning kitchen strainers and other creative headgear.

Their defiance inspired local artists and Ukrainians around the world to paint Ukrainian symbols onto helmets, in a sign of solidarity.

Thousands of miles away, in a small Ukrainian enclave of New York City, a group of Ukrainian-American children is decorating hardhats to show their support. They are members of the Ukrainian-American Youth Association, which teaches children of Ukrainian descent about their native culture and history. One of the younger members says he hopes his helmet serves as inspiration to "keep on going, and living, and protecting Ukraine."

Marko Cohen, 14, comes from a Ukrainian family on Long Island. He's been going to the youth center since he was very young. Instead of spending his weekend playing ice hockey, Marko is painting helmets and learning about the instability in Ukraine. He says he's inspired by his grandfather, who fought in the Ukrainian army when he was around Marko's age.

"I'd find it very moving to follow his footsteps," Marko says, "and save his country."

Marko and his classmates created a memorial outside the center, using photographs of people killed in the anti-government protests. They placed flowers and candles at the foot of a wall of photos, which now serves as a destination of remembrance for many Ukrainians living in New York City. Marko stays after closing hours to clean the memorial, lighting candles and sweeping away dirt.

"It just shows how many people have died for freedom, and how many more might die just to get that same freedom," he says. When violence erupted in Ukraine, the news hit close to home. Marko still has family and friends there.

"It's very difficult for them," he says, "but they find a way to overcome their problems, and they just keep fighting."

Many of the other children at the youth center are worried about family members in Ukraine. Death and violence may seem difficult topics for children as young as five to tackle, but their instructor, Walter Zaryckyj, says their collective cultural history has matured them. As a result, he says, "they understand death better than most average kids their age."

In Zaryckyj's classroom, there was concern of spiraling violence in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces are wrestling for control of some major cities. The children are too young and too far away to get involved, but they are finding their own ways to connect to the turmoil in their ancestral homeland.

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