Over 100 churches stand in the southern Brazilian town of Prudentopolis, many built in ornate Byzantine style by Ukrainian immigrants who arrived in such large numbers from the late 19th century that it became known as Little Ukraine.
Brazil's 'Little Ukraine' prays for ancestral homeland
In recent days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, dubbed a “special operation” by Moscow, the town's churches have been packed with locals wracked by feelings of despair and powerlessness, praying for friends and families back in Ukraine.
Civil servant Oksana Jadvizak, 35, first visited Ukraine in 2008 on a scholarship. She was still there in 2014, during the Maidan uprising that toppled President Viktor Yanukovich, now exiled in Russia. One of her professors died in those clashes, and Jadvizak said she was horrified by the recent escalation with Russia that has left Ukraine a smoldering pile of rubble.
“It's so impactful to see the tanks of war and planes flying over, and hearing my friends saying they are going to battle,” she said in front of a Byzantine church, wearing the Ukrainian soccer jersey, and a yellow-and-blue flag draped around her shoulders.
With the sound of a choir rising behind her, Jadvizak had come out to show solidarity with those in Ukraine.
“We're going to pray so that everything ends well,” said Jadvizak, who is of fourth generation Ukrainian descent, and counts Portuguese as her second language.
Some in the town drew parallels between their own families' exit from Ukraine, and that of the millions of refugees fleeing in the wake of Russia's invasion.
Nadia Rurak Techy, 66, a shopkeeper whose parents came to Brazil after living through the “terror” of World War Two, said she feared Ukrainian culture would be erased.
“I'm distraught,” she said, breaking into tears at her clothes shop. “Ukraine doesn't deserve this ... Our homeland has to be free. It needs to remain beautiful, as it always was.”
Ukrainian migrants, many from the western Galicia region that includes the city of Lviv, began arriving in Prudentopolis in 1896, according to Anderson Prado, a historian from the Federal University of Parana who has studied the town's roots.
He said Ukrainians were fleeing extreme poverty, just a few decades after Tsarist Russia outlawed serfdom.
They found a welcome home in the vast, fertile south of Brazil. The country, which had recently abolished slavery, was desperate for workers to develop its farmland, and actively recruited Europeans through publicity campaigns.
The first roughly 1,500 Ukrainian families that arrived worked in agriculture and sawmills, industries that remain major employers to this day, Prado said.
The people of Prudentopolis, named after former Brazilian President Prudente de Morais, have retained surprisingly close ties with Ukraine, Prado said. Over three-quarters of the town's 52,000 people speak some Ukrainian, its official second language.
“The descendants who live in Prudentopolis have a fundamental connection with Ukraine,” he said. “They are very close to their relatives who stayed there, and the vast majority dream of returning or visiting the land of their origins.”
Dental surgeon Rodrigo Michalovski, 31, agreed. He is part of a decades-old group in the town known as the “Cossack Brotherhood.” The club seeks to maintain ties with Ukrainian culture through dances and historical presentations. Almost all members are Catholic and dress up in traditional clothes, keeping their hair and beards in the classic Cossack style.
“We learn to love Ukraine from childhood ... and we carry that love for our entire lives,” Michalovski said. “Every bit of sad news about the war is a stab in my chest, in my heart. We will only have peace again when the fire in Ukraine stops, when I know that our people are safe.”
With few means to help those in Ukraine, Jadvizak, the civil servant, said she was offering whatever support she could.
“Today I sent a message to my friends saying that if they needed, my house is open,” she said. “I think everyone here in Prudentopolis, where 70% of the population is of Ukrainian descent, is willing to shelter people.”
Thiago Zakalugne, 36, a mechanic and fellow member of the “Cossack Brotherhood,” echoed the views of many in Prudentopolis, who were at a loss for ways to help. Like them, he was also putting his faith in the divine.
“Each bomb that falls over there, each drop of Ukrainian blood spilled is a piece of our heart that breaks,” he said. “If I could, I would certainly go, to try to help somehow ... but our way of helping from here right now is with prayer.”
The Wider Image
Photography: Pilar Olivares
Photo editing: Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson
Text editing: Richard Chang
Additional reporting: Gabriel Stargardter
Design: John Emerson and Eve Watling