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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Ukrainian Student Association hosts candlelight vigil two years after Russian invasion

The student organization honored victims Saturday at Lake Alice

Attendees gather at a vigil for Ukraine on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024.
Attendees gather at a vigil for Ukraine on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024.

In 2014, Natalia Pluzhynk was forced to leave her home in Ukraine due to a Russian invasion. Less than ten years later, she watched as Russian forces burned the traces of her childhood. 

“They have stolen my past. They have stolen everything from me,” she said. “Now, all my classmates [and] the people I know are at the front. They are either dead or fighting.” 

Pluzhnyk was one of the people in attendance at the candlelight vigil for Ukraine Saturday evening.

Hosted by the Ukrainian Student Association, the event commemorated the second anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. It also honored the 10-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Crimea

Just after 6 p.m., Pluzhnyk and other Ukrainian supporters gathered at Lake Alice to light candles and hold sunflowers, the national flower of Ukraine. 

Standing in a circle with their candles bright, they participated in a moment of silence before uniting to sing the Ukrainian national anthem. Several cried. 

Sasha Nelson, the president of the UF Ukrainian Student Association, said the organization hosted a vigil at the same location in Spring 2022. She thought it would be important to gather as a community for the second year anniversary of the invasion, she said. 

“[The vigil] is for… the larger Gainesville Ukrainian community,” she said. (It’s) to draw attention to… [Ukraine’s]... ongoing war so Americans don’t forget about it.”

The candlelight vigil was a part of the Ukrainian Student Association’s ‘Ukrainian Week at UF,’ with events commemorating Ukraine from Monday to Saturday. 

During the week, Nelson said individuals were invited to attend a general body meeting on the heroes of Ukraine, a screening of the Ukrainian film, “The Guide” and a peaceful pro-Ukraine demonstration Friday.

Nelson said the organization’s main mission was to create a safe place for Ukrainian-Americans and allies to have a community. She worked with other team members to create the organization in Spring 2022 when the invasion of Ukraine began. 

“We felt the need for a better community to support each other,” she said.

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At the vigil, many wore blue-and yellow clothing to represent the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Although some participants came from Ukrainian descent, others had no relation to either of the countries involved in the war. 

One of these individuals was UF physics junior Jacob Stein. Despite knowing the words to the Ukrainian national anthem and proudly singing along, he said he has no Ukrainian heritage. 

“This is just a personally important issue for me,” Stein said. “I’ve been following the war super closely since it happened.”

At the vigil, Stein showed his support for Ukraine by wearing a shirt with Saint Javelin pictured on it. The image shows biblical figure Mary Magdalene carrying a javelin weapon. The fictitious saint was created online in February 2022 and was put on merchandise to raise money for Ukraine. 

“The American javelin missile system was instrumental in helping Ukraine survive and win the early stages of the war,” Stein said. “It’s a great, great… symbol.” 

Contact Tanya Fedak at Follow her on X @ttanyafedak.

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