By: Alice Daniel
Anna Prikaska and Mariya Sandulyak sing "Joy to the World" as they sit next to each other on a couch in Sandulyak's small living room in Fresno. It's cozy here, the smell of bread just removed from the oven, a winter rain outside.
These singers live at Glen Agnes, an apartment complex for elders. They both left Ukraine in the 1990s as religious refugees persecuted for their Christian faith. They've formed a community at Glen Agnes with about 25 other Eastern Europeans. It's both a community and a chorus that practices every week in a brightly lit conference room downstairs.
At a recent rehearsal, the chorus sings a carol called "We're Waiting."
"We waiting, waiting for our savior to come back," explains Andrey Kovalenko, also a refugee from Ukraine. "We waiting and waiting and ready to meet him."
Eastern Slavic immigrants and refugees from the former Soviet Union have come mainly to California's capital, but they're also in smaller cities like Fresno. Kovalenko came here to attend a Christian college and now works for Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries.
Lyubr Mikerina sings with the Glen Agnes chorus. She came from Moldova after her three sons moved here. She says during Soviet times her children were mocked for being Christian and she was fired from her job, accused of being a spy.
"American spy if I become Baptist Christian," Kovalenko translates for Mikerina. "It's a lot of Baptists in America so they fire me, I was working at City Hall as a secretary and they fire me and didn't allow me to work anymore."
Anna Prikaska says the chorus at Glen Agnes started one day when she and her friends were sitting outside under the Cyprus trees.
"In the beginning, we went outside just to sit, enjoy the day," Prikaska explains, "and someone started to sing."
She says people from the neighborhood walked by and clapped; soon a tradition of singing was born. The chorus keeps that tradition alive by singing at events including a Christmas celebration at the Refugee Ministries.
Kovalenko says singing brings up memories of childhood and his homeland.
"I think it's like a part of mental health," Kovalenko says. "You sing and you enjoy the singing. You enjoy being part of belonging to the group. You enjoy harmony of the soul. I think it's part of Ukranian soul."
Rev. Dr. Sharon Stanley, the director of the refugee ministries, says music is central to the Slavic community's expression of faith.
"The ones who know they've left everything behind and took the journey from their homelands at enormous risk," she explains. "So as they are singing, they are not only as I hear it singing songs of praise, but they are singing what were the songs of resistance against the powers that were trying to make them be silent."
Anna Prikaska says singing fills the vacuum that leaving Ukraine created.
"I feel joy in my heart." Prikaska says. When singing with all my friends, it's like I'm part of community. I feel their voices. We sing together."
Another reason the chorus sings, any chance it gets.