Ukrainian local stresses the importance of education and what inspired her to create a fundraiser

By Angelina Halas
March 23, 2022

Nelya Naida and her sister
Nelya Naida (right) and her sister (left) photographed wearing a vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt. Image from Nelya Naida.

In 1998, Nelya Naida’s parents met in Ukraine. Both were born and raised in the country and six months after the birth of their first daughter, they moved to the United States with only two suitcases: one filled with pots and pans and another filled with clothes. They started their new life in New York, hopping around living with family friends, then eventually moved to Bridgeport, Pennsylvania. 

“Maybe it’s because of my Ukrainian household but to me, you work for what you want, you do what you can and you make sacrifices,” Naida said. “My parents did all of these things and part of me thought that the working mentality was just my hardworking and determined parents but I think the whole world can see now that it’s more than just them. It’s Ukraine. We are so driven and determined as a country and as a community that we’re facing one of the biggest armies in the world. Call it nature versus nurture or genetics but I think it’s something in Ukrainian blood that drives us to work even harder, be confident in who we are and really rise together.”

Growing up, Ukrainian was her first language. She started school “without even speaking a lick of English” because her family was so new to the United States. They didn’t speak English at home, they didn’t practice it. She was either with her parents or grandmother who were always teaching her Ukrainian rhymes and Ukrainian children stories, surrounding her by Ukrainian songs and culture.

When Naida’s sister was born three years later, their parents decided to raise their children in a Ukrainian household.

“We had a rule at one time that you only speak Ukrainian in the house between each other,” Naida said. “They didn’t want us to lose the language and they knew it would be a strong skill for us to have. They also knew that it would make us cherish and emphasize our culture even more.” 

In fourth grade, Naida’s family learned about the Ukrainian Education and Cultural Center in Jenkintown. Until graduating high school, every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., she attended and would learn about Ukrainian geography, culture, literature and history. She was able to educate others through her time there and went back to be an assistant teacher for two years, teaching kids the alphabet and learning how to read. 

Naida’s pride for being a Ukrainian has increased during this time of war even though she’s always had it. 

“It wasn’t something I was scared to talk about or share,” Naida said. “I didn’t walk up to someone and say ‘Hi, my name is Nelya and I’m Ukrainian.’ I keep up with Ukrainian pop culture. I watch their movies and listen to their songs. When I talk to my parents, I always talk to them in Ukrainian. People would hear it and typically ask if I’m speaking Russian. My pride has risen beyond a 10 with this war. Now when I go out, I do say ‘Hi, my name is Nelya and I am Ukrainian.’ I want people to know who we are.” 

With so many events continuing to unfold and heading into almost four weeks of the war, Naida has found it hard to describe how she actually feels about the situation in Ukraine. She discussed how Ukraine has had revolutions in the past, such as the Orange Revolution in 2004, and that this war seemed almost “inevitable.” 

“If it wasn’t going to be a war, it was just going to be continuous revolutions happening and people getting hurt,” Naida said. “It was the final straw at the end of the day but at the same time, how much longer can we keep fighting and trying to prove ourselves as an independent country even though we always have been and always will be?”

“There’s only so much you can grasp. There is also so much propaganda being fed through the media and Putin is so unhinged that you don’t know what he’ll bring tomorrow.” 

Naida and her family talk to their friends and relatives almost every other day to see how they’re doing and find out what’s going on in Ukraine. To her surprise, many of them are calm and are taking it day by day, just happy to see another. 

She believes that Ukraine is doing “everything they can and more” during this war and credits President Zelenskiy for keeping morale up. 

Sample post from President Zelenskiy describing his hope for Ukraine. Screenshot taken from @zelenskiy_official by Angelina Halas.

“He is fully, whole-heartedly emotionally supporting everyone and keeping the right mindset amongst our people,” Naida said. “Everyday he’s on Instagram telling everyone to keep their heads high and reminding them that they have the courage and strength to keep going. We have so many urban and rural towns being destroyed along with kindergartens and labor delivery hospitals. He’s already working to not only have the funds but to have the support of other European countries to rebuild and bounce back and I think that gives hope to people because if we’re already thinking about the recovery, we’re going to make it out okay.” 

Naida laughs at how the Russian propaganda is constantly trying to put out that Zelenskiy is hiding and leaving Ukraine. However, everday Zelenskiy posts that he’s sill there, in his office, working and fighting. 

“So many people are on Instagram and seeing what he’s doing does make an impact,” Naida said. 

Her perspective has changed on the war as in the beginning, she didn’t understand why no one was helping Ukraine and why they were the only country fighting. 

“As I’ve learned more and read more, even if other countries were to step in, Putin announced multiple times that it will become a war on those countries as well and at that point, it is becoming a third world war,” Naida said. 

“Seeing this five foot four man who is completely mentally insane and power hungry, it could lead to a nuclear war. It’s really sad because there is a county that is losing so many of its people, but people don’t realize that Russia is losing a lot of its people too. A lot of young men and soldiers were sent out on a military exercise. They didn’t know they were going to fight a war.” 

Naida finds that to compare the state of the two countries is a “double-edged sword.” Ukraine has been fighting to prove themselves, their independence and who they are as a country for so long. But there are people in Russia who don’t support this war. If they speak up against it, they could serve time in prison. 

