Ukrainian orphan learned customs of her homeland when she came to Carnegie

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For Eryna Honchar, learning the ancient Ukrainian tradition of pysanky was about more than coloring Easter eggs.

It has become a symbol of freedom, of America, to the young Ukrainian orphan who found a loving family and acceptance in Carnegie.

"I didn't learn this in Ukraine. I learned it here," Eryna said as she and other young women worked to finish 400 eggs on a recent Sunday afternoon at St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie.

'Pysanky' turns Easter eggs into works of art

Learn the simple but ancient art of making "Pysanky," otherwise known as Ukrainian Easter eggs. (Video by Julia Rendleman; 4/20/2014)

The 24-year-old woman delicately turned an egg over a candle's flame, melting the wax art she had drawn minutes earlier with a wooden stylus called a kistka. Pysanky (pronounced pih-sun-KEY) is now associated with Easter, but its roots and symbolism go back further, to pagan times.

Sitting in the church's basement social hall, with the aroma of crockpots full of Ukrainian foods to nourish her, Eryna reflected on the life that brought her here.

"I didn't learn much about the Ukrainian culture until I was already here," she said.

Located in eastern Ukraine, in a province near the Black Sea called Donetsk, the orphanage was in a heavily Russian area where few Ukrainian traditions were practiced. Still, children at the orphanage were taught to speak Ukrainian in an effort to help them hold on to some of their roots. Eryna was 9 when George and Angela Honchar adopted her and brought her to live with them in Carnegie.

Today, her hometown is ground zero for the separatist violence that is splashed across news headlines every day. She longs to know what has happened to the children left behind in the building that had little or no heating and a hole in the floor that served as a bathroom. According to a diary kept by her adoptive father, children in the orphanage got one orange per year -- on Christmas Day. Eryna once ate an egg, when she was 7.

As a child, Eryna dreamed of coming to the United States, of finding a loving home in this land of opportunity. An administrator at the orphanage sent a letter that found its way to Josephine Repa, a Carnegie woman who would later become Eryna's patroness and connect her to the Honchars. The letter contained Eryna's palm print.

"That's the reason I was adopted," she said. "I wanted to come to the United States. Everybody wanted to go to the U.S."

Mr. Honchar spent a month in Ukraine, trying to convince officials that he genuinely wanted to adopt Eryna. Eventually, his wife had to make the trip with a copy of their marriage certificate and photos of their two older biological sons to prove they were a family. At the time, there were rumors that foreigners wanted to adopt children to harvest their organs.

"Adoption is a very difficult process in Ukraine," Eryna said.

Mr. Honchar said the fact that he was a Ukrainian-American and spoke the language helped cut through the red tape. When he took the 18-hour train trip from Kiev to the village of Artemivsk in the Donetsk Oblast and saw the conditions at the orphanage, he had no doubt that he and his wife could offer Eryna a better life.

"It was just such a tough life over there," he said. "She has been a blessing to us and she has been a blessing to the community," where she volunteers as a church camp counselor, Sunday school teacher and dance instructor.

Eryna's adoption led to about a dozen more after other Ukrainian-American families heard about the Honchars' experience. "Her adoption has touched maybe thousands of people," Mr. Honchar said.

According to the nonprofit group Ukraine Orphan Outreach, the standard of living in Ukraine has diminished by 80 percent in the past 20 years. The economic hard times have led to poverty, poor nutrition, inadequate health care and increased sickness, as well as filling the country's 450 orphanages with more than 100,000 orphans. Another 100,000 children roam the streets because orphanages are full.

When she arrived in the United States, Eryna thought everyone spoke Ukrainian because her father and Mrs. Repa did.

"I didn't know what was going on, but I was excited," she recalled. "I didn't know where I was and I spoke to everybody in Ukrainian and thought they understood me."

Mrs. Repa, whom Eryna called "grandmother," helped the young girl adjust.

"My mother was an immigrant and Eryna was an immigrant," said her son, Steve Repa, pastor of the St. Peter & St. Paul parish. "She knew what the whole experience was about."

Mrs. Repa died two years ago at the age of 85. "They became very close," he said.

As Eryna settled in, she began learning English and attended Carnegie Elementary School. She also began learning more about Ukrainian dance, special foods and, of course, pysanky. Her father remembers her spending hours on the family's sun porch, practicing her technique on the delicate eggs.

"She just has a talent for art so she would take it on herself to get better," Mr. Honchar recalled.

Eryna graduated from Carlynton High School in 2008 and earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Duquesne University four years later. She hopes to become an English as a Second Language teacher but is working for now in a law firm.

In the years after she was adopted, Eryna kept in touch with orphanage staff members, helping out in community drives for needed items such as shoes, clothing or medicine for the orphans. She has not heard from them in months.

"Unfortunately, we lost contact with them. We believe something may have happened."

Eryna has heard that many of the buildings in the town have recently burned. She fears the home may have been closed or burned in the violence that the country has been locked in for months.

She returned to Ukraine in the summer of 2012 for a mission trip. Eastern Ukraine was deemed too dangerous to venture into so her group kept to the western part of the country. She has never sought to uncover the identities of her birth family and has no recollection of them.

Mr. Honchar said he has been amazed by his daughter's readiness to dive into Ukrainian traditions. Her skill is obvious.

"I'm really surprised that she is so talented in it," he said. "In my family, the men always made the best pysanky."

"It was my choice to go back to my origins, and I really like them all," Eryna said.

Janice Crompton: or 412-263-1159.

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