Minnesota professor, a Ukraine native, fundraises for home country
Paul Gavrilyuk has for years run another nonprofit, the International Orthodox Theological Association, an academic association that brings together the Eastern European Christian community for mega-conferences, like their inaugural conference in Romania, which took place in early 2019.
ST. PAUL -- As a professor of philosophy and theology at the University of St. Thomas, Paul Gavrilyuk spends much of his daytime hours knee-deep in research about God and man.
His nights are devoted to a different calling — fundraising for teachers’ salaries, classroom and medical supplies, as well as knee pads, camouflage gear and tourniquets for troops in his native Ukraine, the country he emigrated from as a graduate student some 30 years ago.
Within a month, he hopes to be supporting the manufacture of flak jackets. Thinking long term, he’s already begun discussions with an American boarding school in suburban Texas and a Chicago college to set up student study-abroad experiences once the war is over.
Donations now exceed $350,000, including more than $100,000 raised through his church, Holy Trinity Orthodox Church on Forest Street in St. Paul. The famous Westminster Abbey, the spiritual center of the Anglican church in London, contributed its Easter collection to his new nonprofit, “Rebuild Ukraine” — rebuild-ua.org.
“There’s something of a tradition, in the eastern European tradition, where the churches are well-positioned to respond in a crisis,” said Father Jonathan Proctor of Holy Trinity, who called Gavrilyuk’s efforts “phenomenal.” Religious institutions are known in Ukraine as “being a reliable way to get help to people in need, without too much bureaucracy.”
If Gavrilyuk has a broad network, it didn’t come together overnight.
Gavrilyuk has for years run another nonprofit, the International Orthodox Theological Association, an academic association that brings together the Eastern European Christian community for mega-conferences, like their inaugural conference in Romania, which took place in early 2019.
He has another mega-conference scheduled for Greece in 2023. He’s been able to reach out to many of the same contacts, and others, to help Ukrainian school children living as refugees attend classes at two schools in Lithuania and Montenegro, while also providing badly needed supplies to civilians who have taken up arms to defend their homeland.
A personal calling
His calling is highly personal.
In late February, during the first few days of Russian bombing, Gavrilyuk’s brother convinced their parents, both in their mid-70s, to flee Kyiv, the capital and most populous city of Ukraine.
“That was a car ride that lasted six days and spanned seven countries,” said Gavrilyuk. “They managed to only have two flat tires … with rockets and shelling overhead.”
At one particular stop in Ternopil, in western Ukraine, the family assumed they had reached safety. Over the course of little more than a day, air-raid sirens sounded three times, ushering residents into hiding. They kept driving.
Gavrilyuk’s family is now living as refugees in Lithuania, alongside thousands of other Ukrainians who have fled their shell-shocked country. They’re in touch with many others who have remained behind, including non-combatant wives who refuse to flee Ukraine as long as their husbands continue to fight for the civilian defense troops, a network of thousands of everyday Ukrainians. In recent years, military training for Ukrainians has been compulsory, with recently expanded roles for women of all ages.
Theologian turned sniper
Partially as a result, everyday residents have been able to quickly transition into a civilian defense network.
Russia wasn’t expecting “teachers, engineers, the unemployed, students and others, joining principally as volunteers or being drafted, undergoing a training of typically two weeks to one month, and putting their lives in danger,” Gavrilyuk said.
He recently translated a five-page personal account authored by a friend, a fellow theology professor in Ukraine, who was previously stationed as a sniper in the Chernobyl area.
“There is a kind of refusal of the nation to simply remain a victim,” Gavrilyuk said. “There’s no question they’ve been victimized. But there’s a desire first and foremost to offer resistance to what is a completely unjustified aggression against Ukraine. This was completely unprovoked.”
Short of fighting, what could be done, he asked.
“As an academic, I’ve made my decision to fight against violence by peaceful means — creating a nonprofit that will endure beyond the war, and help rebuild Ukraine on a larger scale,” he said.
‘Horrific scenes of mass murder’
Unlike some other nonprofits, Rebuild Ukraine is using its contacts in and around Ukraine and Lithuania to source supplies ranging from boots and neck warmers to thyroid medications within Eastern Europe. That’s rather than work through pricier American manufacturing and shipping channels, where transport into a war zone would be more difficult.
Gavrilyuk has read through harrowing accounts out of cities such as Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, where Ukrainian investigators have discovered 20 to 40 bodies at a time of executed residents. Those are disturbing images, but his optimism for his homeland endures.
“The world has seen people who were shot with their hands tied behind their backs, and horrific scenes of mass murder of the civilian population,” Gavrilyuk said. “What the world has not seen — and what the news stories have not focused on — is that Bucha was liberated. I could share a picture of a soldier wearing our boots and our protective supplies.”
For more information, visit rebuild-ua.org.