Ukraine refugee aid led by Memphis grad. Nashville filmmaker documents work A video clip from the Nashville filmmakers David Van Hooser's footage in Ukraine in May, documenting the aid work of Christina Katrakis and her team. Christina Katrakis has helped thousands of Ukraine refugees.
The former Tennessee resident has been singularly focused on aiding her fellow Ukrainians since the first days of Russia’s invasion when she, too, was forced from her home in Kyiv.
Katrakis, 41, who is an American citizen, recalls that February morning when Russia attacked.
“We woke up at 5 a.m. with the bombs crashing and the house shaking. My 6-year-old son was awakened by the bombs,” Katrakis said. “He didn’t understand what it is. He got very scared, and I told him the war had begun.”
About 10 years before, Katrakis was studying, teaching and creating art at the University of Memphis, where she earned a master's degree. Katrakis was born in Ukraine but grew up in various cities throughout the U.S., moving based her sculptor father's jobs. It was during those Memphis years when Katrakis met Nashville filmmaker David Van Hooser. He was a 15-year employee of the Renaissance Center in Dickson and also worked for years at Nashville's WSMV television station as a senior writer and producer.
Van Hooser, 67, filmed Katrakis discussing her art style and background for a Renaissance Center project. A friendship was formed, and they kept in touch through social media. Van Hooser’s innate desire to help others and their friendship was inspirational. He felt drawn to help in Ukraine, even as a war raged.
“I was thinking about the awfulness and brutality of this war, and the injustice of it was really making me mad and sad,” Van Hooser said. “That was kind of eating me up, to be honest with you.” He watched Katrakis’ Facebook posts about her efforts alongside husband Roman Kudlay to help refugees through the Foundation for United Nations — Katrakis is an ambassador with the organization. He saw that at least 12 million people had fled their homes and an estimated 5 million people had left the country entirely.
So Van Hooser prayed, asking, “OK, God. This sadness and anger I feel is kind of eating me up. It’s certainly not helping the people over there. It’s not doing much for me. God, what do I do with this? What can I do?”
Shortly thereafter, he received a message from Katrakis, whose humanitarian volunteer team was operating in Vorokhta, a rural area near the Romanian border. Katrakis asked Van Hooser to travel to Ukraine and chronicle the refugees’ lives and the foundation’s work.
That was God’s answer, Van Hooser said. He was leaving for Ukraine.
‘If everybody leaves then who is going to help?’
Katrakis and her family waited until the evening of the Russian attack to leave their home in Kyiv.
“The traffic was enormous,” Katrakis said.
They packed all the supplies and food they could and drove southwest toward the Romanian border. People were lined up for miles and miles, she said, “all walking in the freezing cold, waiting at the border. It was madness.”
They decided at that moment to remain in Ukraine and stay together.
“If everybody leaves then who is going to help?” she said.
“Me being an American, I do believe that America should stand for helping and protecting and defending the innocent, … defending democracy in the world.”
The focus of the Foundation for the United Nations quickly shifted.
Before the war, the foundation focused on improving the environment, fighting for worker rights and other missions to “so that everyone can live a better life.”
“When the war started, all our goals became more vital than ever. There is hunger. There is no clean water,” said Katrakis about Ukraine. “Our mission became much more intense.”
She said the 5,000 people they are helping keeps growing, including sending supplies to people “at the front lines” who still live with regular Russian bombing.
The foundation, which is based in Kyiv, helped set up a refugee camp at a resort in the Vorokhta area. Katrakis and Kudlay operate largely from that area but also travel as needed. She has continued to get the word out. Even before Van Hooser’s arrival, Katrakis was interviewed by the BBC, CNBC and ABC, among others.
But she hoped Van Hooser could provide a deeper insight on the refugees’ situation.
‘Your convictions are honest and true’
Van Hooser flew from the U.S. to Poland, then crossed the Ukrainian border on April 29. That portion of the trip was the most difficult, he said. He was “way outside his comfort zone” traveling into a country at war. In addition, he also had to carry camera gear. Once past the border, Katrakis met him in Ukraine.
Van Hooser did hear air raid sirens. He viewed a building destroyed by a bomb. But, he never felt threatened in the rural, western Ukraine area. He filmed the foundation volunteers and refugees, chronicling their stories to help raise funds as well as capture the moment.
Van Hooser left the country May 10, though crossing the border in Kudlay's vehicle wasn’t easy.
Kudlay, as a Ukraine citizen between ages 18-60, is not allowed to leave, Van Hooser said.
He had to explain his purpose as well as promise border officials he would return with aid.
The documentary is still being edited, Van Hooser said. However, he’s released short videos of his interviews with Katrakis and footage of refugees in both Ukraine and Poland.
Katrakis, with mountains as the backdrop, explained on camera their goals and hope.
“I think when your belief and your convictions are honest and true, other people sense that, they relate to that, and they join in. They want to be part of that,” Katrakis said. “People on a daily basis are making the impossible possible. Hopefully, because of people like all of us, the country will prevail.”
About the Foundation for United Nations
The Foundation for United Nations SDg is permanently stationed in Ukraine to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.
The foundation states that it deals with a number of issues and requests, including delivery of humanitarian aid into hot spots and cut-off locations; running the hotline for support and urgent help; and relocation of civilians from hot spots and cut-off locations into safer areas; among other issues.