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Iconic NYC Ukrainian restaurant is a beacon of hope amid ongoing war

Iconic NYC Ukrainian restaurant is a beacon of hope amid ongoing war

Nestled in New York City’s Little Ukraine is Veselka, a beloved 70-year-old restaurant that has been the backdrop for memories made by New Yorkers and visitors of all walks of life.

For the Ukrainians who have made New York their second home, Veselka doubles as a beacon of hope and a safe haven.

Veselka was founded in 1954 by Ukrainian immigrants Wolodymyr and Olha Darmochwal in the aftermath of World War II as a place for the thousands of displaced Ukranians who settled in the Big Apple.

Three generations later – as the Russian invasion of Ukraine leaves tens of thousands dead and many more displaced – its roots have never been more evident.

PHOTO: Jason Birchard is taking over Veselka, his family's restaurant. (Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World/ Michael Fiore)
PHOTO: Jason Birchard is taking over Veselka, his family's restaurant. (Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World/ Michael Fiore)

Jason Birchard, the third-generation owner of the restaurant, has sponsored several of his employees’ family members who were fleeing Ukraine through the Biden Administration’s "Uniting for Ukraine" effort.

“You could sponsor somebody or support somebody and they can get here as quick as a month,” said Birchard. “So I had a variety of different staff members come to me and I made 10 applications – which 10 were approved. And nine of those 10 people actually now work for me happily and willingly and just happy to be in a safe place.”

MORE: US estimates Ukraine military shortages could grow catastrophic by late March

This effort, among the restaurant’s monumental fundraising achievements, is captured in the new documentary, “Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World,” written and directed by Michael Fiore. It is currently showing in theaters around the country.

Fiore said there are many parallels between why Wolodymyr started Veselka and what the restaurant means to the community now.

PHOTO: Many employees of Veselka are Ukrainian and have family back in the country.Restaurant: Tom Birchard is leaving the restaurant to his son, Jason, who will be the third-generation to run the restaurant. (Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World/ Michael Fiore)
PHOTO: Many employees of Veselka are Ukrainian and have family back in the country.Restaurant: Tom Birchard is leaving the restaurant to his son, Jason, who will be the third-generation to run the restaurant. (Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World/ Michael Fiore)

The documentary follows Birchard not just taking over the family business from his father, but creating an extended family of his own through the staff and their loved ones -- parents, aunts, uncles -- who came to work at Veselka after fleeing the war.

"My grandfather came to this country being sponsored by somebody, a sponsor family. So what better way to help bring somebody, paying that back or paying that forward that somebody did that for my grandfather?" said Birchard.

The war is still top of mind for the staff and patrons at Veselka, many of whom have loved ones back in the war zone.

When the war first began, Birchard said his first reaction was to give his staff the day off or close the restaurant to make sure that everyone could connect with their families. The staff was angry, sad, emotional – “the whole rollercoaster of what war brings.”

PHOTO: Veselka owners called on New York City Mayor Eric Adams to show support for Ukraine amid the Russian invasion. (Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World/ Michael Fiore)
PHOTO: Veselka owners called on New York City Mayor Eric Adams to show support for Ukraine amid the Russian invasion. (Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World/ Michael Fiore)

But “they wanted to come to work and they wanted to be with each other, to support each other,” he added.

Veselka has raised over half a million dollars for the war effort in Ukraine. The country's military is facing a potentially catastrophic shortage of ammunition and air defenses that could turn the tide of the war and give Russian President Vladimir Putin an advantage, according to an internal U.S. estimate.

"What's even more discouraging is that we're now almost two years in ... we have to continue to advocate and fight and try to find money for them," said Birchard.

MORE: Putin claims waves of drones striking within Russia are Ukrainian attempt at election interference

PHOTO: Many employees of Veselka are Ukrainian and have family back in the country.Restaurant: Tom Birchard is leaving the restaurant to his son, Jason, who will be the third-generation to run the restaurant. (Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World/ Michael Fiore)
PHOTO: Many employees of Veselka are Ukrainian and have family back in the country.Restaurant: Tom Birchard is leaving the restaurant to his son, Jason, who will be the third-generation to run the restaurant. (Veselka: The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World/ Michael Fiore)

The restaurant serves as a reminder and celebration of Ukrainian heritage amid the ongoing conflict. Meanwhile, the documentary aims to connect people to not just the impact of the war here in the U.S. but also the efforts within the community to help those in need.

"Not only are Tom and Jason feeding their customers, but in turn the customer feeds them in return," Fiore said. "It's this wonderful kind of give-and-take and generosity between customer and owner that is really amazing to see firsthand."

Fiore says the documentary isn't a war documentary, but rather "an antidote to war."

“We all can pay it forward,” said Fiore. “We can all do gestures for our neighbors, our friends, our family, to pay things forward and to just make life brighter for somebody else. It sounds maybe corny or cliché, but you see it in real time occur in our documentary.”

Iconic NYC Ukrainian restaurant is a beacon of hope amid ongoing war originally appeared on abcnews.go.com