Meet Tetyana Denford!
Despite being born in New York, Tetyana proudly identifies herself as a daughter of Ukraine. Her grandfather Hieronimus, her grandmother, Yulia, and her parents all experienced the traumatic events of World War II and made the brave decision to leave their homeland behind, becoming immigrants.
Tatiana's story shows how important it is to acknowledge and respect the descendants of the diaspora, preserve their culture and bring all Ukrainians together.
15 June, 2023
Picture by Clayton Cubitt
Can you share how you came to be in New York?
My family originates from a small village near Uzhhorod. However, during World War II, my grandmother Yulia's life took a dramatic turn. Due to the involvement of her brothers in the partisan movement and their subsequent deaths, it became unsafe for Yulia and her sister to remain alone in their home. As a result, Yulia made the decision to leave and seek refuge in Germany. There, she worked diligently, providing assistance to the army, and it was during this time that she met her life partner, Hieronimus. After their daughter was born, they made the choice to relocate to Australia and eventually settled in the bustling city of New York. It was in this new environment that my family had the opportunity to pursue their political aspirations and make a meaningful impact in their adopted country.
What was your sense of identity like when you were a teenager? What were the factors or experiences that played a role in shaping who you became?
In my American upbringing, Ukrainian roots entwined with my identity, creating a deep sense of connection. Even as a young girl, I embarked on a linguistic journey, fluent in the language of my ancestors before mastering English. Nurtured by my parents, I absorbed the richness of tradition and culture, their teachings etching an unyielding reverence for our heritage.
With the dawn of each Sunday, my family embraced a cherished ritual, converging in the Ukrainian church. Within those sacred walls, we forged bonds of faith and community, immersing ourselves in an immersive experience that transcended mere religious observance. The resounding melodies and rhythms of music, dance, and beloved culinary treasures all wove together and shaped my identity and rooted me deeply in Ukrainian heritage.
Despite the myriad cultural differences I encountered in American surroundings, I steadfastly remained true to my roots, proudly embracing my Ukrainian identity.
Years later, during my first visit to Ukraine, an immediate sense of belonging washed over me. The familiar cadence of my native language enveloped me, affirming that I had finally found my true home. As the war in Ukraine raged on, my connection to my homeland only grew stronger, deepening my pride and sense of belonging.
For me, the significance of heritage and culture cannot be overstated. They form an integral part of my being, shaping my identity and providing a profound understanding of who I am.
How does your dedication to maintaining your Ukrainian heritage impact your family?
In our household, Ukrainian flows effortlessly, as my children effortlessly absorb the language from our conversations with my parents. To them, I am "mama," while my parents are lovingly referred to as "didо" and "babo."
Yet, when the time came for my children to enter school, fresh hurdles emerged on the horizon. Undeterred, I persevered, determined to instil in them the significance of their Ukrainian heritage. And now, the fruits of my labour bloom before me. My children wear their pride like a badge, celebrating their mother's achievements as an esteemed Ukrainian author. Even my husband, proud and supportive, has immortalized my roots with a tattoo of the Ukrainian trident symbol.
It is in these moments that I find solace, knowing that the essence of our Ukrainian heritage thrives within my family. Together, we preserve the treasured traditions that define us.
In our household, Ukrainian flows effortlessly, as my children effortlessly absorb the language from our conversations with my parents. To them, my husband and I are "Mamo" and "Tato", while my own parents are lovingly referred to as "Didо" and "Baba".
Picture by Clayton Cubitt
How have your experiences of living in different cultural environments influenced your sense of self and personal identity?
As a Ukrainian living in America, I've discovered solace in the embrace of a multicultural community. Instead of a singular dominant culture, we revel in the beauty of many languages and numerous cultures intertwining. This sense of interconnectedness nurtures a feeling of belonging and being a part of something greater.
When my husband and I made the leap to London, we found ourselves starting anew, devoid of familiar faces. It was during this transitional phase that I noticed my fluency in Ukrainian blossoming, perhaps as a means of tethering myself to my roots and the legacy of my mother.
Now, nestled in the vibrant embrace of New York City, our family has found a sense of home within a Ukrainian center. Here, we've formed bonds with fellow Ukrainian families, sharing common experiences and forging lasting friendships. While our children engage with the multilingual landscape of school, honing their skills in French and Spanish, they also explore Ukrainian through the interactive Duolingo app. Nevertheless, I yearn for a greater presence of Ukrainian in our daily lives—a space where we can gather, converse, and relish in the beauty of our shared heritage.
For me, being part of a multicultural community goes beyond mere integration—it's a celebration of the rich tapestry of diversity that defines our world.
How can migrants find support and navigate the complex emotions of survivor's guilt while living in a new country?
