Sally Rafson founded Sharing Our Story in 2015 to build bridges and communities when she felt Pittsburghers had forgotten their roots as immigrants and refugees.

Her latest project, “I Am Ukraine,” brings together nine people — Ukrainian refugees, earlier immigrants here and Pittsburghers of Ukrainian descent — telling their stories with short videos they created with the help of her organization. Those stories range from harrowing escapes as the Russians invaded to coming to the United States when the opportunity arose for them to local residents keeping Ukrainian culture alive.

The final public screening takes place Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. at St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Admission is free, but seating is limited and can be reserved through Eventbrite. Just 30 spots remained at publication.

As the second-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches, she and her collaborators have been pleased with the two previous screenings’ reception. At the Center for Loving Kindness and Engagement at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, 160 people came to not only hear those stories but also take part in a discussion about the participants’ Ukrainian identity and to understand their homeland’s plight. Last Saturday, 120 people crowded into City of Asylum on the North Side to do the same, with more watching via livestream.

The Center for Loving Kindness and Engagement, City of Asylum, Ukrainian Cultural and Humanitarian Institute, and Jewish Family and Community Services Refugee Resettlement helped her find the participants, and Rafson attended several UCHI events to recruit people. Participants attended four workshop sessions at City of Asylum near the end of 2023 to write their stories and then create the digital videos for the project.

It’s a deeply personal project for Rafson, who learned about digital storytelling when she lived and worked in Toronto. “I returned to Pittsburgh at a time when refugees were moving into Pittsburgh and were not being well accepted,” she said. “It felt like Pittsburghers had forgotten their roots as immigrants and refugees. It was several generations ago, but people seem to have forgotten about that. I thought that hearing their stories would be a way to build bridges and communities and then accept people as people themselves and not part of the larger group. I thought digital storytelling would help connect that.”

One of the City of Asylum workshops where “I Am Ukraine” participants worked on their stories and videos. (Kara Sambrick)

Rafson said the project included mentors who helped the participants record their videos. A special benefit was that two of them are currently Ukrainian artists in residence at City of Asylum: Oleksandr Frazé-Frazénko and Volodymyr Rafeyenko.  “Oleksandr really helped with questions about people’s video choices and production,” Rafson said. “Volodymyr gave a small mentor class, a writing class, which helped formulate some of the authors’ ideas of how they wanted to present their story.

“Part of what is wonderful about this program is that it is empowering for the authors. No one ever asks them for their story. They feel empowered to tell their story because it is important. Everyone is important, and everyone needs to feel that they have a story that was meaningful.”

Stephen Halusczczak, president of the UCHI board, led the discussion Saturday. He reminded those in attendance that the Russian aggression against Ukraine started in 2014 when it invaded Crimea, including Pittsburgh’s sister city there, Donetsk. It seemed to him and the others “the world blinked” just as it had in the Holodomor of the 1930s when Stalin-led Russia starved the population and left millions dead in an attempt to impose collectivism. He said a strong connection and love of Ukraine continue with those who left to the generations who descended from Ukrainian immigrants and keep the traditions and culture alive.

The nine videos resonated with the audience, with some wiping away tears as they were shown. Kateryna Boyko, a singer and vocal coach, opened the program with “Embrace Me,” a popular Ukrainian song, before her video played. An entertainer who was in Mexico performing on a cruise ship, she worked to get her mother and daughter, who had been hiding in a bomb shelter, out of Ukraine. Her music lined the bottom of the one suitcase they brought as they fled. She saw it as a sign; now they are hosted by a family in Pittsburgh.

The videos of those who fled as the Russians invaded captured their trauma. Diana Denysenko’s daughter was hiding from the bombs with fellow college students in Kharkiv, and a friend brought her back, a harrowing journey that took seven hours as Russian soldiers shot out all the windows in his car. Olha Myroshnychenko tucked her St. Barbara icon in her suitcase, bringing jewelry in case she needed it to bribe her way through checkpoints. Anastasiia Vykhrystiur staves off depression after leaving her homeland with her art. A painter who works in acrylic and oil, she hung a painting of the home she and her daughters left behind to start their new life here.

