The Lee University senior from Ukraine was the featured speaker at the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club Thursday, and she gave members a glimpse at what it was like for her family to live in Soviet-occupied Ukraine and become American citizens.
Her family moved to the United States when she was very young, so she said she does not remember her days living in Ukraine very well. However, she said she was sharing the stories her parents and older siblings had told her.
Living in Ukraine under the Communist government was very oppressive, she said. Even after it fell in 1991, some of the negative effects remained.
The youngest of 10 siblings, she said her family had to live in a three-bedroom apartment that was not roomy enough for 12 people. Most people lived poorly because necessities like food were rationed, and the cost of living was too high for most people to live comfortably.
The family immigrated for various reasons, but one of the main ones was disrespect for her family’s Christian faith.
She said the only “higher power” people were supposed to recognize was the Communist government and that anyone who believed there was a God would be “very openly chastised,” which limited opportunities for work and higher education.
“Because my family were practicing Christians who did not support the Communist party, my oldest sister, Svetlana, did not attend college but became a seamstress,” Voznyuk said. “My other siblings who attended primary school were constantly ridiculed by teachers for my family’s naivete of believing in a higher power.”
She said her parents wanted to see the rest of their children find better opportunities.
Feeding a family of 12 was another challenge. Voznyuk said her family lived on rations of porridge, root vegetables and, occasionally, a small amount of bread. She said her parents told her that the government would often have people’s crops burned to make them rely on rations. Fresh produce was rare. Her grandmother had land where family members could cultivate a small garden to help feed themselves, and her mother would sometimes trade vegetables from it to get five apples to split among her 10 children as a treat.
Growing up with the influence of two different countries gave her a unique perspective on both places, she said.
“The challenge I have faced being an immigrant in the United States has been the difficulty of claiming a single culture or heritage as my own,” Voznyuk said.
She said her American friends consider her to be Ukrainian but that people in Ukraine consider her to be American. She is multilingual, speaking Ukrainian, Russian and English. But she said she does not have a Ukrainian accent when she speaks in English because she immigrated at a young age. As far as her cultural heritage goes, she claims to be both Ukrainian and American. She said her family remains proud of their Ukrainian culture.
“I am 100 percent both,” she said.
She got the chance to visit Ukraine when she was older. The scenery and people impressed her, but she said the trip made her realize how much she had taken for granted in her American lifestyle.
“When I finally visited Ukraine for the first time, it was both foreign and familiar,” Voznyuk said. “The hearts of people in Ukraine are bitter from their hardships, but so full of welcome for their guests.”
Visiting Ukraine gave her a greater appreciation for many things such as having access to good, nutritional food.
The language and basic customs were not foreign to her, but she was surprised by the poverty. She told the story of meeting a boy and offering him some bread she was giving away because she and those she was with knew how few families could afford it. He refused, saying that there were surely people who needed bread more than he and his family did. Voznyuk was also surprised by the hospitality people offered to the group even when they did not have much.
She said she did not want club members to leave with a pitiful picture of her home country in their minds. She said her goal was to share how she learned not to take things in America for granted, and to teach them about what the Cleveland area’s growing Ukrainian population had experienced before leaving their native country.
After first living in New York after they immigrated, Voznyuk and her family later moved to Asheville, N.C. Her parents and most of her siblings and 16 nieces and nephews live in that area.
Voznyuk is an English major at Lee, and she plans to stay in Cleveland to pursue a master’s degree in education from her undergraduate alma mater.
Before she spoke, a foreign exchange student from Italy had introduced her family to the club, which had helped sponsor her. Anna Ginestri has been going to Cleveland High School, where she has been a member of the school’s basketball team. Her parents were visiting from Italy, and she and her father both thanked the club for their hospitality to her. Her father, Francisco, also thanked the club for watching out for her personal safety.
The club also discussed ongoing business such as preparing for a fundraising gala in August and voting to designate money in the budget to have a new website designed.
Meetings happen every Thursday morning at SkyRidge Medical Center.