In front of the New York Jets training complex, and on the edge of their practice field, the blue and yellow Ukrainian flags flap in the wind, reminders of the headlines of the outside world.
For the Jets, though, Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine and the war that has followed ever since has never been fully out of mind. Suzanne Johnson, the wife of team owner Woody Johnson, is the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant father and a first generation Ukrainian-American mother and grew up in the Ukrainian enclave of New York’s Greenwich Village.
Suzanne is spearheading efforts to get help to the millions of refugees who have fled the fighting — the Jets are donating $1 million to Ukraine aid efforts, which is being divided into $100,000 chunks to organizations that are making an impact in the region. Johnson is also worried that Ukraine will slip from the headlines as war fatigue sets in and Americans turn their attention to other issues. So the Jets sought permission from the NFL for an unusual tribute.
On Sept. 25, for their Week 3 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Jets will wear a decal of the Ukrainian flag on their helmets and the flag will be painted in the end zones of MetLife Stadium. The Johnson family came up with the rare idea to honor another country during an NFL game.
“It’s kind of crazy — this is something you see in movies,” Suzanne Johnson said this week of the invasion. “And we’re seeing it in real-time television, which makes it feel like it’s not really happening.
“We’ve lived in a non-wartime time, so people don’t even think about it. This makes you scared and you tend not to think about things that make you scared.”
Suzanne Johnson’s mother, Marie, was born to Ukrainian immigrant parents. Suzanne’s father, Stefan Ircha, was 21 years old when he emigrated, alone, to the United States in 1947, with $5 and speaking no English. Other members of Ircha’s family went to Canada. Suzanne calls her father a refugee after World War II, and it was the generosity of the local Ukrainian church in New York that allowed him to get started, she said. He knew construction and was able to have a small business that allowed him to take care of himself and his family.
Ircha came from Ternopil, a town in the west of Ukraine, and Suzanne, who no longer has family members there, does not know how the area is faring during the conflict. She lived in the tight-knit Ukrainian neighborhood in Manhattan, and said she had no American friends until she went to high school. But then, her father made sure she was fully assimilated because he was so thrilled that his family was part of the American dream, she said. Suzanne went to Cornell University and then to work on Wall Street.
Suzanne’s father died in 2019, and she said he would never have believed that an independent European country could be invaded again. Suzanne is well-versed in the long, fraught history of relations between Ukraine and Russia, and said she doesn’t like when people call it a “conflict” — “It was an unprovoked invasion,” she said.
Suzanne wanted to honor her heritage and educate her sons, Brick, 16, and Jack, 13, about the toll of war and what she expects will be their generation’s responsibility to eventually rebuild Ukraine. Two weeks ago, Woody and Suzanne took their sons to Poland, Ukraine’s neighbor to the west, which has taken in more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees as the war approaches the six-month mark.
They visited an orphanage, a community center where Ukrainians can gather and share meals, a summer camp for displaced Ukrainian children and a shelter for women and children who fled with nothing more than a suitcase, often leaving behind their husbands and fathers. Young children are going to local schools, despite a language barrier. High schoolers are attending school online.
“We focused on the kids meeting kids and talking,” Suzanne said. “They have never seen their community lock, stock and barrel. The kids are resilient. Parents are sitting in the back crying. They had to leave with one suitcase. We went to a refuge center, it’s like a school dormitory. It’s devastating. The women are trying to keep a good spirit for the children. Just imagine, ‘You have 30 minutes, get a suitcase and go.’ War is the most tragic thing you can imagine. And for what? All these young men and women will die — for what? That’s the hardest thing for me and my family. It is so nonsensical.
“I’ve been on many trips with my children. I’ve never had them at the end of the trip hug me and say, ‘Thank you for bringing me.’ “
Just before the family left on their trip, Brick Johnson was watching the Wimbledon Championships and heard the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, Iga Swiatek, talking about a charity tennis exhibition she was hosting in her native Poland to benefit Ukraine relief. Brick and Jack attended the event while they were in Poland, and the family made its $100,000 donation for July to United24, the fund launched by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the main venue for charitable donations to support Ukraine. The funds donated by the Johnsons will be directed to support children’s hospitals in Ukraine, especially for the procurement of pediatric artificial lung ventilation devices.
Suzanne Johnson said there are also plans for a donation to support the work of a missionary who has converted a hotel that went out of business during the COVID-19 pandemic into a shelter for refugee families. The Jets have opted to make the donations in monthly installments so the money can be directed to the most urgent needs at the moment.
She is hopeful that featuring the Ukrainian flag during a game will attract the attention of the millions of people who will watch the game. Suzanne fears the war will not be over by then, and as another winter in Ukraine approaches, the needs will only become more urgent.
“We have to keep awareness up,” she said. “We’re not doing anything political. We’re only focusing on the humanitarian, doing as much to help them until they can go back to their country, to donate as much as we can and by our donating, put it up on our website. It’s all we can do.”
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