A Relentless Humanitarian
by Edwina Hoyle
Photography by Lindsay Gifford
Uliana Gonzalez earned a master’s degree in architecture back home in Ukraine. Then she earned a PhD in historical preservation in Poland. In 2016, she had an opportunity to intern at a historic preservation foundation in Savannah, fell in love with the city, married and stayed. She grew up in Dnipro City in Ukraine, an area now on the front lines of the Russian invasion. “When we learned of the full scale invasion, my world collapsed. Watching on TV every day, I saw people killed, raped, robbed and houses destroyed,” she said. “I wanted to learn preservation techniques, but during war nothing is preserved.”
Her parents are still in Dnipro, and thanks to the satellite sent up by Elon Musk, she is able to connect with them. Her aunt, however, lives in Mariupol, which is still occupied by the Russians. Missiles hit her home, and she was injured. “She is an older lady, she is alone and the place she was allowed to evacuate to was Russia, so she stayed. This was her home where she spent her whole life, so where do you go? It’s like living in the Stone Age. Her house is ruined, she is cooking outside, and there’s no water. So many difficulties.”
Uliana said, “All of my friends and classmates remain and have volunteered to defend Ukraine. I felt alone and thought ‘how can I connect with others to help?’” She explained that her family survived the deadly meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in 1986, and the ongoing turmoil under Soviet control until Ukraine declared its independence in 1991. Her mother told her there is a price to be paid for freedom to make a better future for their country. “We should all do a small part today,” her mother said.
So, Uliana created a Facebook page and invited the public to a rally in front of City Hall in Savannah. “It was just me standing there for the first hour. Then a Lithuanian woman came and another woman from Moldova. Then a TV crew came by doing a story on another event, and they did a story about us.” Uliana’s Facebook page now has 500 followers, and there are hundreds of volunteers involved in “Savannah Supports Ukraine.”
“There is a saying in Ukraine, that if the whole world gives you a thread, you can make a shirt,” Ulaina said. And she works with passion to find each thread.
A fourth cargo container was just shipped out of the Port of Savannah to Ukraine, filled with humanitarian aid. “In deep stress you must act, and physical work helps me. We keep moving like we are running a marathon,” Uliana said. “It’s been very rewarding. It takes months to collect donations, and to sort and pack. And it takes six weeks to deliver the cargo containers to Ukraine. Once it arrives, supplies are so limited, what we send is gone in five minutes.”
Uliana explained that volunteer organizations in Ukraine let them know what is needed to supply the front lines first and then displaced persons. Supplies are hard to come by. Only one out of four soldiers has a sleeping bag, for example. Tents and thermal underwear, first aid kits and hygiene supplies are also unavailable. “We will send anything that is safe, legal, non-perishable and that will help,” she said. “Eventually, we all believe we will win.”
Until then Uliana will advocate for Ukraine. “Our mission is not just to ask, but to also give back. I want to bring a positive awareness. I talk about the Ukrainian heritage and culture to bring people closer to Ukraine. When people learn about Ukraine, they have a reason to help. Together we are strong and united, and we will succeed.” So Uliana speaks at churches and schools, anywhere to spread her message. “As an architect, I know that the language of art is universal. It’s sweet to see how students create cards for the defenders to let them know the world hasn’t forgotten them. Many use their phones to translate their messages into Ukrainian.”
Uliana is relentless in her efforts, which also extend to helping refugees when they arrive in the United States. Uliana said, “They come with nothing. One amazing example was a pregnant woman from Ukraine. We connect refugees with people who can help. A woman from Tybee Island gifted her a car, another family hosted her at an apartment where she only pays for utilities. People donated baby supplies, and we got her medical care taken care of. Through word of mouth local people offered their help.”
“If every small community helped it would make a difference,” Uliana said. “When you do things, you inspire others to get involved, and your success makes you even more motivated.”
Long Distance Love: Uliana met her husband, Salvador, in Poland where they were both studying. They had a long distance relationship for over a year.
Coming to America: She arrived in Savannah in 2016 and found the people welcoming with open hearts. The city, reminiscent of some European cities, helped her to feel right at home, anxious to learn how to preserve historical buildings in Ukraine.
Family Ties: Uliana and Salvador have a three-year-old daughter and are expecting their second child in May.
Learn More: Visit “Savannah Supports Ukraine” Facebook page to learn more.
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