Two participants came to the U.S. earlier. Tetiana Calero moved here six years ago, and she recalled her grandmother teaching her to make bread, a Ukrainian symbol of life. She taught herself to make the bread’s starter and keeps that tradition alive for her family. Natalia Shyva moved here in 2014 for a professional opportunity after missing a chance to be an exchange student 20 years earlier.

The final three videos came from Pittsburgh-area residents. Lisa Czmola visited Ukraine twice — once in 1973 with her mother, traveling long distances to find her home village, and then in 2019 when her husband’s father was being honored as the founder of Ukrainian scouts and a martyr. During that second trip she was assured by relatives that Ukrainians would fight further Russian aggression. George Honchar traveled to his four grandparents’ villages, and at one found his grandfather’s burned-out Greek Catholic Church cross and brought it back. Pauline Witkowsky, who has been a lifelong member of St. Vladimir’s Church, recalled her Ukraine trip and being able to sing along to the hymns at a church in Lyiv, thanks to her church.

Rafson said the project helped the participants. “It was very emotional [during the workshop sessions],” she said. “In some ways they described it as therapy sessions.”

Part of her goal is to connect the refugees to people of Ukrainian descent here, something that Daria Loshak, who now works at Hello Neighbor as a resettlement case aide and served as the interpreter for Saturday’s event, told her was greatly needed.

 “She told us people were really missing those connections and their homes,” Rafson said. “It was difficult for them.”

The sessions include Ukrainian entertainment, too, by the Kyiv Dance Ensemble, a Carnegie-based dance troupe. St. Vladimir’s will have Ukrainian food to sample, some prepared by Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Carnegie, just as it did at the Squirrel Hill event.

Some of that food will be pierogies prepared by Witkowsky and her crew, according to the very Rev. John Haluszczak, pastor, who noted that Czmola is also his parishioner.  “They are made with love,” he said.

Lyiv Dance Ensemble members perform a dance highlighting the importance of bread to Ukraine at Saturday’s event. (Kara Sambrick)

Becoming a collaborator was important because he believes all his parishioners are immigrants and so are all Americans, except for Native Americans. “We are either descendants of them or they are ones who immigrated after WWII — still a few of those remain — some who immigrated in between, and some who came recently,” he said.

When World War II ended his church hosted people who had been taken from their countries to Germany to work, Haluszczak explained. “When the war was done, they were initially sent back to their homes. But to be sent back to the Soviet Union was a death sentence.  … People coming here through the displaced persons program, our parish long before me sponsored them and gave them a place to stay. The gymnasium was used to house them until they could get settled in the United States.”

Some of the project’s goals are personal to him, too. “Growing up no one knew what I was when I said I was Ukrainian,” the priest said. “The response always was ‘You are Russian.’ So much is wrong in that assumption.”

In addition to this collaboration, his church has donated to DT Care, a nonprofit based in Moon that has sent donations to and funded art therapy in Ukraine. St. Vladimir’s also supports the St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Society, which among many other efforts has run soup kitchens in Ukraine, and the main Ukrainian Orthodox church in New Jersey, which has donated half a million dollars, helping to purchase ambulances among other medical aid needs.

Haluszczak is thrilled that “I Am Ukraine” is reaching so many people as Rafson intended. “I am so glad we are doing this,” he said. We need to bring to [people’s] consciousness that they are also immigrants. If we think otherwise, he said, “It’s just another way we divide ourselves in this country when we need to stay together.”

Sponsors for “I Am Ukraine” are UPMC, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Citizens Bank, Henry John Simonds Foundation, W.I Patterson Fund, Jack Buncher Foundation, Fine Foundation, Ukrainian Community Foundation of Philadelphia and an anonymous funder.  Collaborators are Sharing Our Story, the JCC Center for Loving Kindness and Engagement, City of Asylum, Ukrainian Cultural and Humanitarian Institute, Jewish Family and Community Services Refugee Resettlement, and St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  Admission to the final public screening on Saturday, Feb. 10 is free with reservations requested at Eventbrite.

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at