Ukrainian flags are displayed throughout Maine. Why?

WALDOBORO, Maine – Shell diggers visit Elaine and Ralph Johnston’s hardware store in the coastal town of Waldoboro to buy shell rakes and waders. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, they’ve also been able to snag a more unusual item: the Ukrainian flag, which sells for $15.99.

Across Maine, the yellow-and-blue banner — yellow symbolizing Ukraine’s abundant wheat fields, blue the sky above us — flies from flagpoles. It adorns lobster buoys and barn doors, sea-salt sprayed clapboard houses and cabins nestled in pine forests.

Unlike cities like New York and Chicago, where symbols of Ukrainian pride sometimes reflect a large diaspora community, Maine has few people of Ukrainian heritage. But the widespread presence of the flag in the state shows a different kind of solidarity. Mainers like to say their spirit is a flint born of harsh winters and an equally harsh economy.

“People over there are doing a good job fighting for their land and their survival, and we in Maine like that,” Ms. Johnston said. “We sell flags to people who think like us.”

In Skowhegan, a town in rural Maine, Tom McCarthy, a contractor who also runs a Christmas wreath shop, called a flag maker whose workshop is down the street.

“I said, ‘Make me the biggest Ukrainian flag you can,'” said Mr. McCarthy. “He has.”

Mr McCarthy has no family ties to Ukraine, although he once hosted an exchange student from neighboring Belarus, which is ruled by an authoritarian leader allied with Russian President Vladimir V Putin.

“The majority of people in Maine know what struggle is, from the pulp forests to the potato fields, from the blueberry fields to the lobster waters — we know one day you have something and another you don’t,” said Mr. McCarthy. “The people of Ukraine are survivors too, and raising their flag, well, that’s a small sign. But it’s something I could do.”

Bill Swain, the flag maker whom Mr McCarthy contacted, said he should have Googled what the Ukrainian flag looked like when his neighbor called. Mr. Swain typically makes curtains for hotels and flags adorned with a pine tree and a star, Maine’s ancient state emblem.

The special shade of blue on the upper half of the Ukrainian flag has to be ordered separately, he said. It is a rare azure (Pantone 2935, considered the color authority in company parlance), not the navy blue (Pantone 281) of the Norwegian and Liberian flags, or the royal blue (Pantone 293) of the Dutch and Slovenian flags.

Mr Swain ordered a lot of fabric in Pantone 2935. Mr McCarthy, who bought a five by eight flag from him, told him the Ukrainian symbol was proving popular.

Since making his first Ukrainian flag in April, Mr. Swain has sold more than 2,000 of them, a faster sales pace than his American and Maine flags. Orders are pouring in from across the country — a reminder that flying the Ukrainian flag isn’t just a Maine phenomenon — and he’s donating a quarter of the proceeds to a charity working in Ukraine. The oldest flag maker in his company is 73 years old. Mr. Swain attaches the grommets himself.

“When you make a flag, you want to do it right,” said Mr. Swain. “When you see flags that are printed and not sewn like ours, you can immediately tell that they won’t last long.”

Politically divided between its southern shore and a vast interior, Maine is one of two states where districts cast their Electoral College votes separately. In the 2020 presidential election, President Biden took over the coast and former President Donald J. Trump the interior.

However, the affinity with Ukraine is bipartisan.

“Ukraine is not a red or blue issue, it’s a blue and yellow issue,” said Mr. McCarthy, a Vietnam War veteran.

Kimberly Richards, who lives in Friendship, Maine, is married to a third-generation lobsterman and paints white cedar buoys in custom color combinations. Commercial lobster fishermen use color bands to distinguish the buoys floating above their traps. This year she’s been painting lots of yellow and blue, and bought the blue paint at the Johnstons’ hardware store in Waldoboro.

“Pretty much everyone in Maine, we understand the injustice that is happening there and we want to show our support to the Ukrainian people,” Ms. Richards said.

The family of Ms. Johnston, the owner of the hardware store, came to the United States from Finland, which was occupied by the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II. Ms. Johnston’s grandmother came to Maine as a little girl and traded one snowy country for another.

“We know how it feels for Ukrainians when Putin acts like this,” Ms Johnston said.

Waves of Finns, along with Scots and Swedes, came to Maine to work in the granite quarries. Other immigrants came to haul lumber and feed paper mills on land that was home to the Wabanaki, a confederation of indigenous peoples.

Still, only 4 percent of Maine’s current population is foreign-born, though in recent years immigrants from Africa and Asia have arrived in the state, many displaced from their homes by conflict.

Muhidin Libah, an ethnic Bantu from Somalia, came to Lewiston, Maine in 2005 after winning a seat in the Visa lottery. He helps the state’s approximately 2,000 Bantus gain access to social services and apply their traditional agricultural acumen in a colder climate. (Bantus, a minority population in Somalia, were once enslaved by other ethnic groups.)

Mr. Libah sees the Ukrainian flags flying from farmhouses as he drives through rural Maine looking for land for Bantus to cultivate.

“The Ukrainian flags in shipyards in Maine, it’s nice to see that support,” Mr Libah said.

However, he noted that while many Ukrainians found refuge outside their country shortly after the invasion, he spent 20 years in a refugee camp in Kenya before taking his chance to emigrate to the United States.

“I think part of that has to do with people being associated with the whiteness of Ukrainians,” Mr Libah said. “You want to help someone in trouble who looks like you. Will they feel the same for an Afghan refugee or a Bantu refugee?”

Compared to those displaced from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Ukrainian refugees were welcomed into Europe and the United States more quickly and with wider arms.

Oleg Opalnyk, a native of Ukraine, came to Maine in 2002 and now owns a contracting and real estate business. There are only a few dozen Ukrainians in the state, he estimated. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he longed to do something.

“At first I wanted to go to Ukraine and fight,” he said, “but I realized I could help people more from here than from there.”

Mr. Opalnyk has so far sponsored 24 Ukrainians who have come to Maine under a Department of Homeland Security program that allows approximately 100,000 Ukrainians to stay in the United States for up to two years if they have a financial sponsor. Mr. Opalnyk is also sponsoring another 18 Ukrainians who would arrive in Maine in the coming weeks, he said.

Only one of the 24 Ukrainians who have arrived so far has been granted a work permit, Mr Opalnyk said, making a sustained community reception even more important. Residents of the cities of Lewiston and Auburn, where Ukrainians have settled in apartments provided by Mr Opalnyk, have donated clothing, furniture and food.

“They see the Ukrainian flag everywhere here, on cars and on buildings, and they feel the good of the people of Maine,” Mr. Opalnyk said, referring to the newcomers. “Americans, and especially Mainers, have a sensitive heart for people who are suffering.” Ukrainian flags are displayed throughout Maine. Why?

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