Ukrainian immigrants speak of their love for their country at Willmar rally in Willmar

Ukrainian immigrants and other spoke at a rally to support Ukraine Sunday afternoon in downtown Willmar. Speakers talked about Ukraine and the need to support its people, who are enduring an invasion by the Russian army.

A crowd of people holding yellow and blue signs
About 100 people attended a rally in support of Ukraine in downtown Willmar Sunday, March 13, 2022.
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Oleksandr Vovchenko is safe, as a teacher in Willmar, but the native of Ukraine worries about his adult daughter, who was living in Kyiv when the Russian army invaded the country in February.

Her family sends her money, Vovchenko said, and she is purchasing needed supplies for Ukrainian troops. He said he has a nephew and a cousin fighting for Ukraine.

A man speaking at a microphone
Oleksandr Vovchenko, a native of Ukraine teaching in Willmar, speaks to a rally in support of Ukraine Sunday, March 13, in downtown Willmar. In the foreground is a basket of sunflowers, Ukraine's national flower.
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

Vovchenko and others spoke to about 100 people attending a rally for Ukraine Sunday afternoon in downtown Willmar.

Many in the crowd wore blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine’s flag. A table near the speaker’s podium had a basket filled with sunflowers, the country’s national flower.

Those attending were asked to help Ukrainians who are facing hardships because of the invasion, both through financial donations and through prayer.


Olena Skonard moved to this country last year, when she married her husband, David Skonard, of Willmar. She is from the Cherkasy Oblast in central Ukraine.

She worked as a translator at Camp Maximum, a Bible camp in Ukraine developed several years ago in a partnership between Baptist churches in Minnesota and Ukraine.

The Rev. David Lanning, pastor of worship and mission at Refuge Church of Willmar, asked Skonard to tell people about Ukraine’s history.

Two women holding blue and yellow signs
Joyce Elkjer and Fran Clark, both of Willmar, hold blue and yellow signs that say "Glory to Ukraine" at a rally to support Ukraine in downtown Willmar on Sunday, March 13, 2022.
Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

The country’s history goes back to 882, Skonard said. “At that time Moscow, the capital of Russia, didn’t even exist,” she said.

She became emotional as she talked about her homeland and its history.

Ukraine is an independent country with its own long history, flag and national anthem, she said. While it was at one time part of the Soviet Union, it has been recognized as an independent country since Aug. 24, 1991.

“Whatever your cause is, to invade a different country with peaceful people; how can you justify it?” Skonard asked.

“I’m getting emotional, because it is my land,” she said. “We are a separate country, we are independent, and no one has a right to invade us.”


Neither Ukrainian speaker wanted to refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin by name. Skonard used “Mr. Dictator,” and Vovchenko went with “Putler.”

Several speakers from the Willmar area, including Lanning, spoke about their trips to Ukraine and what the country and its people mean to them.

Jeff Winter, of Willmar, said he has admired some of the tactics of the defiant Ukrainians, including changing street signs to “tell the Russians where to go.”

Winter said he hopes to go back someday to help rebuild the country.

Lanning spoke about a sister congregation in Ukraine, and the ties to Ukraine when four biological sisters from Ukraine were each adopted by a different family from the Willmar church. Several of those families were represented in the crowd Sunday.

Lanning said some suggestions for people who would like to donate to the Ukrainians are and .

The donation will be made to 20 Minutes, a newspaper in Kyiv that has had to suspend printing its newspaper and switch exclusively to online publishing during the Russian invasion. Despite sheltering in place and fearing for their lives, their journalists have continued to write, publish and distribute their stories so the people of Kyiv can stay informed.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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