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Strength in times of crisis in Ukraine

Past and current conflicts have had a significant impact on Rotary in Ukraine — which has only made members there more resolute

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Ukraine is an agricultural powerhouse and a country of significant technological and strategic importance, but it has had a turbulent history. The buildup to the Russia-Ukraine war that began in February preoccupied many members of Rotary around the world, who worried about the future of Rotary within Europe’s second-largest country.

Listen to the story, narrated by award-winning broadcast journalist Linda Yu.

Yet amid this turmoil, Rotary members in Ukraine continue to demonstrate resilience and an unwavering commitment to peace. To learn more about Rotary’s circuitous journey in Ukraine over the past decade, Rotary Magazin for Germany and Austria compiled this report. As the war is raging throughout the country, we’ll bring you updates about Rotary’s situation there and how Rotary clubs around the globe are pitching in to help with Ukrainian refugees.

A look back — and toward the future

Rotariets, the regional Rotary magazine in Ukraine

Let Rotariets provide our readers some background information about Rotary in Ukraine. The first Rotary clubs within the current borders of Ukraine were chartered in the 1930s in the cities of Uzhgorod, Chernivtsi, and Lviv. During World War II, Rotary clubs disbanded in territories under conflict, and clubs were forcibly dissolved during the Cold War in countries under Communist rule.

After the collapse of the USSR, several clubs in Europe and North America sought to reestablish Rotary’s presence in the former Soviet countries. Lubomyr “Lu” Hewko, the father of John Hewko, Rotary International’s CEO and general secretary, played an important role. Lu’s family fled Ukraine during World War II, and years later, as president of the Rotary Club of Clarkston, Michigan, he organized several Rotary projects: delivering medical equipment to Ukrainian hospitals, assisting the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and recruiting doctors to perform eye surgeries for the needy. After Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, Lu helped to charter the first Rotary club in the capital, Kyiv. John Hewko is a charter member.

In the early 1990s, Ukraine was part of District 1420, along with all the clubs in the former USSR, as well as some in Finland. Other district affiliations followed, until finally, in November 1999, RI decided to integrate Ukraine and Belarus with Poland in District 2230. This came to fruition on 1 July 2000. With the steady growth of Rotary in these three countries, the district was split into Districts 2231 (Poland) and 2232 (Ukraine, Belarus) in July 2016.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the armed conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (collectively known as the Donbas) have hindered Rotary’s development in Ukraine. In 2013, there were seven Rotary clubs (with a combined total of about 110 members) in Crimea and the now-occupied areas of the Donbas. Only two clubs remain, and both are in Crimea: the Rotary Club of Simferopol and the Rotary Club of Alushta. They have a total of 14 members.

In the rest of Ukraine, however, Rotary is undergoing robust growth on the strength of an influx of members who have joined since the beginning of that conflict. The national impulse to engage in humanitarian work and disaster assistance remains strong in Ukraine. Since 2014, Rotary has grown from 49 to 62 clubs, with an additional six satellite clubs. Membership has increased from 800 to 1,100 — and members of Rotary in Ukraine are very optimistic about the organization’s continued growth.

Lubomyr “Lu” Hewko (right) participates in a 1993 service project in Ukraine.

A virtual club

Tetiana Godok, president-elect of the Rotary E-Club of Ukraine

My history with Rotary began when I was a senior in high school. The newly formed Rotaract Club of Yalta ambitiously set out to establish an Interact club, and I was fortunate enough to be a part of it. I didn’t know much about Rotary, and the complex club organization befuddled me at first. But over several months, we visited Interact clubs in Kharkiv and Cherkasy, and I came to learn more about Rotary and gradually immersed myself in the ideas and values of this service organization. With strong convictions about the role I might play, I joined the Rotaract Club of Yalta, serving as president and treasurer, and set a goal to get to know Rotaract all over Europe.

Until the annexation of Crimea, I had a very active and rewarding Rotaract career: I often traveled to Rotaract Europe Meetings (REM) across Europe, to Rotary Youth Leadership Awards events in Turkey, to Portugal in western Europe, and all over Ukraine, countless times, for conferences, for seminars, or just to visit Rotaract friends. We gladly and proudly hosted all-Ukrainian and district events in Yalta.

Unfortunately, the annexation forced many Rotaractors and Rotarians to flee the turmoil and conflict on the peninsula, where it had become impossible to conduct our normal service duties. I moved to Lviv in western Ukraine, but the emotional trauma from the migration was such that it took me a long time to settle down and integrate into my new life. The good news was that a Rotary e-club had been established in Ukraine, enabling former Crimean residents and Rotarians from other occupied territories to continue to be part of Rotary. The mutual support was enormously helpful, especially in the early days.

