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Russian expats have been struggling with their identity since the war began

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led to millions of families being uprooted. Most are fleeing the relentless bombing and destruction. And for Russian immigrants here in the U.S., especially those with connections to Ukraine, watching all of this unfold has caused both anger and despair. Michael Puente from member station WBEZ reports.

MICHAEL PUENTE, BYLINE: Chicago is home to one of the nation's largest communities of Russian speakers. Many are Russian Jews who lived in the former Soviet Union and fled to escape rampant anti-Semitism when it fell more than 30 years ago. Many of those Russian immigrants came here with little to their name and quickly turned to social service agencies for assistance. For those living north of Chicago, many frequent the Forever Young Adult Day Care Services Center located in Lincolnwood, north of the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUNCHTIME GATHERING)

PUENTE: At the center, they gather for lunch and camaraderie and a chance to speak Russian with friends. But the conversation these days often revolve around the event happening back home.

JAKON KAGAN: (Through interpreter) After I saw on the news today what Russia's doing to Ukraine - it's fascism, plain and simple.

PUENTE: That Jakon Kagan. He immigrated here from Belarus three decades ago after the fall of the Soviet Union. Like Ukraine, Belarus was then part of the USSR. He says he's shocked to see what is happening between Russia and Ukraine - two countries that he says share an enormous amount of history.

Forever Young Adult Day Care Services Center is just one place in the Chicago area catering to Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Another is the Russian Senior Center in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Manager Irma Krasnopolskaya says for those who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union or lost loved ones in the Holocaust, Russia's attack on Ukraine is acting as a trigger, causing trauma to resurface.

IRMA KRASNOPOLSKAYA: If we think of those who lived through World War II, so they're going through secondary trauma right now. This is something that is in their memory, and they might have not thought of it or felt it the way they do these days.

PUENTE: Many here share that sentiment and are putting the blame on the war squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin - but not all. A Ukrainian native who declined to provide his name because his opinion is so unpopular blames Ukraine for Russia's invasion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I don't believe that Putin is the butcher the way that Biden has described him.

PUENTE: Sitting at the next table over eating lunch is Dana Presman. Her son, daughter-in-law and newborn granddaughter Sophie are all in Kyiv and trying to keep safe. She was born in Poland in 1941, two years after Hitler attacked her country. She says she can't help but feel that history is repeating itself.

DANA PRESMAN: (Through interpreter) I'm horrified. After 81 years, I did not believe that I would live to see the day that my granddaughter would repeat my own history and be born during a war.

PUENTE: Sophie was born March 4, when her family was hiding in the basement of a building. Presman says she hopes one day to see Sophie in Chicago. Until then, she says she prays for her every day.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Puente in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA AND ROOTS MANUVA SONG, "ALL THINGS TO ALL MEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.