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After Fighting Erupts in Eastern Ukraine, a Young Volunteer Steps Up

“I want to be useful," said Pavlo, whose last name is being withheld for security reasons. Pavlo works with the Yevgen Pyvovarov Charity Fund to deliver aid to besieged communities in Eastern Ukraine.


Ukraine Relief

UKRAINE — The path that student Pavlo took to volunteering on the humanitarian front line in Ukraine’s war-torn Kharkiv region was long and unforeseen. It began in China, two years before Russia’s full-scale invasion of his country on February 24, 2022.

Pavlo, now 23, was studying applied chemistry in Hangzhou when the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic required him to return to Eastern Ukraine and reevaluate his future. Then the attack on his homeland upended his plans once again.

As the Russian military columns approached his village and “hundreds of vehicles drove through the streets and in the fields,” Pavlo, his mother and brother – and millions more Ukrainians – suddenly found themselves in occupied territory.

During the four weeks that the family stayed in their home, they were thankfully left alone. Russian convoys would rumble straight through the village, which wound up in a “grey zone” between the opposing armies. It avoided the devastation that befell other settlements largely due to its location in a depression in the high ground. Instead, Pavlo’s family got used to the sound of artillery shells passing directly overhead as the sides slogged it out.

Eventually, they made it safely to Ukrainian-controlled territory, he recounts, unlike some residents of the area who hit mines while leaving. The family’s home was later looted by the Russian military and sustained some shelling damage to its roof and facade.

Declared unfit for military service because of a long-time knee injury, Pavlo had a decision to make: To endure the constant bombardments in Kharkiv city or head elsewhere, abroad even. “I had an opportunity to leave but I declined. This is a decisive point for my country,” he said. “I want to be useful.”

(Nick Allen/Direct Relief)

Since then, he has worked full-time for the Yevgen Pyvovarov Charity Fund, set up in 2020 to help people and communities affected by the pandemic. His job in this hive of humanitarian activity comprises a bit of everything: administration, drafting projects in English for foreign aid organizations like Direct Relief, storing and delivering medical products to hospitals and clinics, as well as food and other supplies to isolated villages, many of which lived through seven months of occupation before the Russians were pushed out last September.

“The elderly people probably get hit hardest – their world view is turned upside down,” Pavlo said. “Children also get affected, of course, but they adapt more easily, I’ve seen it many times.”

Looking back at the first weeks and months after the invasion, Pavlo recalled two tragic deaths of former neighbors in his village: On the first day of the occupation, an elderly woman was fatally shot by a Russian soldier when she peeked over a wall. Much later, and still very hard to accept, he learned of the death in an explosion of a close neighbor called Oleksiy. This gentle man in his late eighties had been a kind of mentor, sharing with Pavlo, among other things, the skills and joys of beekeeping.

It’s now a passion of the volunteer, who carries an air of seriousness well beyond his young age. But his face softens when talking about the complexities of tending his beehives and keeping their populations healthy – and productive. He now has so many jars of honey stocked up that he struggles to give them away, he said, finally laughing.

Pavlo is adamant that Ukraine will be victorious over the Russian Army and only grow stronger as a result, while Russia will only grow weaker. When he feels that he is not letting down his organization, he will think about returning to his studies, he says. But for now, there is too much work to do.

They say fishermen have a philosophical streak, perhaps because of their solitary communion with nature. Talking to Pavlo, you could argue that beekeeping has a similar effect. He’s also evidently a fan of Tolkien. With a nod to Gandalf in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” he neatly paraphrased the wizard’s words: “You don’t get to choose what time you live in, you only get to choose what to do with the time that’s given to you.”

For Pavlo and many thousands of young Ukrainians, whether volunteers, military personnel, or coming from other fields that grew in response to the invasion, this is clearly their time to shine.

Direct Relief has provided more than $896 million in medical aid to groups in Ukraine, including Yevgen Pyvovarov Charity Fund, since Feb. 24, 2022. Direct Relief has supported the group with 41 tons of medical aid since the conflict began.

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