Rotary International, based in Evanston, helps Ukrainian refugees

Ukraine is a democracy based on a constitution.

The parts not brutally invaded and cruelly occupied by Russia, that is. The Ukrainian constitution was written in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. And if John Hewko needs to refer to it, he can check his personal copy. Not many people keep the Ukrainian constitution at home — but then, Hewko helped get it written.

“My parents came to the United States after the Second World War,” he said. “My father in 1949, my mother in 1947. I grew up in an Ukrainian-American community in Detroit, and then Ohio.”

Hewko became a lawyer, went to work at Baker McKenzie, which sent him to open their office in Moscow in 1989. He grew up speaking Ukrainian, so it was a natural for him to head to Ukraine with the rush of Western expertise helping get that fledgling nation off on the right foot.

“I took a leave of absence from the firm, moved to Ukraine in the spring of ’91, working as an adviser to Parliament, overseeing this group of Western experts,” he said. “We put together the first working group drafting the Ukrainian constitution. We brought in Western constitutional experts, holed up in a hotel room for five days and hammered out the first draft.”

Hewko is again in a position to help his parents’ homeland, as general secretary and CEO of Rotary International, the 1.4-million-member service organization based in Evanston.

My experiences at Rotary meetings created the impression of an organization whose primary purpose is to attend luncheons, exchange business cards, and endure speeches. Hewko disabused me of this view right away.

“The more I’ve worked at Rotary, the more I’m in awe of what Rotarians do all over the world,” he said, citing their work to eradicate polio.

John Hewko, general secretary of Rotary International, gives students at the McGaw YMCA’s summer camp in Evanston a hands-on demonstration of how vaccines are applied. Rotary has a long history of battling against polio.

©2014 Rotary International/Monika Lozinska

So plunging into the Ukraine crisis isn’t off brand for Rotary?

“I would say it’s completely on brand, exactly what we do and what we’ve been doing for decades,” Hewko said. “Humanitarian relief in Ukraine over the last six weeks has been a huge focus. A huge number of Rotarians are stepping up with money. Rotarians in Poland, Hungary , Slovakia, Romania, Moldova. Rotarians in the rest of Europe, helping resettle refugees, taking refugees into their homes.”

Rotary raised $9.5 million over the past six weeks for its Ukrainian relief fund.

The invasion of course has also been intensely personal for Hewko.

“It’s been terrible,” he said. “I have a fair amount of family in Western Ukraine, and we’re in touch daily. Plus tons of friends, associates. It’s scary.”

Hewko believes victory for Ukraine is essential, and will ultimately help Russia as well.

“Ukraine has to win this war,” he said. “We need to give them what they need to win, short of provoking direct conflict. Ukraine has to win for Ukraine’s sake, but also for Russia’s sake. Russian society really needs to take a step back and look in the mirror and ask, ‘How do we get to the point where we have an unprovoked invasion, our armed perpetrating atrocities, with cities being destroyed — Russian-speaking cities? How did we get to that point?’ That can’t happen unless Ukraine wins the war.”

City workers carry body bags with six partially burnt bodies found in the town of Bucha on April 5, 2022, as Ukrainian officials say over 400 civilian bodies have been recovered from the wider Kyiv region, many of which were buried in mass graves.

City workers carry body bags with six partially burnt bodies found in the Ukrainian town of Bucha on April 5, 2022. Officials say over 400 civilian bodies have been recovered from the wider Kyiv region, many of which were buried in mass graves.

We talked about why Vladimir Putin started the conflict. The provocations Putin cited were bald lies. Russia spans 11 time zones and certainly doesn’t need the land, and the industry and resources acquired will pale next to the wallop of sanctions. Why did he do it?

“One thing Ukraine has that Russia doesn’t, prior to the war, is rule of law,” Hewko said. “Ukraine had issues of corruption, but Ukraine was developing into a civil society, with a relatively free and open press, a thriving West-leaning democracy. And for Putin to have that on his border is a threat to him.”

As a rule, Rotary avoids politics and concentrates on people.

“We’re non-political, focused on the humanitarian piece,” Hewko said. There are 60 Rotary chapter in Ukraine. And should Russia, by some miracle, start the reappraisal process, Rotary is ready to help there too.

“We do have Rotary in Russia,” Hewko said. “It’s very difficult to operate there. But if this war were to end, and we started to see transformation in Russia, our Rotarians play a very active role in civil society.”

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