Ben and Victoria Bernard have been waving Ukrainian flags for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening at a prominent spot in the East End that faces Interstate 295. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Ben Bernard gathered a Ukrainian flag in from the wind and gently rolled it up.

He and his wife, Victoria Kostadinova Bernard, made a half dozen of these flags with the help of YouTube tutorials and a friend’s sewing machine. They had been standing with them on top of Munjoy Hill for an hour in a 19-degree weekday sunrise, and the cold wind has been strong enough to keep the blue and yellow stripes rippling over their shoulders.

The couple packed up the flags for the morning, but they would be back.

When Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, the Bernards turned from the news coverage to social media, hoping to find a vigil or a demonstration like those they have joined for other causes.

“We saw rallies in New York and other places,” Ben Bernard, 51, said. “We kept checking Facebook, asking our friends, and we couldn’t find anything.”

They did not immediately find that outlet for their emotions, so they went to Joann Fabrics and spent the weekend after the invasion sewing flags and scouting a location that would be widely visible.

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That Monday, they began this daily ritual, one hour in the morning and one in the evening. They stand on the top of the hill behind the North Street Community Garden or make their way down to the overpass on Interstate 295, holding the flags aloft for the commuters below.

“In the beginning, it was just something that would make us feel like we’re not completely powerless,” Victoria Bernard, 52, said.

Victoria Bernard was born in Bulgaria at a time when the country was closely tied to and modeled after the Soviet Union. She remembers the first years of her childhood under a controlling and communist regime, when the neighbors watched each other in fear and the government spread misinformation about the outside world. Her parents spent seven years planning their escape and eventually defected, and they spent another four years working to bring their young daughter to their new home in the United States. She was 10 years old when she joined them in Texas in March 1980.

Ben and Victoria Bernard made a half dozen Ukrainian flags with the help of YouTube tutorials and a friend’s sewing machine. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Her family history gives her greater insight than most Americans into the ongoing conflict in Eastern Europe, but she is still struggling to wrap her mind around the horrors the Ukrainian people are experiencing.

“It’s so easy for me to see how totally ruthless that kind of regime can be, but also it’s hard to understand,” she said of Russia under Vladimir Putin.

TV crews found the Bernards’ daily demonstration in the first week of March. They were joined by more people – a couple of tourists who came out every morning during their visit, a teacher and her class from nearby East End Community School, a Ukrainian family from Skowhegan. Some days, the group has more faces than flags. Others, it is just one Bernard standing a solitary vigil while the other finishes work. When the couple left for a long-planned vacation with their college-age children, they set up a Google signup sheet and delivered the flags to friends who waved them in their own neighborhoods. They took up their posts again when they returned, bundling in snow pants and gripping their flagpoles with thick gloves. Drivers honk from behind the wheels of their cars and tractor-trailers and buses.

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“What I hope is when they see their gas bill go up, they remember at least we aren’t being bombed,” Ben Bernard said.

On a blustery Tuesday, they stood the morning shift alone but were joined by six others in the evening. Among them were Susan Hayhurst and her 12-year-old twins, Skye and Lindy Glover. They have known the Bernards for years and came to join them for the first time that day. Skye brought her own flag made out of cardboard and Lindy waved a spare from the Bernards.

“They see what is happening on TV,” their mother said. “It feels important for myself, but also for them, to do something.”

Outside their daily ritual, the Bernards have been donating money to people on the ground in Ukraine and calling their elected officials to encourage them to do whatever they can to stop the fighting. But they still sometimes feel that same initial powerlessness, that same need to do something more.

“It made us feel better for a time,” Victoria Bernard said of the flag waving. “It felt good to be human and to be able to share. At this point, I feel like it’s not enough, obviously.”

But it is something.

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‘TOWARD A MORE JUST WORLD’

She thinks about democracy in action. She thinks about the many injustices to be found in her adopted country, the racism and mass incarceration and police shootings of Black people. And she keeps taking the flag up the hill because it is something she can do right now.

“It’s going to take each of us standing up, in any way we can, to bend that arc toward a more just world,” she said.

The Bernards promise to continue to do it until the war is over, but they don’t know what that will look like.

They both work from their Portland home – Ben Bernard is a software designer, and Victoria Bernard is an artist – and they’ve talked about changing the hours of their vigils to make them accessible to people who have less flexible schedules. They’ve also thought about inviting people who fled violence in other countries to bring their own flags, a reminder of the world’s many conflicts. And even if current talks end this war, they see a bigger picture. Ben Bernard sees a connection between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Russian interference in American elections, the spread of misinformation and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“It’s the broader conflict between fascist dictators and democracy,” Ben Bernard said. “They’ll still be fighting it there, and we’ll still be fighting it here.”

On Tuesday night, the little group gathered behind the North Street Community Garden and then marched their flags down the yellow grass on the hill. They crossed Washington Street and made their way down the sidewalk, toward the highway overpass. Cars on the exit ramp and on the busy lanes below honked their horns.

Ben Bernard led the way into the setting sun with the biggest flag on his shoulder, nine feet of blue and yellow whipping in the wind.


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