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SFU program director recounts mission to deliver medical supplies to Ukraine

Former soldier Rob McTavish personally delivered life-saving medical supplies in the war-torn country.

Standing among the ruins of people's homes, Rob McTavish felt a heaviness in his heart. Only six or seven months before, he reflected, families lived happily, kids played and birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated. 

McTavish felt like a trespasser as he stepped into one wrecked house after another, "You're in somebody's house..." he said, "and they aren't."

Photographs were still on walls, belongings were still there, but McTavish couldn't help wonder, "Why are they not here? Where are they now?"

McTavish, program director in SFU’s Centre for Educational Excellence and a former peacekeeper and soldier, went to Ukraine via Poland in August to transport five suitcases' worth of donated medical supplies and equipment to hospitals in the war-torn country. 

Much like rest of the world, McTavish and his family witnessed the Russian invasion of Ukraine on television. The devastation and the shelling of civilian targets left him thinking about the injustice and unfairness of war. But it wasn't until he and his partner, Cher Hill, welcomed Ukrainian refugees — sixteen-year-old Max and his grandmother, that the war became personal for the family. 

Journey to Ukraine

The family answered a community request and opened its doors to the refugees in June.

McTavish was asked to help take medical supplies to Ukraine because of his military background. He was introduced to the Humanitarian Emergency Response Operations (HERO) organization, which provides direct humanitarian aid to countries in need. 

With the help of his social connections and the guarantee that he would deliver the supplies personally, he said he was able to secure crucial donations, including combat first aid and orthopedic medical equipment worth almost half a million dollars. 

"Getting them into the right hands is important," he said of the trust the donors had in him. 

As a gesture of thanks to the donors, McTavish brought home a Ukrainian flag signed by the medical professionals in the war zone that received it. 

In the war zone

McTavish crossed borders, navigating checkpoints and curfews from Kiev to Dnipro. As he travelled, he filmed the ruins from shelling that caused more than 7.6 million inhabitants fleeing Ukraine, according to UN Human Refugee agency website data

He went to the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine to meet with soldiers on the front, and delivered bottled water to troops before heading to Zaporizhzhia to meet Max's parents. He was happy to be able to tell them that their only child was safe and sound in Canada.

He distributed the medical supplies in Dnipro before heading north to Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, where he continued his mission and filmed the excitement of doctors receiving the donations. "It was like little kids opening Christmas presents,” he said.

During his journey, he was approached by another parent, who asked him to take his teenage son to Canada. 

"'You'll save our family's DNA,'" the father said. 

The request, and the father's underlying assumption that his family would not survive the conflict, moved him.  "This is the injustice and unfairness of war," he said. 

The teenager, Danny, will be arriving in October to join the McTavish household in hopes of a brighter future. 

Since McTavish returned from Ukraine in August, he has been collecting donations for a return trip in January. "More donations have come pouring in since the story has come out," he said. More surgical equipment from hospitals has come in, and he is fundraising for battlefield aid like drone batteries and body armour to help out the soldiers on the front line.

McTavish said the trip was rewarding, "It gave me a sense of accomplishment, a sense of doing something to do to help in this," he said.

Although it was his face that was associated with the donation mission, it was a team effort, and his family was the backbone behind it. 

He hopes that his story will inspire people to lend a hand. "You don't have to do a lot to help out," he said. 

"We have no ties to Ukraine," he added. "My wife isn't Ukrainian, I'm not Ukrainian. But, for us, it started with opening our doors to this family that needed a place to stay. We're fortunate that we have the space and are able to do that. We recognize that not everybody has that luxury, but as a family, I've got three of my own kids. We met and discussed it, but you don't have to do what we're doing — taking a family in your house, but there's so many little things that can be done.

"Like we've got people doing sock drives, we've got people knitting blankets, we have people do driving, to drive to medical appointments, chopping off vegetables from their garden. So that's the one thing that if we can get that out is that you can do everything from knit a pair of socks, or next time you're at Costco pick up an extra pair of socks to donate. They really add up. You don't have to take a family in or go to the Ukraine with medical supplies. You can do just these little things."