Reflecting on One Year of War
Vasile's story is part of the "Reflecting on One Year of War" series, created by Central Current to offer a space to document and elevate the many Ukrainian voices of our local community.
A soft ringtone whirred from Vasile Colopenic’s phone as he adjusted the yellow and blue ribbon safety-pinned to his sweater. After an apologetic glance, his eyes scanned the notifications on the screen.
Since Feb. 24 of 2022, the Ukrainian pastor has been a beacon for those living through war in Ukraine, guiding 31 refugees from their beloved homeland to his community in Auburn, New York.
Through Facebook, Ukrainians looking to come to the U.S. found Colopelnic and asked him to help them leave the country.
He and members of his church worked to sponsor refugees and find local families to open their homes. Auburn families who were not affiliated with the church sought out Colopelnic upon hearing about the war and soon welcomed their new roommates, some needing Google translate to communicate.
As individuals and families trickled into Auburn, Colopelnic’s role as pastor at St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church took on a new meaning.
He spent late nights translating and walking his new community members through their work authorization papers as they arrived from November to January. He partnered with literacy volunteers who ran evening English-language classes in the basement of his church. He created an intricate schedule of volunteers to provide transportation to refugees who needed rides to work and to doctor appointments. He opened his home to a woman in need of transitional housing and converted the former rectory next to the church into a home for two families.
“It’s a blessing when you have to serve someone; it is not a burden for me,” Colopelnic said.
With his two children in college, he said, he was able to devote more time to helping those coming from Ukraine.
Nearly all of the refugees Colopelnic brought to Auburn have now found their own jobs and housing, and some have been able to purchase cars, he said with pride, as his main goal was to help them integrate into the community.
The logistical juggling has started to slow for Colopelnic. A mother and daughter returned to their home in a frontline town in eastern Ukraine, against his wishes. A cosmetologist found a better opportunity to practice in California. A young dancer and her single father moved to Manhattan to pursue her dream of becoming a professional dancer.
Thirty-one people turned to 19 in a few short months, as Colopelnic said goodbye to the people he’s worked closely with to rebuild the lives they were forced to leave behind.
While the English classes have ceased and many refugees are living independently from the church, Colopelnic’s work is far from done.
Some of the refugees in Auburn left western Ukraine, farther from the tragedy taking place on the front lines.
“The trauma is still there, because you know your country has been attacked, innocent people are dying, children have been deported,” he said.
People hear news that friends from their hometowns have died and that the siege on their country continues, he said. Colopelnic helps them through the trauma and provides spiritual guidance for those who find solace in religion. For those who do not, he said, he acts as a teacher to help them adjust to life in America, as he did when he moved to the U.S. after growing up in Romania and studying in Italy.
Colopelnic often excludes his own emotions from the narrative as a pastor, but he found a recent experience to be particularly difficult, he said.
He recently visited a church in New York City to meet with Ukrainian refugees and participate in the service, and he was introduced to three young men who lost their legs fighting in Ukraine. They came to the U.S. to get prosthetics, and Colopelnic is helping fundraise for the soldiers.
“As I served one of the liturgical services, there were over 300 people. Those people seeing these young men in their 30s and maybe their 20s without legs, it’s really traumatizing,” he said.
Now, back in Auburn, Colopelnic is gearing up for the Ukrainian cultural festival this summer. He continues to serve as a sounding board for the refugees remaining in Auburn as they learn the American tax system and further integrate into the community, and he remains in contact with those who have returned to Ukraine or moved somewhere else in the states.
He hopes that the festival will be a unifying event between those who are connected to the church and those who are not as religiously affiliated.
The church, Colopelnic said, acts as a Ukrainian island. Although it’s more than 7,000 miles from the refugees’ home, praying in their own language and finding community among other Ukrainians can make them feel more comfortable.
The path forward, he believes, is to dive into the fight for Ukrainian freedom and embrace the needs of the community without a second thought: “Every time we stand back, that takes away our humanity.”
read more from reflecting on one year of war series
Family leaves Ukraine, navigates life in Central New York
In August 2022, the Makarevych family left their home in Mukachevo, Ukraine, to seek refuge in Central New York’s Ukrainian community.
Auburn resident and Ukrainian refugee form bond despite language barrier
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Hanna Rusnak left her home country to live in Auburn, New York with Marion Cool.
Auburn couple opens home to Ukrainian refugee
Olena Abramova left her home in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine, to seek refuge in America with a couple located in Auburn, New York.
Ukrainian students in Syracuse torn between homeland war, school
Central Current interviewed students with connections to Syracuse and Ukraine to better understand how members of the local college community have been impacted by the war in Ukraine.
Reflecting on One Year of War: a Syracuse resident’s journey through Ukraine
Feb. 24 marked a year since Russia declared war on Ukraine. For ten months, Oleg Grabovyy left his home in Syracuse to help defend his native country. He spent time interpreting, training brigades of soldiers and delivering humanitarian aid.
Syracuse-area Ukrainians share their stories: Reflecting on One Year of War
Central Current was there last year to cover the local outpouring of grief and support when Russia waged war on Ukraine in Feb. 2022.