Ukrainian-American Credit Unions Provide Homeland Relief
When Oleg Lebedko traveled with his family to Ukraine in August, his luggage carried more than just vacation supplies. In fact, the presents he brought for his countrymen may have saved lives.
Lebedko, CEO of the $180 million Ukrainian Federal Credit Union in Rochester, N.Y., packed packets of Celox, a medicated gauze designed to control bleeding within minutes of application, before visiting northeastern Ukraine. His luggage also included Combat Application Tourniquets, known as C-A-Ts, approved by the U.S. Army and considered to be 100% effective in occluding blood flow in combat victims’ upper and lower extremities.
The medical supplies were handed off to a trusted colleague in Ukraine who then ferried them to eastern battlefields for use by Ukrainian forces in the war against what Lebedko and other Ukrainian-Americans consider a Russian invasion of their homeland.
Funds to pay for the supplies, which cost $40 each for the gauze and $30 each for the tourniquets, were raised by RocEuroMaidan, a Rochester community organization formed last fall to raise funds for humanitarian purposes and lobby for political influence in support of Ukraine's opposition to Russian annexation, according to the group.
Lebedko, one of the group's 14 members, isn't the only one from the committee to have delivered much needed humanitarian supplies. He also isn't alone in his concern for the situation.
“I feel angry and sorry for the people of Ukraine,” said Lebedko, whose hometown of Sumy is just 30 miles from the Russian border. “I am disappointed that Ukraine is still fighting for its independence after 23 years.”
Lebedko's views may be shared by many Ukrainian-Americans, which numbered 961,113 in 2006 according to U.S. Census figures. The largest communities are concentrated New York, Pennsylvania, California and New Jersey. Support for Ukraine's efforts has blossomed across the country, much of it supported both financially and in spirit by the 14 Ukrainian-American credit unions serving these communities.
“I don't have the details, but I believe each credit union has its own support program,” said Orysia Burdiak, president and sole paid employee of the Chicago-based Ukrainian National Credit Union Association.
Currently, the 14 credit unions, all of which are UNCUA members, serve more than 100,000 members nationwide and hold $2.8 billion in assets. The reaction to the situation in Ukraine has largely been one of outrage, according UNCUA Chair Bohdan Kurczak, president/CEO of $1.1 billion Self Reliance New York Federal Credit Union, in New York, and the largest Ukrainian-American credit union.
“Our members are horrified as they watch the territorial integrity of their homeland being violated,” said Kurczak, a first-generation Ukrainian-American citizen whose parents emigrated to the U.S. after World War II. “The members who have family in the affected areas fear for the lives and safety of their loved ones.”
Self Reliance New York, along with other UNCUA members, have been donating to various Ukrainian social service organizations that have been supplying humanitarian aid in the form of food and medical supplies. Other supplies have included bulletproof vests, night-vision goggles, helmets, and boots for the fighters themselves.
Although credit union-supported committees have engaged in discussions with local political representatives for the purpose of lobbying government agencies on behalf of members, none have taken an institutional stance for political as well as legal reasons, according to Walter Tun, marketing manager for the $428 million Selfreliance Ukrainian American Federal Credit Union in Chicago.
“As an institution that's federally regulated, we can't support particular programs overseas designed to change or overthrow governments, so we don't get involved in that kind of thing,” said Tun, a Chicago native whose parents emigrated from Ukraine.
“But our 21,000 members wanted to do something, so we provide a place where organizations can open accounts and collect money to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine,” Tun added.
Selfreliance Chicago contributes $800,000 annually to various Ukrainian-American groups and will likely see an increase in that number as recipient groups earmark more of their funds for humanitarian aid, Tun said. In 2013, Self Reliance New York contributed $1.3 million primarily to the United Ukrainian American Relief Committee, which are funneling increasing amounts back to Ukraine, according to Kurczak.
In New York, a group of Ukrainian volunteers from Rochester and Buffalo met with Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
“The money has been used primarily for humanitarian aid, help for injured victims and help for the families of those killed during the events on Kiev's Independence Square,” Kurczak said. “In addition, funds have been provided for the humanitarian needs of the Ukrainian Army and National Guard.”
Both credit unions represent the largest members of UNCUA, but even the smaller institutions are showing support.
“We have an ongoing program in which members each donate $100, then nominate two other people to donate money,” said Inessa Koval, manager of $8.2 million Osnova Ukrainian Federal Credit Union, which serves about 700 members in the Cleveland suburb of Parma, Ohio. “We’re meeting next week to discuss providing institutional support.”
The funds are donated to the Cleveland Maidan Association – “maidan” refers to Independence Square in Kiev where the protests began earlier this year – and will be used to purchase “everything from toothpaste to food to bulletproof vests,” Koval said.
Some Ukrainian-American credit unions also wired funds for members to financial institutions back home through Western Union and MoneyGram. Surprisingly, among those that do, there has been little in the way of increases or decreases since the war began, according to credit union officials.
Ukrainian FCU, which has nine branches in five states and will soon open a 10th branch in Seattle, processed $320,000 during the first quarter of 2014 from its Rochester headquarters, which Lebedko said is roughly on par with the $1.2 million in remittances processed during all of 2013.
Last year, the much larger Self Reliance New York processed $15 million in remittances to Ukraine and other Eastern European countries where members have families. Most of those remittances went to commercial banks rather Ukraine's credit unions at the members’ requests, something that Kurczak attributes to the country's continued instability, devaluation of currency and military activity.
Other credit union officials felt that Ukraine's nascent credit union movement, barely 20 years old, was ill-equipped to handle remittances, especially in light of the conflict. According to the latest figures, there were 624 credit unions holding $309 million in assets and serving 1.3 million members, according to the World Council of Credit Unions’ 2013 Statistical Report.
Political activities also figured into the support provided by Ukrainian-American credit unions. Through the RocEuroMaidan group, members of Ukrainian FCU has worked with several local representatives to make sure the needs of Ukraine's people are heard by government bodies that have influence in crafting U.S. policy. Selfreliance Chicago has also worked with local politicians to promote Ukraine's cause.
Self Reliance New York financially supports both the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and the Ukrainian National Information Service, both located in Washington, D.C., that facilitate interaction between the Ukrainian community and members of the U.S. Congress, administration officials and the mass media regarding issues surrounding the conflict.
In addition, Kurczak and members of the board and staff are helping coordinate and will be attending a dinner honoring Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, who will be in New York Sept. 24-25 to address the United Nations.
Kurczak said he hopes the speech will help ignite better understanding of the situation and greater support from the West for Ukraine.
“I am upset that, again, Russia does not respect Ukraine's independence and appears to be heading towards a goal of forcefully rebuilding the Soviet empire with all the implications that has not only for Ukraine, but all democratic countries,” Kurczak said. “I am also disappointed in the West's lack of meaningful support for Ukraine.”
In 1994, Ukraine removed its Soviet-era nuclear weapons, sent them to disarmament facilities in Russia and signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In return, Russia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom on Dec. 5, 1994, signed The Budapest Memorandum agreeing to provide security assurances against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has violated that agreement, Kurczak said.
“I don't believe that the current sanctions and the urging of Russia to respect the territory of Ukraine meets the assurances that these countries gave Ukraine in 1994,” Kurczak said.
Ukrainian FCU's Lebedko agreed: “The big questions is what the future holds and what's going to happen to those territories (that have already been annexed),” he said. “Ukraine should stay one country and Russian troops need to go home and let Ukrainians decide.”