How LA’s Ukrainian Culture Center Transformed Into A Hub Of The Resistance
One Saturday last month, the cavernous interior of the Ukrainian Culture Center in East Hollywood was hung with dozens of paintings, all donated by local artists. It was a silent auction, a fundraiser for Ukraine relief efforts.
“We've never had an art showing,” center board member Halyna Bond said excitedly as she motioned around the room. “We didn't even know that we can do something like that.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the center’s 10-member board of directors has had to learn to do lots of new things — fast.
Dances, Weddings, And Quinceañeras
The Ukrainian Culture Center of Los Angeles was founded during World War II by Ukrainian immigrants who arrived during that era’s exodus from Ukraine. In 1959, the group bought the 1920s-era hall on Melrose Avenue, a one-time silent movie theater.
The center became known for hosting things like traditional dance performances and holiday celebrations for the local Ukrainian community, which according to U.S. Census figures numbers about 17,000 in greater Los Angeles.
For the rest of L.A., it has served as a popular rental hall for events like quinceañeras, wedding receptions and concerts — which it still is.
But when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the old center was suddenly transformed from longtime cultural hub into a hub of the resistance.
‘The Moment That I Knew’
Board president Laryssa Reifel remembers the instant she realized everything would change. On Feb. 24, the day the Russian invasion began, she and the other board members were on a conference call.
“And all of a sudden, board members started dropping off the call saying, “We gotta go, the bombs have started flying in Ukraine,” Reifel said. “And that was the moment that I knew.”
The phone line for the center — staffed by an events manager who handles rentals — started ringing with calls from the news media, the community, even politicians. Many of these calls would be referred to Reifel, a second-generation Ukrainian American transplant from Chicago, who became the nonprofit’s president a little over a year ago.
“It was actually a little bit scary, to be quite honest with you,” she said, remembering one of the first calls she received: “About three days after the war broke out, a district manager in Congressman [Adam] Schiff’s office … called to say, ‘Congressman Schiff would like to speak with you.’ And I said, ‘Uh, okay.’”
Reifel laughs about it now. But it was one of those sink-or-swim moments.
“I sort of looked at my phone and I thought, okay, here we go, here's the laundry list of things I've never been trained to do. And I have to learn how to do 'em.”
For example, she suddenly had to serve as spokesperson for her community on a call with the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
“You know, when you're just a regular citizen and you find out you've got two hours to prepare for a conference call with this sitting congressman, that's a tall order,” Reifel said.
‘How Do I Get An Airplane?’
There were more calls: from people wanting to donate aid to Ukraine, and from families with displaced relatives wondering how to help them.
Reifel and the rest of the board quickly figured out how to funnel donations toward relief efforts — for example, in early March they began hosting sessions at the center for volunteers to assemble first-aid kits.
Once they had thousands of first-aid kits and other donated supplies, Reifel said she and the others had to figure out a whole series of logistical challenges, “Like, how do I get an airplane?”
Since then they’ve connected with shipping companies and rented warehouse space for donated items. They’ve become advocates, lobbying politicians and connecting with diplomats.
All of it is a tall order, Reifel said, because “we’re all volunteers,” she said with a laugh. “These aren't our day jobs.”
For Reifel, who works in finance for a tech company, this means getting online by 6 a.m. to do her Ukraine-related duties before she starts her workday, then picking up again once she wraps up. She typically logs off around 10 p.m.
Working from home helps. One recent afternoon, she took her lunch break in the kitchen of her Costa Mesa home while joining a Zoom call with Ukrainian diplomats in the U.S., who talked about the Biden administration’s plan for admitting up to 100,000 displaced Ukrainians.
‘Doing Something To Help Lead To Victory’
The center’s leaders have also been figuring out the best ways to help incoming refugees. As more Ukrainians arrive in Southern California, Reifel and others have been fielding calls and trying to connect those who need help with those who can provide it.
A few weeks ago, a landlord approached her offering temporary housing for Ukrainian refugees; she's since connected them to a family that crossed the border.
The center’s website also has a “how you can help” section, a community bulletin board listing things like job opportunities, and a link to an independent platform for people willing to host new arrivals.
Meanwhile, immigration lawyers and even mental health professionals have approached the center to offer free services.
“We’re thinking about having a day at the center of, ‘If you're here and you're displaced, come to the center on this day, and we can get you all of this free professional advice,’” Reifel said.
At the art auction, things were winding down for the evening as organizers prepared for the next day’s fundraiser: a classical music concert.
“We’ve never had a classical concert. We are having one tomorrow with 53 musicians,” board member Bond said.
The new work the center has taken on isn’t easy, said Bond, a first-generation immigrant who like other board members has family in Ukraine.
But they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We are so far away, it's important for us to do something,” she said, “to be part of this … to know that we are doing something to help lead to victory.”
Elizabeth Zaharkiv-Yemetz, vice-president of the affiliated Ukrainian Art Center, said she’s told her cousins in Ukraine about the work the culture center is doing. “They are just so grateful that they are not being forgotten,” she said.