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Minnesota professor starts nonprofit to get medical supplies to Ukrainians

Paul Gavrilyuk, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., is seen outside of his St. Paul home March 30, 2022. Gavrilyuk spends most of his spare time running an organization he started called "Rebuild Ukraine," which works to distribute supplies in Ukraine. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — Paul Gavrilyuk gets about four hours of sleep a night.

It’s a wonder he gets any sleep at all. The Ukraine native and theology professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul is working around the clock to help his native country, which he left in 1993, but has family and friends still living there.

One friend is a fellow academic who has taken up a military rifle to help defend cities and villages from fierce and relentless attacks by Russian forces who were ordered Feb. 24 to invade the country by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Gavrilyuk’s friend is his age, 50, and he has four children. He serves in what Gavrilyuk calls a “sniper unit” of Ukraine’s civilian defense volunteers.

The two professors text often, and sometimes talk on the phone.

Hearing about the conflict on a daily basis has Gavrilyuk thinking about joining the fight himself. But he came up with a better idea. It involves less risk, which makes his wife, Eugenia, happy. And, a higher reward. Much higher, he thinks.

It builds off something he started in 2015 after the Russians invaded Ukraine to annex Crimea. He created an organization called “Rebuild Ukraine” to raise money for much-needed supplies like tourniquets and prescription medications, then deliver them to hospitals in Ukraine.

Although he still continues to teach at St. Thomas, almost every other waking moment is spent on Rebuild Ukraine. The organization’s logo features the letter “U” in blue, surrounding a yellow bird: a phoenix — a bird whose meaning in Greek mythology is “rising from the ashes.” Blue and yellow are the national colors of Ukraine.

“I measure my life in tourniquets,” Gavrilyuk, who is Eastern Orthodox, said during a March 30 interview with The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “We have the capability of sending about 5,000 tourniquets into Ukraine on a weekly basis.”

Tourniquets are medical devices used to stop the flow of blood by compressing veins and arteries, often as an emergency measure to keep a person alive. During military conflicts, tourniquets are used in the field and may be the only way to prevent fatal blood loss.

“We essentially asked ourselves the question: What product can we supply that would maximize the chances of saving a life in Ukraine?” he said. “We want to participate in God’s mission of saving lives.”

As soon as the Russians invaded Ukraine in February, Gavrilyuk’s organization ramped up to raise money and deliver tourniquets and other supplies in anticipation of the heavy military conflict that ensued.

So far, Rebuild Ukraine has brought 2,500 tourniquets into the country, and Gavrilyuk hopes the efforts will not only continue, but increase.

“The hope is to send 10,000 more in the next month,” he said. “We’re really talking about easily 1,000 wounded (Ukrainians) a day. So, that means if I had 7,000 tourniquets to pump into the country every week, I’d be a very happy man.”

His organization has 100 volunteers living and working in two major Ukrainian cities — one of them Kyiv — to distribute the donated supplies to hospitals and all the way up to the front lines of battle. He has about 15 volunteers in the U.S.; some of them are in the Twin Cities.

Gavrilyuk also is working on manufacturing bulletproof vests to have shipped overseas and delivered to Ukraine’s civilian defenders. He also recently discovered another source for these vests — police departments that have “decommissioned” bulletproof vests because of age.

He began reaching out to police and said the response has been encouraging.

“I want to thank police chiefs, specifically in Wisconsin and in Texas,” he said. “What I wrote was a crazy request: Could you supply decommissioned police vests to Ukraine? They immediately said, ‘Absolutely, yes. It would be an honor, actually, to do it.'”

Gavrilyuk also has decided on a food item that would help Ukrainians — beef jerky. Beef is plentiful in Ukraine and the surrounding countries, and jerky is highly nutritious and easily transportable, he said.

Volunteers were already hard at work making and distributing it to civilians and soldiers.

He described one volunteer in particular — a woman who lives in Ukraine but is removed from the current military battle areas.

This volunteer “is drying meat in her house (and) also sheltering 20 refugees,” he said. “And, her young husband, 25, is fighting (against the Russians). So, the husband is fighting, the wife is taking care of 20 refugees and producing more than a hundred pounds a week of dried meat for us.”

He is working hard to solicit donations for Rebuild Ukraine by traveling to other cities such as Chicago and New York and by creating a website: rebuild-ua.org.

Compassionate action is what Ukraine Rebuild is all about, he said.

“There is no end game to what Putin is doing,” he said. “Ukrainians are paying with the lives of civilians and the lives of its military and voluntary defense units. And, that’s horrible. That’s a very high price. And, I think it’s important that the world doesn’t just admire Ukrainian bravery, but also supports it with prayer and compassionate action.”

Gavrilyuk’s wife was born in Russia, but she feels the same way about Putin’s attempt to take over Ukraine as her husband.

“When all these disasters started to happen, not only me, (but) all my Russian friends born in Russia who identify themselves as Russian, we experienced the same, almost physical sense of nausea and disgust,” said Eugenia, 57, a Moscow native who, like her husband, teaches in the theology department at the University of St. Thomas.

“It’s noxious, as if you are poisoned. It’s a sense of deep shame,” she added.

Rebuild Ukraine is primarily her husband’s venture, Eugenia fully supports him.

The war in Ukraine “is very difficult for me,” said Paul Gavrilyuk. “My elderly parents are now refugees. My great aunt, who is 98 … is a refugee (now living) in Lithuania.”

For him, the assessment of the Russian invasion is simple.

“They’re bombing civilians,” he said. “These are war serious war crimes. … It’s callous and it’s a genocide of the whole culture.”

Hrbacek is a photographer/reporter at The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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