I later moved to the United States, first to New York City, where I studied biology, and then to Philadelphia to work in a research lab. Fortunately, the virtual club has allowed me to remain a Rotarian regardless of where I live, although accommodating members from the different time zones can be tough.

It is good that our club has enriched itself over the years with new members from all over Ukraine. Last year, I was elected club president for 2022-23. I am very grateful for the trust placed in me and look forward to presiding over our first meeting. I definitely want it to take place “virtually” against a backdrop image of the Yalta Mountains in Crimea, which is — and always will be — my home.

A father and son share a happy moment in Kyiv.

In the spirit of peace

Yulia Zharikova, secretary of the Rotary Club of Kyiv Advance

The history of the Rotary Club of Kyiv Advance began at the end of 2013, when several like-minded people formed the Rotary Club of Donetsk Advance. We were united by the idea of community service and our passion for art and music. The club supported young talents and devoted its energies to the development of educational programs in the city.

In 2014, after the outbreak of military conflict in eastern Ukraine, many members of our club fled to different parts of the country and even abroad. Subsequently, four club members who had moved to Kyiv decided to resume our club activities under the name Rotary Club of Donetsk Advance. Four other members who had ended up abroad or remained in Donetsk subsequently decided to keep their membership as well. So, we retained eight members.

In 2020, our club officially changed its name to Rotary Club of Kyiv Advance in accordance with the policies of Rotary International. Since relocating to Kyiv, our club has attracted many new members and even received an award from the District 2232 governor for adding the most new members in the 2019-20 Rotary year.

Given our experience from the conflict in eastern Ukraine, we have made peacebuilding and conflict prevention a main focus of our community projects. One such project, running since 2017, offers training to various groups to promote dialogue toward reconciliation at multiple levels of Ukrainian society. In addition, for the past five years, club members have been involved in a large international project for the psychological rehabilitation of children affected by war and military conflict in the east.

St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery is the headquarters of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Rotary transcends borders

Mykola and Olga Stebljanko, the Rotary E-Club of Ukraine

Our Rotary life began in 1996, when we joined what would become the first Rotaract club in Crimea: the Rotaract Club of Simferopol. Since then, Rotary has been an integral part of our lives. Our 10-year Rotaract past has become a classic example of young leadership development that creates the conditions for a natural transition into the ranks of Rotarians.

In 2007, I became the editor of the official Rotary publication, Rotariets, in Ukraine and Belarus. Since 2011, Olga has supported the production of the digital version.

I was president of my club in 2013-14, but when the Crimean Peninsula was annexed during my term, we had to move to Odesa. To continue our Rotary activities, we established the Rotary E-Club of Ukraine. This type of club, which was fairly new then, helped us and other Rotarians from Crimea and the Donbas keep our Rotary ties and sustain our community. Our club brings together people scattered across thousands of miles. I was elected District 2232 governor for 2019-20 and now serve as a Rotary public image coordinator at the zone level. Olga chaired the District Scholarship Subcommittee for two years, and the District Rotary Youth Exchange Committee since 2018. Together, we continue publishing Rotariets and providing virtual Rotary events in District 2232 and Zone 21.

Left: Olga and Mykola Stebljanko joined Rotary in 1996 when they helped form Crimea’s first Rotaract club. Right: Mykola later joined the Rotary Club of Simferopol.

Nobody is left alone

Oleksiy Kuleshov and other Rotarians from the Rotary Club of Sloviansk

The year 2014 became a time of testing for us, a test of endurance and humanity. On the positive side, Rotary brought us new strength, uniting a large number of people of different nationalities, faiths, and levels of prosperity with a common idea: to serve society. In Ukraine, Rotarians from Lviv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Poltava, Kyiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi, and the conflict areas of Donetsk — they were still holding on at that time — helped people who had fled the war, as did Rotarians from Moscow and Krasnodar in Russia.

We reached out to those Ukrainians who had lost their livelihood and were left alone in misery. Some helpful Rotarians had sent groceries, baby food, and clothing; others sent personal care products and medicine. We organized logistics to help refugee resettlement. We served meals, distributed gifts, books, and clothes to people in the disputed territories, and, in the evening, delivered grocery packages to large families. Together with the Rotary Club of Lviv, we also organized a mobile dental practice.

Left: Children in eastern Ukraine throng a mobile dental practice. Right: Piotr Wygnańczuk, then governor of District 2230, poses with Olga Stebljanko.

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

The Rotary Foundation created a channel for donors to contribute funds to support relief efforts in the region.

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