By Rebecca Gelinas, Human Rights Practice MA student
During the summer session of 2022, the Human Rights Practice program offered a unique and timely course on the war in Ukraine. The course was taught in two sections, one for community members led by Prof. Mette Brodgen and one for UA students led by Dr. Olena Tanchyk, a Fulbright scholar currently in Arizona who was formerly a university dean in the now-besieged city of Mariupol, Ukraine.
The course was an eye-opening, harrowing, and emotional experience, to say the least. Throughout the duration of the course a wide range of topics was covered, beginning with the long history of genocide and ethnic tensions in the region. From there the course progressed to cover Putin’s political goals and propaganda, war crimes and refugees, and the immense resilience displayed by the Ukrainian people. Each week featured several guest speakers from the region who shared their professional expertise and personal experience. Sometimes the topics were difficult to absorb, but for every infuriating and heart-wrenching story, there was another story of hope and compassion.
We were privileged to hear one of those stories when we had guest speakers Elena and Pavel Shulha join us from a safe location in Ukraine via Zoom on June 7. Pavel had just returned from the war zone earlier that day. Even before the war started, Elena and Pavel already had a remarkable story. Adoptive parents of 7 children, they realized that they were not prepared to deal with the trauma the children had faced in orphanages. So they left their careers as a doctor and lawyer to instead study and become experts in the field of adoption, eventually starting their own organization assisting orphans and adoptive parents. They developed systems, in partnership with the NGO KidSave International and the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Programs, to provide support and mentorship for both orphans and adoptive parents to provide them with the skills to be successful.
Of course, everything changed in February of this year when Russia invaded Ukraine. When their own city was racked by an explosion on 2/24, Pavel and Elena were faced with the need to not only evacuate their own large family, but other community members came to them for help due to their reputation as leaders in their community.
Pavel immediately organized a large van to evacuate as many people as possible. As they crossed a bridge over the Dnieper River they confronted horrific scenes of bombed cars with people who had been burned alive inside. Despite their fears, they had to continue on. Among their passengers was a woman, who had given birth via C-section only two days earlier, and her newborn baby. They encountered Russian tanks and troops on the road and honestly did not expect to make it out alive. By some miracle they were allowed to pass. That day they evacuated their first four families and realized that was to be their mission during this war.
Since then Elena and Pavel have organized processions of cars and small buses to go into some of the most dangerous places in Ukraine to evacuate women and children. Pavel shared terrifying stories of being stopped by Russian troops at checkpoints and being held at gunpoint for an hour or more before being allowed to continue. Their team has become known as “Angels of Hope.”
The need for evacuations is huge. One day they received 800 phone calls from different locations in Ukraine requesting help. They have had to create a call center and hire people to organize the logistics of vehicles and rescues. By July, they had evacuated over 20,000 people and provided 58 tons of humanitarian aid. They are one of the only humanitarian team to regularly go into the most dangerous war zones in Ukraine. They face great danger from trigger-happy Russian troops and mined roads. But they persevere because the need is never-ending.
At the beginning of this effort, Pavel and Elena were using their own savings to fund the evacuation efforts. Now they are also receiving some funding from their American adoption partner, KidsaveInternational. With President Zelensky recently saying that he “hopes” the war is over by the end of the year, we can anticipate that the need for Pavel and Elena’s help will still be strong for several more months, if not longer.
The students and community members in the Ukraine class were so inspired by Pavel and Elena’s extraordinary efforts that several of us decided to organize a GoFundMe fundraiser as a final class project. Please consider supporting this project if you can. Donations will go through Kidsave International, a registered 501c3 charity (tax ID 91-1887623), and therefore are tax deductible. You can learn more here on our GoFundMe page.
To learn more about the work of Pavel and Elena, you can visit the "Stand with Ukraine" page on KidSave International.