One St. Thomas professor’s drive to rebuild Ukraine is making a difference.
News reports continue to deliver soundbites about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Recent headlines range from CBS’ “Russia pulls mothballed Cold War-era tanks out of deep storage” to Al Jazeera’s “Russia’s war in Ukraine exacts heavy toll on women.” At times, local and national media outlets will interview University of St. Thomas Professor Paul Gavrilyuk, the Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy.
Gavrilyuk, who is from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, is the founding president of the nonprofit Rebuild Ukraine. In between teaching on the St. Paul campus, he travels the state and the world raising awareness as well as funds to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine’s defenders, refugees and children affected by war.
On April 15 this year, he spoke at the organization’s fundraiser at the Mill City Museum, organized by the Minnesota chapter of the Fulbright Association. Two weeks prior he was in England, giving a presentation at Oxford University titled “Becoming Fellow-Workers with God in Wartime: On Divine and Human Compassion.” And just before that he was at Wheaton College in Illinois for the 2023 Chicago Theological Initiative, lecturing on “When the Patriarch of Moscow Blesses a War: Russian Apocalypticism and the Sacralization of Violence.”
Later this month, on April 21, Gavrilyuk will speak at St. Thomas in James B. Alumni Woulfe Hall for a Lunch ‘n’ Explore called “Restore Hope, Rebuild Ukraine,” an event organized by the Selim Center.
Fighting back with other means
This theologian stays busy because the people of Ukraine need support, and Americans need to have a clearer understanding of the tragedy and devastation brought on by war, he said.
Professor Paul Gavrilyuk
I faced a choice: Return to Ukraine and take up arms in defense of my native land ... or fight this war by peaceful means."
“At the beginning of the war, I faced a choice: Return to Ukraine and take up arms in defense of my native land – as so many of my friends and colleagues have done – or fight this war by peaceful means and involve fellow Americans in the endeavor,” Gavrilyuk said. “I chose to fight peacefully by raising awareness of the situation, speaking and raising funds to save lives, one tourniquet and one ambulance at a time."
Since March 2022, Rebuild Ukraine has raised more than $550,000, and has delivered food, medical supplies and protective gear to Ukraine’s hospitals and military units. “We have also funded the education and rejuvenation of refugee children traumatized by the war,” Gavrilyuk said.
According to UNICEF, 2 million refugee children fled the war in Ukraine within just the first month of the war. An additional 2.5 million children are displaced within the country, amounting to 60% of Ukrainian children forced from their homes as attacks on urban areas continue.
“Our goal is to build a recreation camp on the outskirts of Kyiv to serve over 1,000 children a year, Gavrilyuk said. “We will need to raise $150,000 toward this goal in the next year.”
Professor Paul Gravilyuk
The lives of children and young adults in Ukraine have been disrupted. We need to do right by Ukraine's children by providing them with a better future.
Providing a space for children, especially one where they can receive treatment for trauma, is important to Gavrilyuk, whose son, Peter, is a senior at St. Thomas, studying neuroscience. He said during his own childhood he lived a very sheltered and privileged life.
“I credit my parents and my education with most of my opportunities, including my having a decent job as a professor,” he said. Ukrainian children today are living very different lives than he did as a child.
“The lives of children and young adults in Ukraine have been disrupted. Many educational opportunities that existed before the war are presently severely limited. The country’s infrastructure is in ruins. This is unfair,” he said. “We need to do right by Ukraine’s children by providing them with a better future. This is why Rebuild Ukraine will continue focusing on the children affected by war.”
Rebuild Ukraine is currently supporting a teacher cooperative with 20 refugee female teachers and 80 refugee children in Budva, Montenegro. Based on the model of this cooperative, Rebuild Ukraine runs rehabilitation classes for displaced and traumatized children within Ukraine.
A deeply personal connection
Gavrilyuk has several family members still in Ukraine. His parents, however, were evacuated not long after the war started. Originally, they wanted to remain in their Kyiv home, but Gavrilyuk and others convinced them to leave. First, they were moved to a cabin in a rural area on the outskirts of Kyiv, where his parents hoped the Russian invasion would not reach.
“My parents naively thought ‘there is nothing here but cows and sheep; nothing here to bomb.’ But that proved to be wrong,” Gavrilyuk said. Drones were spotted flying overhead.
So, they continued their journey westward, to the center of the country. A road trip that would normally take 10 hours, give or take, took them six days, Gavrilyuk said. The extended time is because of the caravan of vehicles that were headed to the western border as millions of Ukrainians fled to other countries.
As his parents embarked on that journey, within 150 miles “they managed to get two flat tires,” he said. Farther into their trek, they landed in a town that was bombed three times. They eventually proceeded south to the border at Moldova and then safely into Romania, before settling as refugees in Lithuania. Gavrilyuk said his younger brother, Vsev, organized their evacuation, as well as the evacuation of dozens of families from Ukraine.
“The person who is closely involved in the work of Rebuild Ukraine is my brother, Vsev, who put over a dozen of his own staff to work as volunteers for our cause within Ukraine,” Gavrilyuk said. “It’s his network of over 70 volunteers that gets the job done, aid delivered within Ukraine. I used to be my brother’s hero, when we were growing up. Now he has become my hero.”
Despite the safety of his parents and others, Gavrilyuk continues his work with Rebuild Ukraine because there are other lives to save; cities to rebuild.
“Putin’s regime has lost morally long ago. It has also lost politically,” Gavrilyuk said. “It is important also that the regime loses militarily as soon as possible. How long will Ukraine be allowed to bleed, losing its sons and daughters to Putin’s war machine?”
The power of community
Since March 2022, Rebuild Ukraine purchased and delivered 25 emergency vehicles – from used SUVs to ambulances to ATVs and even one excavator. The ATVs, manufactured in Ukraine, are equipped with special fold out beds to carry the wounded from the battlefield.
“During the winter, we provided heaters to the Blood Collection Center in Kyiv, Ukraine,” Gavrilyuk added. “Our tourniquets are used both in the battlefield by the defenders and for training purposes by military units and even at secondary schools.”
And because these fighters have to eat, Rebuild Ukraine also supports the processing of dried meat, known as Ukrainian Jerkies. In 2022, over one ton of dried meat was produced and distributed to Ukraine’s defenders and military hospitals as a result of Rebuild Ukraine's financial support, Gravilyuk said.
The organization he founded also secured a $25,000 Disaster Grant from the Rotary Club International and provided 250 first-aid kits to several military units in December. Gavrilyuk explains that the organization is highly cost-effective. In fact, “97 cents of every dollar donated go directly to humanitarian aid,” he said.
In the U.S., Rebuild Ukraine relies on volunteers, but did recently hire its first staffer, Anne Danckert, as a part-time executive director.
“It takes a village to save a village,” Gravilyuk said. “I am grateful for the volunteers who have given their time to this cause, as well as to those who provide financial support in any amount. With the generosity of others supporting Rebuild Ukraine and similar organizations, we are able to continue providing vital relief to people who have lost so much. We are able to participate in God’s mission of saving lives.”