Since the Feb. 24, 2022, I cannot remember one single day where the ongoing war in Ukraine did not cross my mind. It was no surprise to me to hear again about Ukraine, even in Minneapolis, where I met with Pavel Gavrilyuk, a Ukrainian-born professor of Theology at St. Thomas University who moved to the United States in 1993. He teaches by day at the university and runs by night “Rebuild Ukraine,” an NGO that provides aid to Ukrainians and nonlethal arms to Ukrainian soldiers on the front. His NGO raised over $500,000 last year.
Listening to Gavrilyuk recount the journey his parents had to endure at the very beginning of the war to flee their country and safely reach Lithuania after traveling through six countries for six days reminded me of the dozens of testimonies of displaced Ukrainians I have collected in cities such as Przemysl, Lviv, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia and Odessa, while I was covering the conflict last year.
“I remember a tremendous sense of anger and a sense of betrayal when the conflict started,” Gavrilyuk said. “But I also remember a very strong sense of determination. My main question was: What would be best? I knew that I needed to do something.”
Gavrilyuk said he considered joining his fellow expatriates and returning to Ukraine to fight alongside the Ukrainian Army, but realized his military training earlier in his life probably would not have been enough.
“I would have been a relatively quick death,” he explains. “It seemed to me Pavel Gavrilyuk dead would be of a far lesser use for his country than the same person alive.”
So, he created “Rebuild Ukraine.”
“What is happening in Ukraine today is about values and the fundamental struggle between the forces of authoritarianism on the one side and the forces of freedom and democracy on the other side,” Gavrilyuk explained. “It is also about the future of democracy not only in Ukraine but in the rest of the world.”
Gavrilyuk also said he is confident Ukraine will win, thanks in large part to the international support pouring into the country, including $100 billion worth of aid from the United States. Through this aid, he is convinced that the US has restored its international leadership in the world after 4 years of a Trump presidency where that “leadership was nowhere to be seen.”
As a theology professor at a Christian university, Gavrilyuk said the Russia-Ukraine war also is influencing and informing discussions he has with students about values such as love and forgiveness. In this case, he said justice must be prioritized.
“Before one speaks about forgiveness, one has to speak about justice. The reason why we need to speak about justice before forgiveness is because without the notion of justice and fundamental fairness, the notion of mercy becomes arbitrary. You cannot have the notion of love without the notion of justice. Russia and its government first need to be brought to justice.”