After Russia invaded Ukraine, alumnus Zachary Dmyterko braved a war zone to deliver a van load of humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian people. Today, he’s still sending supplies.
By Lora Strum
“Something is going on in Ukraine.”
Zachary Dmyterko was up late on the phone with a friend when he saw Russia had invaded Ukraine. “I said, ‘Hold up … something is happening,’” recalls Dmyterko, Arts ’17. “I had to hang up.”
Dmyterko’s grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine and he still has family in Lviv and Vynnyky. While growing up in Chicago, he spoke Ukrainian, celebrated Ukrainian traditions and attended a Ukrainian Catholic Church. Today, after a stint in Washington, D.C., as a freelance journalist, he’s back in Chicago working as communications manager at RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency currently working with many Ukrainian refugees. With his deep connections to the region, he’d followed the war that erupted in Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. He was sure that tensions would continue escalating, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin would seize additional lands. He was still shocked when Putin invaded Ukraine in February.
In those first frantic hours after the invasion, Dmyterko reached out to everyone he knew in Ukraine to ask how they were doing. As updates poured in, he felt helpless. He messaged activists on Facebook and, at 2 a.m., attended a protest outside the Russian Embassy in D.C. Still, there was “this burning to get over there. I needed to do something.” A plan formed quickly. Dmyterko would travel to Ukraine to deliver humanitarian aid.
While he lacked experience completing humanitarian missions in an active war zone, he did have a deep understanding of Ukraine and its people. He’d been traveling to the country for years. And through the International Affairs program at Marquette, he had focused his studies on Ukraine. Alongside fine-grained knowledge of the country, these studies fostered “a broad worldview and understanding of differences when approaching international topics,” says Dmyterko. This preparation made him a qualified candidate for his next step: a prestigious Fulbright scholarship he received to teach in Ukraine in 2018, after receiving his Marquette diploma.
Time spent learning dialects and traditions during his Fulbright helped Dmyterko build meaningful relationships in the country. And working in a Ukrainian hospital during Crimean fighting, he’d seen what war does to a person — “It’s a lot of lost limbs and broken bodies,” he explains.
With these connections in mind, Dmyterko focused on medical supplies he knew would be needed and enlisted his family to help secure them. His parents, Tosca and Alex, crowdsourced donations, including trauma kits, body armor, gauze and tourniquets. They amassed $36,000 worth of supplies. His older brother, Greg — a tall and broad “Chicago tradesman [who] looks the part” — accompanied him to keep their mission safe and serve as a voice of reason. Dmyterko’s job was to identify where the supplies should go — he didn’t want anything to go unused — and how to enter the country.
In late February, Dmyterko, his brother and an impressive set of suitcases and boxes flew to Krakow, Poland, where they secured a van and distributed the first of their supplies to refugees displaced by the war. Then, under the cover of darkness, the pair drove toward the Ukrainian border. As they got closer, guards informed them of an air raid ahead. Dmyterko insisted they press on, crossing into Ukraine just before the 10 p.m. curfew. On empty roads leading toward Lviv, he saw men huddled around open fires. Shrouded in shadows, he could just make out that they were holding assault rifles. “The entire thing felt like a scene out of Apocalypse Now — eerie and tense,” Dmyterko says.
Navigating a war-torn country, unarmed, with 450 pounds of supplies can be daunting, but Dmyterko relied on the critical-thinking skills he’d honed while at Marquette and the confidence he’d built during his Fulbright. “You just have to roll with the punches,” Dmyterko says. “I care about Ukraine, and if I was going to do something for its people, I was going to do it. I just felt called.”
Dmyterko spent 12 days handing out supplies, using the apartment of extended family members in Lviv as his base, and spearheading efforts to ship supplies to heavily hit Kyiv and to territorial defense units in Odessa.
Everywhere he went, including a Ukrainian military base, Dmyterko was amazed at the perseverance he saw. “From the president to the last babushka I met. They’re determined to win this,” he says.
Just a couple of weeks after returning from Ukraine, Zmyterko was back on campus to join a panel on the Russian invasion and share his story with members of the Marquette community who filled a Clark Hall auditorium. Inspired by his words, students raised $500 to help fund shipments that Dmyterko continues to make today.
To him, that generous reaction shows what it means to serve. “Marquette allowed me to pursue my passions,” he says. “It showed me that if you lead by example, and you do what you say you believe in, that helps you ‘Be The Difference.’”