‘I Could Not Sit By and Watch’
A Ukrainian-American Knight describes his journey to bring medical supplies to war-stricken Ukraine
By Zachary Dmyterko
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, I realized deep in my bones that I had to act. My grandparents on both sides came from western Ukraine, and I have many friends and relatives there. My family spoke Ukrainian growing up, celebrated Ukrainian traditions and attended a Ukrainian Catholic Church in Chicago. I spent several summers in Lviv, my family’s hometown, and even attended summer courses at the Ukrainian Catholic University. I lived and worked in Kyiv for more than a year — first in the trauma ward of the main military hospital in Kyiv when Russia seized Crimea and other parts of eastern Ukraine in 2015, and later as a broadcast journalist and editor for a TV news station. In 2018, I studied in the town of Khmelnytskyi on a Fulbright Scholarship; I traveled the beautiful landscape of Ukraine and visited cities both west and east, including Volnovakha and Mariupol, places that today have turned into hellscapes of war. I could not sit by and watch the horror unfold. As a Ukrainian Catholic and Knight of Columbus, I deeply felt called to reach out in charity — to volunteer and help those in need.
I was working for the Congressional Office for International Leadership when war broke out. In a matter of days, with the help of staff, all 12 Ukrainian delegates we were hosting at the time filled their suitcases with medical supplies and returned to their country with great determination. Drawing on my past experiences, I decided that I, too, would go to Ukraine and deliver medical supplies directly to trusted medical contacts, who I knew would put them to good use. Along the way, I would document and report on my journey for The Ukrainian Weekly, an English-language newspaper for which I’ve worked as a freelancer.
I drafted a letter laying out what I would be doing and what supplies I would buy: lifesaving items requested by my medical contacts in Ukraine, including tourniquets, quick-clot bandages, burn dressings and gauze. My parents sent it to their friends, soliciting donations from people who wanted to donate to Ukraine while knowing their money was going to the right place. My mom, a recently retired ophthalmologist, knew the world of medicine and would help me procure the supplies.
In a little over a week, we managed to raise $36,000 in donations and purchase well over 450 pounds of supplies. I worked out details and made tentative plans for how to transport them into Ukraine. My older brother, Greg, was enlisted to help, and we booked flights to Kraków, Poland. Time was of the essence.
We landed in Kraków on March 12, loaded with seven massive suitcases of medical aid. A driver, — someone found online by a friend of a friend — was set to pick us up that night, but communication had been sparse. We became nervous when our contact told us we would be spending the night at the border instead of going straight to Lviv. Worries rose as to the trustworthiness of the anonymous driver. After a great deal of discussion, we decided to cancel and find another way across. It took us two days to find new, more reliable, transportation.
In the meantime, I connected with Knights in Poland. I had told my grand knight about the trip, and he put us in touch with Supreme Council staff. We heard all about the amazing work they were doing, and they offered to help us get into Ukraine if our driver fell through again We felt completely supported.
On March 14, we set out for the border with a 22-year-old Polish driver named Adrian. He had never been to Ukraine but said he simply wanted to be a good neighbor. We stopped along the way at a church in Poland to load his van to the top with additional humanitarian aid. There was no issue crossing the border into Ukraine, but we were working against the clock. Martial law and curfews were in place, and darkness had already fallen. The border guards informed us we would be driving through an air raid. The night before, the Yavoriv military base, a training facility, had been hit by dozens of Russian missiles, leaving at least 35 dead and more than 100 injured. We would pass not far from it that same night, as we drove into the darkness, not knowing what to expect. It felt like the longest night of my life.
We managed to arrive at our relatives’ apartment in Lviv right before curfew and were greeted in the traditionally warm Ukrainian fashion. Food was brought out despite the late hour, and we had a warm bed waiting for us. The hardest part of our mission had been achieved; all that remained was to deliver the supplies and conduct interviews before returning to the border in the following days. Distributing supplies to various contacts was easy. They mostly sent drivers to pick up the supplies, and we photographed the drop-off. My contact in Kyiv then sent me a photo of the supplies received, which were given directly to soldiers in aid kits.
The following day, we drove to Yavoriv to deliver supplies and conduct interviews with military contacts. It had only been a couple of days since the devastating airstrike, and they were in desperate need of medical supplies.
Even in the short time we were in Lviv, there were several air raids and one direct hit on the city. The hardest part was learning about the experiences of displaced Ukrainians. We met Lubow Maskymovych, who was leading an operation to helping vulnerable women and children leave the country safely. Her center, where she provided shelter, food and critical safety information, was a beacon of hope for refugees. Here, we learned about the horrible reality of how women and children fleeing Ukraine are being preyed upon by human traffickers.
Yet, in the four days it took to deliver aid to a country ravaged by war, I also witnessed the amazing spirit of the Ukrainian people. Mothers, babushkas, graying men, young students — all walks of life rising to the occasion to perform heroic deeds. They prayed, volunteered their time to weave camouflage nets, and collected or made supplies for soldiers on the front. Retired men welded together tank traps; teachers took up arms to be soldiers. It all was immensely inspiring and left an indelible mark on me. I saw God working in the people I met in Ukraine, lifting their spirit and giving them hope and righteous strength. I do not know how long this war will last, but I know that ultimately the people of Ukraine will win. I believe in it just as strongly as they do.
But the war is not over, and the work is not yet done. We are already raising more money and more supplies. Before long, we plan to return to Ukraine. And we hope to continue delivering supplies for as long as needed.
By ZACHARY DMYTERKO is a freelance journalist and a member of Cathedral Council 6790 in Arlington, Va.