Multilingual Ukrainian custodian joins community of local Europeans

Svitlana Meyta works as a custodian at Goshen College but she could just as well be an interpreter. She can speak both Russian and Ukrainian.

Every morning she vacuums the floors of Good Library, the Science building, Wyse Hall and other buildings on the Goshen College campus. But when she talks to her custodial colleague Valentyna Naumchuk, English is scarcely heard.

Instead the conversation flows in Russian from Meyta to Naumchuk, who responds back in Ukrainian. Whereas Meyta arrived in the U.S. from Charkov, a city in eastern Ukraine where the Russian language prevails, Namchuk lived in a village near a western city, Rivno. People in the western part of the country speak mostly Ukrainian. Both of the custodians are part of the Ukrainian community of more than 400 residents in Goshen.

The first immigrants from the Ukraine arrived in Goshen after World War II. As Hitler’s soldiers started to occupy their home country, which was part of the Soviet Union at that time, Ukrainians were trapped between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Many of them were forced to leave their homes.

“They were put into forced labor in Germany, working for various farmers and got all separated,” said Olga Stickel, judge of Elkhart Superior Court 4 in Goshen, who was born in Germany. Stickel’s mother, Maria Hulewicz, came to Goshen in 1954.

“Then when the Americans came, they worked on the American bases for a while,” said Stickel. “They did not want to get the experience under the Soviets. They did not want to go back because they lived through the artificial famine there and many of their relatives died because of hunger.”

Before the quotas for the U.S. were opened, Ukrainians were sent back against their wishes to their home country, or moved to South America. Later, they started to enter the U.S. with financial help from Church World Services and The Tolstoy Fund.

In Goshen, they settled near the crossroads of CR 21 and CR 19, where Henry Cripe sold sections of his land to the newcomers. The initial Ukrainian community numbered more than 100 people, most of whom worked on the lines of local factories such Penn Controls or Whitehall Laboratories.

They also made paper bags in the Chase Bag Factory. Hulewicz said that despite many job opportunities at that time, staying in a foreign country was not always easy.

“We did not speak English and we had never been on welfare like people now have food stamps and welfare,” Hulewicz said. “We had five dollars in our pockets, no English. We wanted to get any job and we were happy; America accepted us. We were never thinking about getting anything from America.”

Over time, the Ukrainian community in Goshen has expanded. Today the community with roots in the Ukraine includes two different groups. Apart from about 50 people who belong to the Holy Trinity Orthodox Parish, there are around 400 people who attend the First Baptist Church.

Members of the First Baptist Church represent a majority of more recent arrivals from the Ukraine.  They came to Goshen in the last decade, especially because they could find jobs in this region easily. Many of them now work in the recreational vehicle industry and as nurses and custodians at IU Health Goshen or Goshen College.

The second generation of the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants, meanwhile, occupies positions up the professional ladder, working as teachers, engineers and doctors.

“The people when they came here tried to make sure that children were going to school,” Stickel said. “The generation that grew up here, whether they were born here or growing up here, acquired a better status of life.”

Meyta arrived in the U.S. in June 2005 with her husband and two daughters. Growing up in communist Ukraine by herself, she wanted a different life for her children. Before the family moved to Goshen in 2007, they lived in Spokane, Wash.  Meyta’s husband works as a self-employed truck driver, for which Indiana, in the heartland, serves as an advantageous home base.

“My husband has a cousin in Goshen,” Meyta said. “For me it was a hard choice, because Spokane is a bigger city and it also has more opportunities to attend language classes if you do not know English. But Goshen is the best place for my children. It’s smaller, safer and it’s a quiet area.”

The only thing she would change about the city is to have more parks where she could spend free time with her family.

Ukrainians contribute in many ways to community diversity. Although the number of members of the Holy Trinity Orthodox church is declining, according to Stickel, the church still prepares an Easter bake sale in the spring, where people can buy various goods, including Pascha bread, cheese and potato perogies.

On the same day Goshen residents can also attend a three-hour class where they can learn how to decorate traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs called “Pysanky.”

“We have a good turnout for that, usually 45 people show up,” Stickel said. “The lady that does the class explains the symbols on the eggs. That’s even the pre-Christian practice.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian residents who belong to the First Baptist Church cooperated with Forks Mennonite Church on Middlebury Street. Together they send missionaries and money to people in need in the Ukraine and Moldova.

The Ukraine has been experiencing a grave upheaval in which Russian forces are stationed in Ukraine’s Crimea region and are reported to be massing elsewhere along the border, amid fears of a broader intervention. Earlier, anti-government protests led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich, an ally of Russia. The Yanukovich administration had withdrawn from negotiations with the European Union that might have resulted in establishing a trade and cooperation pact between Ukraine and EU.

Many Goshen residents with Ukrainian roots are worried — and perhaps reluctant to speak publicly in ways that could have implications for relatives back home. Stickel gets information about the current situation from media, friends and relatives.

“My cousin’s daughter is married to a university teacher,” Stickel said.  “I understand his best friend is a leader in one of . . . the protest groups.”

Of four leaders, she said, “They have reported one of the four was found dead, two were severely beaten, and the best friend is missing. I know people are afraid.”