CBS News reports that over 13,000 protestors have been arrested. Those who are arrested are ordered to sign a statement of guilt. 

Naida’s father has a cousin who lives in Russia and informed them that over there, they are not allowed to send a text message that says “war.” They’re cut off from Facebook, Twitter and social media. 

“He had called us and asked us to send videos of anything that we were seeing over here because they don’t see anything there,” Naida said. “They have one news channel.”

Despite those in Russia being unable to see anything through social media, she finds that it has immensely helped the situation in her area. 

“I was so in awe of the fact that this is in our face. We can fully see it,” Naida said. “We learn about wars as such a historic and archaic thing, but now, war is on Instagram, buildings are being bombed and everything is a wreck. Ukrainians want everyone to see that this is what Russia is doing. Having social media is so beneficial because it shows the reality of the situation which opens a lot of people’s minds and hits closer to home. We have a lot more people talking about this. People are reaching out and wanting to learn more.”

With her deep Ukrainian roots, Naida had the idea to create a fundraiser while she was on spring break in Florida. Back at home [Pennsylvania], her mother and sister were collecting donations and packaging them at the Ukrainian Center to ship to Ukraine. It included items like clothing, baby food, formulas and first aid kits. 

“Being so far away from that made me feel guilty that I wasn’t doing more and I wanted to be a lot more hands on,” Naida said. “The moment I got back, I knew I wanted to organize something. I feel so fortunate to have a great support system and to have so many people that were on board with me. That inspired me to create a three on three basketball tournament. It’s basketball season, it’s March Madness and as a Villanova student, everyone loves basketball.” 

The fundraiser tournament took place on Sunday, March 20, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Jake Nevin Field House on Villanova’s campus. It was $10 per player ($30 per team). The basketball tournament was held for only Villanova students but spectators could go and watch. 

“I hope everyone comes out and enjoys themselves,” Naida said. “I hope people recognize the grasp and reality of the situation. I’m excited to thank everyone for coming out and I want to continue to stress education and support, along with raising a good amount of money. Money goes so far. They need it but to get people talking and recognizing the strength of courage of the whole Ukrainian country is also a goal of mine.” 

Naida’s fundraiser will be collecting monetary donations and sending all of the donations to Humanitarian Aid for Ukraine, United Ukrainian American Relief Committee, United Help Ukraine and Knights of Columbus Ukraine Solidarity Fund. After posting flyers around Villanova’s campus, in just a week she raised over $1,000 from students, professors and parents. 

Use the Venmo name @humanitarian4ukraine to send donations to Naida’s fundraiser. Image created and sent by Nelya Naida.

“It’s been extremely heartwarming and rewarding to see how so many people are willing to help,” Naida said. “I can’t wait to see people take on this basketball tournament and have fun with it but also show their support and be excited about doing something good.” 

Physical donations have stopped as the shipping company Naida and her family were going to ship through is fully booked to the brim. What they’re doing is going through the packages and reopening them to find things like medicine to ship off first. The money that gets raised goes to Poland and they are going to buy the supplies there and bus them over to Ukraine since it’s nearly impossible to get to a grocery store there right now. 

“The biggest thing Ukranians actually need right now is a place to stay,” Naida said. “It’s stressful since there isn’t really a way for us to provide that from over here. But number one that we can help with is military aid. Not even just ammunition, just vests, knee pads, army helmets. People are just going out in their winter coats, being handed a gun and being told to fight.” 

She described the next biggest need would be medicinal aid, like pain killers, gauzes, vaseline. She’s found it hard to ship because the companies are so overwhelmed with the amount of donations and they don’t have the transportation for it. Then there are the everyday items that people don’t think about. Women need pads and tampons. Children need diapers, snacks and books since they aren’t learning right now. People need clean water and she finds it hard to wrap her head around how much is needed but all of the human basics are in high demand.

Naida hopes to continue to raise money and also educate others along with herself by watching documentaries, reading articles, going back to her books from Ukrainian school and understanding the politics of it all to help her know why it’s difficult for other countries to get involved and what that could mean. 

The advice she wishes to give to others is to “make sure that whatever you read is coming from a good source. Be able to tell the propaganda apart.” Education on the history of the situation and Ukraine’s history, is key in recognizing that they’ve been fighting this for a lot longer.

“Putin has been in power for over 22 years and now it’s too little too late for Russians to do anything about it,” Naida said. “They had time to make different choices, step up and get rid of their dictator. Ukraine has been fighting consistently against our own government and now against him. Make sure you’re reading up on the facts and know the background of the situation.” 

Her hope for Ukraine is to eventually find justice.

“It’s gone to such lengths and extremities that I don’t think it’s possible to find humane justice for everything that’s happened,” Naida said. “There are so many innocent people and places being bombed, missled and shot up. How do you provide justice for that? How do you justify that in any way?” 

“Hopefully we bounce back with time. We might not see it within the next few years but maybe within a generation or two when Ukraine steps up and we become one of the most powerful forces in Europe, or in the world, who knows. We rebuild with the support of everyone else and maybe that would be justice when we’re standing at the top and we’re showing, influencing and inspiring people what courage, drive and fight looks like. We’re not going to give up, we’re here and we’re going to keep going.” 

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Angelina Halas

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