‘I just needed to do something’: Tłı̨chǫ volunteer in Ukraine to help

Tłı̨chǫ Private John Rabesca wakes up at dawn to deliver supplies to Ukrainians affected by the Russian invasion.

“Once the war started, I just needed to do something to help Ukrainians,” he said. “I needed to do something other than invest money in a volunteer group.”

Rabesca grew up in Behchokǫ̀, Northwest Territories, until he was 18 years old. He joined the Ranger program to see if he liked the military.

He would later serve during the war in Afghanistan and will be deployed with the Canadian Armed Forces in 2011.

In his spare time, he vacationed in Ukraine and said he was drawn to their history, culture, food and music.

“I was kind of interested in that. Like, no one really talked about these people for so long. And I was like, I kind of need to know what’s out there. It’s is the mystery that drew me.”

Rabesca during a delivery in Ukraine, where he volunteered to deliver food and supplies to affected communities. (Submitted by John Rabesca)

Rabesca decided to get a teaching certificate in 2013, and in 2014 he traveled to Ukraine to teach English for a year.

He returned to Canada and earlier this year, after Russia invaded Ukraine, decided he would not return as a tourist.

Instead, he flew to Europe to work as a volunteer to provide aid.

Rabesca spent 60-hour weeks, waking up at dawn to transport food, Ukrainian army vehicles, body armor and medicine to cities like Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv.

On his last trip to Ukraine, he delivered 440 pounds of pet food from a town 500 kilometers from the Ukrainian border to Lviv.

“Last time we were there, we literally filled a vehicle with dog and cat food,” he said. “The tires were getting a bit low at the rear.”

But they did.

When Rabesca first arrived in the country, “it took Ukrainians a bit of time to get acquainted with me,” he said.

“They didn’t really show me the garage, the store or the vehicles for a good three weeks.”

He now plans to stay in the country for 10 months.

Execution of logistics

As a volunteer, Rabesca deals mainly with logistical organizers who are in contact with groups of volunteers. He and the logistics team are only asking for reimbursement for gas and food.

Their errands for help can last until two or three in the morning.

“I’m very busy when they call me,” he said.

A delivery truck loaded for delivery in Ukraine. (Submitted by John Rabesca)

In Ukraine, air alarms go off almost every day.

“I’m happy to say that I haven’t heard any explosions in the past month,” he said.

But Rabesca said being in that environment is always scary.

When the alarms ring often, it’s often a debate about whether to hide in a basement or wait on the first floor of a building.

Rabesca said his military training in 2011 prepared him for the situation.

“The Taliban were still firing their rockets at the base, like every day or every other day,” Rabesca said.

“It was super dangerous because there were always explosions,” he said.

“I got a little used to it.”

Uncertain future

The experience so far has been “sometimes bleak” and Rabesca said some aid organizations are even leaving Ukraine because they have run out of money.

“There are still a lot of groups trying to help Ukraine as well,” he said. “There are a lot of people who still care.”

Rabesca said he will decide this fall how long he will stay.

“We’ll see what happens in October because my funds will eventually run out.”

He still talks to his sister every week and she relays all messages to him from friends and family.

Rabesca said he would consider joining the Ukrainian Legion and fighting this winter, if necessary.

“There is a war going on,” he said. “These people, they need your help.”


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