WALDOBORO, Maine – Clam diggers visit Elaine and Ralph Johnston’s hardware store in the seaside town of Waldoboro to get oysters and wading. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, they’ve also managed to get their hands on an even more exotic item: the Ukrainian flag, which retails for $15.99.
Across Maine, the yellow and blue flag—the yellow that symbolizes the bountiful wheat fields of Ukraine, and the blue, the sky above—flies from flagstaff. It adorns lobster floats, barn doors, shingle houses sprinkled with sea salt, and cabins set in pine forests.
Unlike cities like New York and Chicago, where symbols of Ukrainian pride partially reflect the large diaspora community, there are few people of Ukrainian heritage in Maine. But the wide presence of the flag in the state shows another kind of solidarity. Mainers like to say their spirit is rock-solid, born of harsh winters and an equally tough economy.
“The people there are doing a good job fighting for their land and their survival, and we in Maine, we love that,” said Ms. Johnston. “We sell flags to people who feel what we feel.”
In Skowhegan, a town in rural inland Maine, Tom McCarthy, a contractor who also runs a Christmas wreath business, has called a flag-maker whose workshop is down the road.
“I said, ‘Make me the biggest Ukrainian flag you can,'” McCarthy said. “he did.”
Mr. McCarthy has no family connection to Ukraine, though he did once host an exchange student from neighboring Belarus, which is ruled by an authoritarian leader allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The majority of people in Maine know what a struggle it is, from pulpwood to potato fields, to patches of blueberries to crab water—we know that one day you have something and another day you don’t,” said Mr. McCarthy. “The people of Ukraine, they’re survivors too, and they fly their flag, well, that’s a little token. But it’s something I can do.”
Bill Swain, the flag maker Mr. McCarthy called, said he needed to Google the shape of the Ukrainian flag when his neighbor called him. Mr. Swain usually makes hotel curtains and flags adorned with a pine tree and a star, the old Maine state emblem.
He said that the special shade of blue on the upper half of the Ukrainian flag had to be specially ordered. It’s a rare sky blue (Pantone 2935, in company parlance that’s considered the color’s authority), not the dark 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 cloth in Pantone 2935. Mr. McCarthy, from whom he had bought a five-by-eight-foot flag, told him that the Ukrainian symbol would prove popular.
Since making his first Ukrainian flag in April, Mr. Swain has sold more than 2,000 of them, a faster sales speed than those of his American and Maine flags. Requests come in from all over the country — a reminder that flying the Ukrainian flag isn’t just a Maine phenomenon — and he donates a quarter of the proceeds to a charity operating in Ukraine. The oldest flag maker in his company is 73. Mr. Swain hangs the rings 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 tell right away that they are not going to last.”
Maine is divided politically between its southern coast and a vast interior, and is one of two states in which districts cast Electoral College votes separately. In the 2020 presidential election, President Biden has taken on the coast and former President Donald J. Trump on the inside.
However, the rapprochement for Ukraine is bipartisan.
“Ukraine is not a red or blue issue, it is a blue and yellow issue,” said McCarthy, a Vietnam War-era veteran.
Kimberly Richards, who lives in Friendship, Maine, is married to a third-generation lobsterman and paints white cedar floats in custom color combinations. Commercial Lobstermen use bands of color to mark the buoys that float above their traps. This year, she paints a lot with yellow and blue, and bought blue paint at Johnstons hardware store in Waldoboro.
“Almost everyone in Maine, we understand the injustice that is happening there and we want to show our support for the Ukrainian people,” said Ms. Richards.
Mrs. Johnston’s family, the hardware store owner, came to the United States from Finland, which was invaded by the Soviet Union early in World War II. Mrs. Johnston’s grandmother arrived in Maine when she was a little girl, and traded one snowy land for another.
“We know how Ukrainians feel, that Putin is behaving 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 wood and feed the paper mills on the land that was home to the Wabanaki Consortium, a federation of indigenous peoples.
However, only 4 percent of Maine’s current population is foreign-born, despite immigrants from Africa and Asia arriving in the state in recent years, many of them displaced by conflict.
Muhyiddin Leib, who is of Bantu-Somali descent, arrived in Lewiston, Maine, in 2005 after winning the visa lottery. It helps the nearly 2,000 Bantus in the state access social services and apply their traditional farming acumen in a cooler climate. (The Bantus, a minority population in Somalia, were once enslaved by other ethnic groups.)
Mr. Lebah sees Ukrainian flags fluttering from farmhouses as he drives around rural Maine, looking for land for Bantos to plant.
“Ukrainian flags are in yards in Maine, it’s good to see that support,” Mr. Lebah said.
However, he noted that while many Ukrainians found refuge outside their country soon after the invasion, he spent 20 years in a refugee camp in Kenya before winning the chance to immigrate to the United States.
“I think part of that is down to the people who deal with the white Ukrainians,” Mr. Lebah said. “You want to help someone in trouble who looks like you. Would they feel the same for Afghan refugees or Bantu refugees?”
Compared to the displaced from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Ukrainian refugees were welcomed more quickly and with wider arms in Europe and the United States.
Oleg Opalnik, a native of Ukraine, came to Maine in 2002 and now owns a construction and real estate company. It is estimated that there are only a few dozen Ukrainians in the state. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he longed to do something.
“At first,” he said, “I wanted to go to Ukraine and fight, but then I realized that I could help more people from here than there.”
Mr. Opalnik has so far supported 24 Ukrainians who arrived in Maine under a Department of Homeland Security program that allows about 100,000 Ukrainians to stay in the United States for up to two years if they have a financial sponsor. He said Mr. Opalnik is also caring for 18 other Ukrainians who will arrive in Maine in the coming weeks.
Only one of the 24 Ukrainians who have arrived so far has received permission to work, Opalnik said, making the continued welcome from the community all the more important. The townspeople of Lewiston and Auburn, where the Ukrainians settled in apartments provided by Mr. Opalnik, donated clothes, furniture, and food.
“They see the Ukrainian flag everywhere here, on cars and buildings, and they feel happy Maines,” said Mr. Opalnik, referring to the newcomers. “Americans, especially Mainers, have sensitive hearts for people who are suffering.”
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