The busy streets Valeriia Pareichuk used to walk in Kherson, Ukraine, are now filled with burned-out homes as seen on her television and phone screens. Over 5,000 miles from her family and friends, she finds solace in her art and photography to inspire peace.
“More people now know that Ukraine exists as a country,” Pareichuk said. “This is something that’s still going on and I’m glad I get to share our proud history, culture, food, and we’ve always been meaning to share it with everyone. Now, I can share and help try to be a part of the change through photography, art and more to help raise awareness.”
She was born and raised in Kherson, which is the southern part of Ukraine. Her hobbies included using her camera and taking pictures of her friends, family and homeland scenery. She even remembers doing arts and crafts and taking pottery classes.
“Our family did plan to eventually move to the United States,” Pareichuk said. “It took over 10 years then it happened out of nowhere.”
In the middle of her freshman year of high school in Kherson, her family received a notification that they needed to work on a couple of more documents and they could go to the United States.
In February 2015, the now 22-year-old moved with her mother to Jacksonville while her father and his side of the family stayed in Ukraine.
“It’s been a long journey,” Pareichuk said. “Even though I’ve taken English classes since school in Ukraine, the first difficulty for me coming here really was the language, and I didn’t speak English at the time.”
Within a week of moving from Ukraine to Jacksonville, she was enrolled in high school. Within the first couple years, she said she looked forward to making new friends and getting good grades.
“Some of the other students knew what I was going through,” Pareichuk said. “I didn’t have any Russian or Ukrainian friends and some of them had difficulty communicating with me.”
She had to use Google Translate.
“I was just thrown into it all,” she said. “I went that little extra mile to learn some more [English] even from when I was in Ukraine and I knew having the chance to be here might help with a bunch of opportunities.”
She graduated high school and now attends Florida Atlantic University and lives in Delray Beach. At FAU, she studied architecture for two years and now studies studio arts, learning photography and printmaking.
While at FAU, Pareichuk received news that Kherson was currently being occupied by the Russians, and millions of Ukrainians became refugees as a result of Russia’s invasion that began Feb. 24.
“When a lot of people ask me where I’m from and I say Ukraine, a lot of people didn’t know where it is,” she said. “But now, they just get so silent, quiet; they don’t know what to say or they’re like, ‘I’m so sorry.’”
The invasion happened the day before her birthday, and that night she couldn’t sleep and she was constantly looking at Instagram to stay updated.
“I saw people posting that they never thought they’d wake up to the sound of an explosion or a bomb or guns,” Pareichuk said.
She said a two-month dip into depression led her to not feeling well enough to go to work or school, and she felt like there wasn’t anything she could do.
“I was so confused,” Pareichuk said. ”I started texting my friends and family members.”
She still keeps in contact with her father in Ukraine and he keeps her updated on what’s happening in her hometown.
“This whole thing actually happened in 2014 with Crimea,” Pareichuk said. “People don’t talk about this anymore and that makes me scared because war, putting bags over people’s heads taking them to a basement and questioning them, taking personal documents away is harassment that can go on for years and nobody should go through that.”
She is having difficulty staying in touch with her father and friends because the internet connection has been disrupted.
“At first, I didn’t know how I’m going to get through it,” Pareichuk said. “I just felt so hopeless because I’m so far away and I wish I could be there in the moment to be there for everyone. I’m so far away, but there’s something I can still do through my art and I can speak out on this.”
She decided to speak out on this through artistic expression. She likes to work in different mediums but primarily concentrates on digital artwork and photography. She decided to use her photography and digital artwork to spread awareness about what is going on and to speak out about the war in Ukraine.
An example is the Ukrainian national dress, called vyshyvanka, given to her family by her godmother. Pareichuk crafted the headpiece, took self-portraits and incorporated specific and symbolic flowers. The blue-and-yellow ribbons attached to the back symbolize the sky and the fields of wheat. These are traditionally worn on holidays and special occasions by girls and young unmarried women.
In her self-portrait series, she wanted to represent beauty, pride and hope. Even though she’s never used herself as a model, she wanted to be the subject to convey natural emotion about how she felt about Ukraine being under siege.
“For the self-portrait, I had different people both in Ukraine and here locally telling me they can feel what I feel through that series and understand,” Pareichuk said.
She also wanted everyone to know that she is proud to be Ukrainian and that they will continue to value and carry on their rich culture and history.
The sunflower is incorporated in most of these works because it is the national flower of Ukraine. Some of her photos are made with a film camera, and her digital illustrations such as the combat boot over the sunflowers represent the destruction and demolishment of the country, its people and places.
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“The sunflower is a metaphor,” Pareichuk said, “like how it grows toward the sun and it will always get up.”
Despite trying to break Ukrainians apart, this invasion has only made them stronger and closer to each other, she said.
“The first one I did was the Ukrainian girl and it was a digital artwork, and it was a girl wearing the traditional Ukrainian clothing and having tears come down her face,” Pareichuk said. “It felt so good to share that. It helped me to get through this whole thing and even though I’m so far away, I can still speak out on this and people get a better understanding that Ukraine is an independent country.”
After successfully sharing her artwork and photography with family, professors, classmates and friends, Pareichuk was a part of the online 2022 FAU Senior Exhibition “Exploration Through Expression,” a showcase of presenting student work. She was also part of a drawing exhibition that was also Ukraine-related, using colored pencils to make an abstract design over her self-portrait.
“It brought a lot of exposure and questions,” Pareichuk said. “I was grateful for that, and it shows people still care … and to be informed on the culture and what’s still happening.”
Pareichuk’s photography talents have also gone beyond the FAU campus with offers to take portraits and set up photoshoots.
“People tell me they don’t see [the war] on the news as much anymore and they ask me, ‘is it over?’ and I say no, it’s not and people are still struggling from this,” she said. “But we’ve gotten a lot of support from multiple countries, and if you’ve ever wanted to protect your culture and what you’re proud of, then you are Ukraine. I have my little yellow-and-blue ribbons tied to my car and I’m glad more people now know Ukraine’s culture, style, and I’m glad I get to share that as much as possible.”