Three years ago, Sergei Panasiuk and his wife fled Kyiv in the Ukraine with their toddler to escape anti-Semitic violence. With a master’s degree in business, Panasiuk left behind a successful job with Nestle and settled for unskilled manual labor in the manufacturing industry in Atlanta, but he’s now an IT manager at the company, Innovative Metals.
Read what he has to say about practicing Judaism here, differences in weather and other adjustments he’s had to make.
“We were fleeing a country which had gone crazy and where you feared for your life if you were Jewish. I arrived in Atlanta three years ago with my wife and my 1-year-old son. I immediately went to the synagogue. In Ukraine, I had never seen a Reform synagogue, a synagogue where men and women sit together, let alone a synagogue with a female rabbi. Kyiv, the capital, has four synagogues – all four Orthodox.”
That wasn’t the biggest shocker about America. “Winter in Ukraine can be brutal. In Atlanta, it was quite mild when we arrived at the end of autumn.”
“A year before, in February 2014, I had supported the Maidan protests at the celebrated Independence Square. I marched with a raised fist against [Viktor] Yanukovych, the president at that time, with all those who believed that the country was finally going to be free from corruption. But we Jews quickly understood that this was not going to be good for us. Little by little the Maidan revolutionaries began to celebrate Nazi collaborators such as Stepan Bandera, Roman Shukhevych and others, as true patriots. This glorification of the Nazis was going to lead to resurgence in anti-Semitism very fast. When I saw ‘death to the Jews’ written on the walls, Nazi flags, Nazi clothes, Nazi attacks to the people and businesses with full support by the Ukrainian government, I understood that it was all going to happen again.
“When my wife Liubov told me that people were drawing swastikas at Babi Yar, the infamous ravine where 33,000 Jews had been assassinated in 1941, I was afraid for my family. I came from a provincial town, Krivoy Rog. I am an orphan; my parents died when I was 7 years old. Succeeding in Kyiv was a difficult challenge for me, but I had succeeded there. I had a good job at Nestlé, and we owned our own house, so I still resisted the call of my uncle who lives in Atlanta, until the day, wearing a yarmulke, I was attacked by a group of neo-Nazis. They had one of their multiple headquarters on the ground floor of a building near my home. They made the Heil Hilter salute to greet each other, shot from the guns; they worshiped the souvenir of the worst Ukrainian collaborators, murderers of so many Jews. And until now, nobody, but nobody stops them. Because of my injuries, I had to go to a hospital. When I Ieft, I filed a complaint and produced evidence to the police and prosecutor office, who nonetheless belittled the seriousness of the attack. When I threatened to bring the matter before the Court of Human Rights in The Hague, the prosecutor responded by threatening me, telling me that the attackers were true patriots. To top it all off, the government officials were going to denounce me as a ‘subversive element.’ This was too unjust and too dangerous. I took refuge for a while at my grandmother’s house in Krivoy Rog, but I wanted to protect my family first. When I realized that we couldn’t raise a child in fear, we left overnight for Atlanta.
It’s the main difference between living in the U.S. and the Ukraine, which has the fourth-largest Jewish community in Europe. “When you live here, you do not know what it is like not to be able to speak, to be afraid of arrest or to be beaten like I was. I have tried sometimes to tell my story and each time I get the same reaction: This is not possible! Here we have the renowned First Amendment, which allows anybody to speak his mind. There is freedom to be Jewish as you wish, praying on Shabbat with a guitar if you want or celebrating your bar mitzvah with a gospel group. In Ukraine, we may perhaps have a longer history, but we are in decline. There, quite often it is the community that pays for the bar mitzvah if it can’t be celebrated in groups to reduce the cost. Because of lack of rabbis in Ukraine, most of them come from the United States or Israel and are from the Hasidic tradition. During the last four years, the Ukrainian Jewish community has lost its vigor.”
Progress in Ukraine
Still, there are improvements. “We sometimes see amazing things in Ukraine! In 2010, a billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, the country’s third-wealthiest man, built in Dnipro the largest Jewish complex in the world! Synagogue, museum, kosher restaurants, hotels. But … the Jews having been banned from the universities during the Soviet era or only allowed by quotas, the community has very few Jewish doctors and lawyers as contrasted with Atlanta. On the other hand, the political world is populated by nonpracticing Jews, and this is the case for the new President [Volodymr] Zelenskiy, a former Jewish comedian!”
Future in Atlanta
“I left a pleasant life and a successful career in Ukraine for America I knew absolutely nothing about, to become an unskilled manual worker. I had never worked with my hands before, so I just manufactured metal panels for a year. During the three years, I expected that the situation in Ukraine will change and we will be able to come back home. But everything became worse. Currently, I hope to obtain political asylum status. Right now, I just have the right to work. But Atlanta has proved to me that the U.S. supports and protects honest, hard-working people. I moved up in rank. Better yet, it’s my boss who finances my English classes at night. My wife works at the King David Academy as a programmer. We have a house in Tucker, a newly born child, and when I look at my family, my wife smiling, I feel happy.”