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'This Is Where We Can Help': How a Bay Area Ukrainian-Language Media Org Fosters Community in Time of War

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A stack of newspapers written in Ukrainian.
A stack of Hromada's March newspaper at the publication's newsroom in Corte Madera on March 18, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

Over the past month, mainstream media outlets in the United States have been packed with stories about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But for people looking for a somewhat different take on the news — and who are able to read articles written in Ukrainian — there’s Hromada.

With a circulation of about 1,000 copies, the monthly print edition of Hromada — which means "community" in Ukrainian — can be found at a dozen locations throughout Northern California, including Ukrainian churches and grocery stores in the Bay Area and Sacramento, as well as the Ukrainian consulate in San Francisco. The publication, which launched in 2017, also is available through its more frequently updated online and social media channels. 

'I read it every month'

At the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church in San Francisco's Portola neighborhood, 62-year-old parishioner Orest Balytsky said he’s been a fan of the paper since it launched four years ago.

A priest faces the altar in a church, as parishioners pray.
A Sunday service at the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church in San Francisco, where copies of Hromada are distributed. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

"I read it every month," said Balytsky, a Petaluma-based endodontist who moved here from Ukraine in the early 1990s.

Over coffee and pizza in the church basement after a recent Sunday service, Balytsky said most U.S. media has been too focused on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and has largely oversimplified or overlooked the political factors at play.

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"It's quite shocking and quite depressing, too," he said, of the current situation in his homeland.

In contrast, he said, Hromada offers clear-eyed political analysis from trusted sources on the ground in Ukraine, like Vitaly Portnikov, a well-known journalist and radio personality who regularly contributes commentary.

"When you listen to Portnikov, he analyzes a little bit different," Balytsky said. "It's much more sober."

Fellow churchgoer Lydia Stoykovych, a second-generation Ukrainian American, said Hromada not only has great writers, but also helps foster a sense of connection among the Ukrainian community in California.

"Hromada helps unite, spread the message, give a voice to a lot of the people who are here," said Stoykovych, a 32-year-old tech worker from Danville. “Having local activities, local events publicized is critical and what people on the West Coast want to hear. Because this is where we are. This is where we can take action. This is where we can help."

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U.S. Census Bureau data shows California has around 60,000 Ukrainian immigrants — the second-largest population in the country, after New York.

Hromada co-founder and editor in chief, Lesya Castillo. (Courtesy Lesya Castillo)

Yet, Mike Wassenaar, president and CEO of the Alliance for Community Media, said Hromada is, to his knowledge, the only Ukrainian-language newspaper on the entire West Coast.

Wassenaar, whose organization tracks grassroots broadcast and print outlets across the country, said community media sources like Hromada serve an important function.

"You have diaspora communities who have need for information about their daily life in America, and also about the lives of their families and friends in their home countries or in the countries of origin," he said. "And very often, mainstream outlets find it very hard to target information specifically that those audiences need."

Responding to the need

Hromada’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, Lesya Castillo, said she got the idea to start a Ukrainian-language newspaper after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and things started to destabilize in her native country.

A woman works behind a laptop.
Hromada co-founder Nataliya Anon works at her desk in the publication's Corte Madera office on March 18, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

"Our newspaper is something that I dreamed of starting because there was a need," said Castillo, who lived in the Bay Area for around 25 years before recently decamping to North Carolina following her husband's retirement. "Our priority is to unite community, to serve community."

Hromada pays its contributors. But everyone else involved with the Corte Madera-based nonprofit donates their time — including Castillo (who makes her living as a graphic designer) and co-founder Nataliya Anon, CEO of tech start-up Svitla Systems, also based in Corte Madera.

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"We thought it would be important for us to have a newspaper that is printed in Ukrainian so it could be a magnet and unifying force for the local Ukrainian community, where people can read about local Ukrainian events, where we could advertise Ukrainian businesses," said Anon, who came to the U.S. in the 1990s and now lives in Marin County. "We also wanted to spread awareness and create a sense of community together."

In an interesting aside that speaks to the deep roots of the Ukrainian community in the Bay Area, Anon said that although her publication might be the only Ukrainian-language media in the region today, it's by no means the first: A Ukrainian priest named Father Agapius Honcharenko, who lived in the Hayward hills for more than 40 years in the late 19th century and is buried in Garin Regional Park, published The Alaska Herald from 1868-1872.

Hromada has closely followed and reported on events unfolding in Ukraine. While most articles in the paper are written in Ukrainian, it prints all of its top headlines, and occasional stories, in English to grab the attention of non-Ukrainian speakers. The March issue leads with "NO-FLY ZONE OVER UKRAINE," printed in large, red capital letters.

More than a media outlet

Hromada goes beyond journalism: Anon said the nonprofit has sent several hundred thousand dollars in aid to Ukraine over the past four years.

It initially set up a fund to buy Christmas presents for orphaned children who lost their parents in the ongoing Crimean conflict. Anon said prior to the most recent Russian invasion, the group had raised about $100,000 for that cause. Since then, she said, Hromada has sent more than $150,000 in general emergency aid to Ukraine, and additionally plans to send at least $50,000 next week.

"Whatever money we collect, we send overnight to various charitable organizations and volunteers in Ukraine, in war zones, and they use that money for the most pressing needs for the refugees," said Anon.

A woman and man stand outside an office building holding a Ukrainian flag and a sign that says, 'No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine.'
Hromada co-founder Nataliya Anon, left, and volunteer CFO Yarema Kuzyshyn in front of the publication's office in Corte Madera on March 18, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

Despite her group's deep immersion in Ukrainian affairs over the past few years, Castillo said the Russian invasion came as a shock to her and her team.

"I couldn't imagine that Russia would start bombing Ukrainian cities on such a large scale," she said, noting that she only had a few days to completely rethink the March edition.

For that issue, Karyna Nikitishyna, the publication’s youngest correspondent, filed a story from Kyiv, where she has continued to live despite the risk.

"I was originally supposed to do an article about the readiness of Ukraine in the case of a big war," Nikitishyna said in a recent WhatsApp interview. "In the end, I just wrote about my experience of the first week of war and how surreal it all felt."

In her story in the March issue, she describes, among other things, what it felt like when the windows of her home first started to shake as bombs exploded nearby.

Nikitishyna, who turned 21 this week, said she recently spent hours trying to buy a birthday cake for herself in Kyiv’s empty grocery stores.

In the face of turmoil, Nikitishyna said the work she does for Hromada feels important.

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"I feel like I'm doing something useful for society," she said. "To provide information for Ukrainian people overseas who are far away from their ancestral home and who need to know real news about what is going on here."

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