When he was 10 years old, George Gamota was forced to flee from communists for the United States.
For Gamota, a Ukrainian-American Lexington resident for over 35 years, the sight of a million refugees driven from their country by a Russian attack on Ukraine evokes his own flight from the same force over 70 years ago, in 1949.
Gamota’s early impression of Ukraine, and of Soviet infringement on its identity, were formative. So when Ukraine became independent in 1991, it was “kind of a surprise to many of us in the diaspora, because we really didn’t think that that was possible,” he said.
Still, it was exciting to see – and motivated his family to support their country. Two of Gamota’s three adult sons “decided to see how they can help” and spent time in Ukraine following independence, he said.
Gamota also decided to support his country. But instead of moving, he used his profession as a physicist to support the scientific community in Ukraine – from managing grants for young Ukrainian scientists, to overseeing major programs, to starting a number of small business technology centers. Gamota’s work on these projects led him to spend a lot of time in Ukraine, especially throughout the 90s.
His ties with Ukraine run deep. Now, several of his close friends and some family members are scattered in a few different cities across the country, including his daughter-in-law’s brother and family in Kharkiv. Gamota has been in touch with many of them as the war has progressed. “It’s been heartbreaking,” he said.
“For a long time, they didn’t believe” this would happen, Gamota said – “they thought that Americans exaggerated the potential war, but then, suddenly, it came upon them.”
Gamota also has cousins in Poland who fled the USSR. “They’re just trying to do what they can to help,” he said – by housing a Ukrainian family that fled.
Since the invasion began, Gamota has found himself almost constantly immersed in news and updates from family: “You start watching CNN at 10 or 11 at night, you end it, and then you get emails and phone calls from over there,” he said.
Email and phone have been the best ways to keep in touch with his family and friends so far. “Sometimes you catch people as they’re driving away,” he added.
Asked if his friends and family felt supported by the American and international reaction to the invasion of Ukraine, Gamota pointed to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s unforgettable response to the American offer for an evacuation: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Gamota added that he’s been won over by Zelensky’s wartime leadership. When Zelensky was elected in a landslide victory in 2019, Gamota was “kind of surprised,” he recalled. “People were kind of skeptical – what can an actor do? But, he’s shown himself to be a…true patriot,” he said. “Sticking it out there, not budging – I think it’s very important.”
Those he knows in Ukraine want help, but also don’t want to budge, Gamota said. “I think some of them who kind of didn’t think patriotism was that important, or were kind of blasé about it…now, suddenly, they realize it’s their lives and their country.”
Gamota remembers that back in the 90s, he had discussions with people who weren’t as enthusiastic about Ukraine’s independence as he was; some, for instance, complained about economic challenges. He responded that “I guess for you to be patriotic, you have to have a war,” adding that American patriotism grew out of solidarity largely forged in revolution. As he put it, Gamota “brought in my Lexington experience, and I said…’the first shot brought the realization that you either fight for what you believe in, or else you leave. There was nothing in between.’”
The woman brave enough to offer Russian soldiers sunflower seeds actually reminded him of the LexSeeHer movement to create a monument in the center of town for women, he added. To him, the snapshot of a woman in her later 50s or early 60s facing soldiers head-on shows bravery that is “just incredible.”
Gamota recently had the responsibility of organizing local commemorations for both WWI, in 2018, and WWII, in 2020. Those experiences, Gamota said, meant he “got very close to what Lexington was feeling during those war years.”
Now, he feels close to that history in a bleaker way. “Little did I think that…a year or two later, I was going to worry about World War III – or another war in Europe.”
For those in town looking to help, “prayers and thoughts and donations” from whoever is able “would be great.” Gamota thinks donations are an important way for people far from the conflict to provide support right now. But, taking care to avoid scams is also, sadly, critical, he added. “I would urge everyone who wants to help to make sure that wherever they donate, it will go directly to help the Ukrainians, rather than something else,” he said.
While many donation sites are legitimate, Gamota suggested considering the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia as one organization he believes is likely to ensure proceeds go to those who actually need them.
On the local level, a few different organizations have worked to gather donations. These include LexYouth, which hosted a fundraiser earlier this week; Chinese Americans of Lexington (CALex), which has an ongoing fundraiser; and the Chinese American Association of Lexington (CAAL) are matching donations in collaboration with Lexington resident Maryna Eppinger and the Boston-based organization Sunflowers of Peace.