JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – In a conflict that can seem distant and detached for some, one ETSU grad student felt the sting of war from the moment the first bomb dropped in Ukraine.
“The first time, you have to take it and absorb,” Yaroslav Hnatusko told News Channel 11. “All right, what’s next? What do I do?”
Yaroslav, who goes by Yaro in the United States, came to the country to further his education.
Now he’s founded Restore Ukraine to rebuild and repair after Russian munitions shattered his home.
“My first call was to my family, to say ‘Hey, are you alright, are you okay?” he added. “It’s chaos, where do they go, what do they do? How long can they stay?”
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has been a hotbed of combat and shelling since the outset of the war on Feb. 24, 2022. By UN estimates, 4.3 million people have fled Ukraine as of an April 6th update and roughly 13 million are stranded in combat zones as Russian forces consolidate along the Eastern Front.
As a city of 1.4 million souls, Kharkiv’s history is one of national culture and education. For residents today, it’s a matter of survival.
On Feb 24th, 2022, Yaro was asleep when Russian president Vladimir Putin declared the start of a “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine and missiles began to rain on military targets across the entire border of Belarus and Russia. Within a few hours, cruise missiles were gliding over his family home on their way to hit munitions depots, bases and airfields.
“The family sent me videos of missiles flying over my house and hitting some military target,” Yaro said. “So the house was shaking, the ground was shaking.”
For his brother Stan, war meant business came to a halt and the work of converting the warehouses and storefronts of Atlant, Ukraine’s largest construction material supplier, into a network of bomb shelters began.
In Kharkiv, shelves that held once products now hold people. So far, 150 different residents have moved in full-time and receive three meals a day. Another 150 spend half the day, receiving food and care from the all-volunteer force working to connect those who need it most. Then there are those who have found shelter in the area but still need food after all grocery and stockpile supplies were exhausted.
“One of our volunteers just in one single day got under direct fire twice because he was delivering baby food and baby diapers,” Yaro said. “Just for that reason he came under fire.”
In addition, Yaro said military and hospital personnel account for another 1,000 meals distributed throughout the area.
At $2.40 per meal, Yaro said one day of three-meal operation can cost upwards of $10,800. To help offset those costs, he’s opened a GoFundMe page and is hoping the world will help keep food in their hands.
That cost is for supplies alone, because some Atlant helpers work for 18-20 hours for free each day to make sure that hot meals, equipment and supplies make it to where they need to be.
“We have the eyes on the ground, and we do the operations ourselves,” Yaro said. “That also means — since we do not have any volunteer wages — that means that for every dollar donated right now, every single dollar goes to supporting Ukrainian families.”
With the renewed Russian focus on Eastern Ukraine, Yaro said that their shelters will become even more necessary. Every missile and every shell may flatten a home, hollow out a building or knock out electricity crucial to keeping Kharkiv’s residents alive. When that happens, Yaro said it’s not long before Atlant and Restore Ukraine step in to help lighten the load for those that need it most.
“The biggest challenge was who is in the highest need right now,” Yaro said. “And of course those are the people who cannot help themselves. Those are the people who are in orphanages, those are children, those are in a hospital, who completely rely on the staff members or the nurses. Those are in maternity homes, those are in nursing homes.”
Alongside the intensified combat, the specter of occupation hangs over Kharkiv as a strategic target and population center. As images of executed civilian bodies littering the street filter out of Bucha, a Northern suburb of Kyiv, Yaro said failure is not an option for the Ukrainian armed forces.
“We have never considered that option, just because we don’t believe in that option,” he said. “We believe in prosperity, and the vision for our program for all displaced people to feel like home.”
Finding the time to manage war relief efforts from the United States isn’t easy for anyone, and as an ETSU MBA student, Yaro has to split his day between managing assignments and managing fundraising efforts for an organization that feeds thousands a day. When you ask him, it’s not a question of what he can get done: it’s a question of what has to get done.
“Now, what are my priorities? Of course, people for me are first, so some other areas of my life do struggle,” Yaro said. “They need much more attention, but I want to be with people first.”
Every day is a new headache, in his brother Stan’s words, from power outages to an evacuation after shells landed near one of their shelters. Restore Ukraine and Atlant’s support network consists of former storefronts and warehouses, so each location has its own quirks and needs. But Yaro and Stan wouldn’t have it any other way. Knowing that their efforts help keep food in the mouths of others is enough.
“I have never heard a more genuine ‘Thank you’ than from those people,” Yaro said. “And I think people are also running away from war, from scenes of dead bodies on the ground — and they’re everywhere — but also they’re running toward the question ‘How can I help? Where can I be to be closer to people?'”
But for Restore Ukraine, the work that’s already been done is only a fraction of where they want to be. Yaro set his goal high: $1,000,000 raised by September. Keep in mind that Kharkiv is a city of roughly 1.4 million, and the scale of Yaro’s vision begins to come into focus. To accomplish that vision, he shared a saying that he’s been living by his entire life.
“There is a very great saying, it comes from Brazilian culture,” Yaro said. “It says: If you don’t have a dog, you hunt with a cat. What that means in more English terms and for us in terms of war, right now we don’t have a dog. And our ‘dog’ is a peaceful environment, kids playing in the playground, going to school, dreaming very big about who they’re want to become, now all of that is taken away… What we have right now is a cat.
At the time we know that one day people might have food, other day we know that they will not have food even for two days, for three days… another day we know that we are able to cooperate with some nonprofits around the world or the government to deliver more than 20 tons of food in one day. This is all a ‘cat’ for us, we have to work with what we have.”
They’re not alone in their fight, either. Yaro said Restore Ukraine and Atlant crews have worked with International Justice Mission, an international organization focused on combatting human trafficking, and Project Dynamo, which focuses on extracting vulnerable people from combat zones worldwide. Plans are in the works to partner with other organizations within the United States and abroad to eventually secure enough resources to feed anyone in the city that needs it.