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Rotary Ukraine: ‘A big thank you to all our Rotary members who have helped us in Ukraine’

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Ukraine Rotariets magazine editor Mykola Stebljanko, discusses how Rotary clubs in the country are helping and how he is adapting to the increasingly dire situation.

The war in Ukraine has displaced millions of people, creating a devastating humanitarian crisis along the country's borders. In response, The Rotary Foundation set up an official channel for donors worldwide to support relief efforts. At press time, more than $3.5 million has been contributed to the fund.

While the situation is evolving quickly, this interview with Rotariets magazine editor Mykola Stebljanko, conducted in late March, offers a telling picture of the troubling events in Ukraine as well as Rotary's tremendous relief efforts there. Stebljanko discusses how Rotary clubs in the country are helping and how he is adapting to the increasingly dire situation.

What's your situation there now?

I'm living in Odesa. It's the third most populous city in Ukraine, an important port city on the Black Sea coast, in the southwest. Currently, there's no military presence here, but we live under the constant threat of bombs and missiles. Often, air raid sirens will wake us up in the middle of the night. We have to get up and hide in a safe place. In my apartment, the safest place is the bathroom. We huddle together and spend the rest of the night there. Occasionally, we experienced a few rocket attacks, but most of the time, it's a safe place.

As of now, most of the military actions center around Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and Kharkiv. More than a dozen smaller cities are also under attack. The city of Mariupol in the southeast of Ukraine is under siege. More than 2,500 civilians have died in Mariupol and close to 400,000 people are trapped, and the Russian army has stopped anyone from escaping. Many are without electricity, water, and heat.

What is happening with Rotary clubs in Ukraine?

There are 62 Rotary clubs in Ukraine. At the moment, only the Rotary Club of Kherson has temporarily suspended meetings, because the city is under the control of the Russian military. I recently spoke with the Rotarians there. None of them are able to escape and they are trapped inside the city. They no longer meet or do any projects for fear of personal safety. Our district governor sent a letter of support to all Rotarians in Kherson.

Other Rotary clubs continue to operate and are trying their best to conduct Rotary services. We have created a special coordination committee. Each club has a representative on the committee, and we meet online twice a day to discuss issues that are facing our clubs.

What kind of relief projects are Ukrainian clubs doing?

Our Rotary services fall into the following three areas:

  • The first involves providing help to our hospitals, where a large number of wounded civilians are being treated. The hospitals are in dire need of medical supplies. Our district has set up special accounts and has received about US$100,000 from Rotary clubs and districts around the world. We have already purchased and distributed medicine and equipment. We have also received two Rotary Foundation disaster response grants.
  • Second, we are working to coordinate humanitarian aid. Rotary clubs and districts are sending aid via trucks, ships, and air carriers. We are rebuilding Rotary's humanitarian hubs along Ukraine's borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. They have received all the supply items and sent them across the border to our cities. Then, we have different hubs inside Ukraine near the border regions, where Rotarians distribute this humanitarian help to the cities that are in dire need of it. Most of the items are clothes, food, and medicine.
  • Third, we are trying to help Rotarians' family members who want to leave the country. We have received many requests from Rotarians in Europe and America who would like to host our family members and relatives.

Why don't you leave Ukraine?

I'm already a refugee. I lived in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, for 40 years. But in 2015, I had to leave my native city because of the Russian annexation of Crimea. So, my wife, Olga, and I moved to Odesa. We felt our move to Ukraine would keep us safe. When people asked us why we do not want to leave Odesa and go outside Ukraine, I always answer: We were forced to leave our motherland once in 2015. We don't want to leave our country again. We are Ukrainians and we would like to stay in Ukraine.

What's your message to the Rotary clubs around the world?

On behalf of Rotarians in Ukraine, I would like to say a big thank you to all our Rotary members who have helped us in Ukraine. It means a lot to us during this difficult time in our country's history. At the same time, I would like to appeal to Rotary people to lobby their governments and push for peace. We are grateful to our friends around the world who are helping us.

  1. In early March, missiles hit a residential district in the city of Zhytomyr, killing three people.

  2. Mykola Stebljanko in the pre-war years.

  3. Tatyana, 22, says goodbye to her boyfriend Oleksander, 23, at a barracks in Lviv. Oleksander has received his conscription notice.

• This story originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.