Migration can burden Ukrainians with a weighty sense of guilt, commonly known as "survivor's guilt." I personally understand this sentiment all too well and propose a solution: rediscovering the ties that bind us to our homeland. Whether it's immersing ourselves in the ancestral melodies of our music or cherishing fond memories of joyful moments spent in Ukraine, these touchstones offer solace and a sense of connection.
However, it is important to remember that the responsibility of caring for migrants is not solely placed on those who have experienced migration themselves. As locals, we too can play a role by extending simple acts of kindness. A casual invitation for coffee, a leisurely walk, or a heartfelt visit can go a long way in providing comfort and support to those who have left their homes behind. I recall the heartwarming story of my friend, a dedicated teacher, who warmly embraced children from Ukraine in her classroom. Taking it a step further, she even reached out to me for Ukrainian phrases to better communicate with her young students. It is these seemingly small gestures that hold the power to make a profound impact on the lives of those who find themselves far away from their homeland.
Picture by Clayton Cubitt
Why do you believe it is important for individuals to make an effort in preserving their own culture when living outside their home country?
Preserving our stories, from one generation to the next, is a paramount mission for me. It is through these narratives that our children and their children will come to understand the profound influence of their Ukrainian heritage.
Our culture, literature, and music stand tall as the bedrock of our identity, infusing us with an indomitable strength to conquer any obstacle in our path. Even amidst the shadows of despair, a glimmer of light can be found. It is through the stories of our ancestors and the enduring traditions that shape us that they will discover their own path, their own source of guidance.
Can you share your personal perspective on how you envision the growth of the Ukrainian diaspora?
Within the vibrant Ukrainian diaspora of New York, I find a wellspring of untapped potential awaiting discovery and growth. I firmly believe that engaging in open conversations with individuals from diverse backgrounds is key to dispelling misconceptions and fostering a more nuanced understanding of Ukraine. It is through these dialogues that we can challenge the damaging stereotypes often perpetuated by movies, which unfairly depict Ukrainians as prostitutes, thieves, or members of the mafia.
Undoubtedly, the world has grown fatigued by tales of conflict, and some may be hesitant to delve deeper into Ukraine's struggles. However, I perceive this as an opportune moment to shift our focus towards envisioning a brighter future. Let us dare to imagine a Ukraine that thrives and flourishes, contributing to global culture and innovation. In this vision, Ukraine stands as a dynamic and forward-thinking nation, ready to make impactful contributions on a global scale.
Should the need arise, I am prepared to lend my voice, resounding with conviction, as an ardent advocate for this vision!
What role do you believe the Ukrainian diaspora plays today?
Ukrainians in Ukraine are always the first voices in a chorus, but the diaspora provides the other voices that should be listened to: we are just as important in order to amplify the story of Ukraine, the culture, the art and history because we are the bridge that links Ukraine and the rest of the western world. Our voices can translate what is sometimes lost in translation between Ukrainians in Ukraine and the western media.
What inspired you to become a passionate advocate for sharing the truth about Ukraine with the rest of the world?
The time I spent living alongside my grandmother left an indelible mark on my soul. Her harrowing tales of struggle, loss, and the haunting realities of war ignited within me a profound sense of empathy and sorrow. Yet, it wasn't until the fateful day of February 24th that the true magnitude of her anguish crashed down upon me.
At that moment, my husband, recognizing the power of my skills as a journalist and writer, urged me to embrace my role as a mediator. He implored me to seize the opportunity to share the unvarnished truth about Ukraine with the world. And as his words resonated within me, a newfound sense of responsibility emerged—a responsibility that has since become an integral part of my being.
For me, this responsibility is not just a fleeting sentiment; it is a lifelong commitment that continues to shape my purpose, my convictions, and my unwavering determination to bring about positive change for Ukraine and its resilient people.
Could you please share more about your most recent book, "The Child of Ukraine"? What motivated you to write this particular story?
Writing has been my lifelong companion—a vehicle for healing, and now, a tool for advocacy. In my most recent literary endeavour, "The Child of Ukraine," I delve into a captivating true story set against the backdrop of the 1940s. This poignant narrative follows the harrowing journey of a Ukrainian woman as she navigates the treacherous landscape of survival within internment camps, ultimately embarking on a remarkable odyssey back to her beloved family. My upcoming book, "The Soldier's Child", out in July this year, tells the story of a Ukrainian woman surviving a harrowing journey from a Gulag, back to her long-lost son.
Through meticulous research to preserve historical truths, I aim to shine a light on the indomitable spirit and resilience of individuals who have endured unimaginable hardships. "The Child of Ukraine" and "The Soldier's Child" encapsulate not only the personal triumphs and tribulations of Ukrainian women but also serves as a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the enduring bonds of familial love; those stories are universal, and can be recognized within all cultures.
My writing is my contribution to the ongoing fight for awareness and justice; I am the storyteller who will always strive for humanity, and for truth.
Pictures by Alice Zhuravel
By Alice Zhuravel and Maria Noschenko