‘For peace and democracy … no sacrifice was too big:’ Ukraine-born Chicagoan remembered as war rages

A photo of Myhailo Yavorskyi at St Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church in Chicago is surrounded by (from left) his sister, Zoryana Yavorsk;i his mother, Maria Yavorska; his wife, Oksana Bila; and their daughter, Solomia Yavorska. Myhailo, a U.S. Army veteran, volunteered to fight in Ukraine and was killed last year in action in the Luhansk province.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

No one forced Myhailo Yavorskyi, a Ukrainian-born Chicagoan, to go to war.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, he wasn’t a soldier but an enthusiastic suburban dad who worked in IT and loved reading, soccer and conversation.

But he believed in the cause, and two days after the Feb. 24 invasion he boarded a plane headed east.

“Chicago,” as comrades called him, was in the fight as Ukraine repelled the initial wave of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces. But he fell in battle in May 2023, just before Ukraine launched a massive counteroffensive.

Since then, the Ukrainian war effort has lost steam as a divided U.S. Congress has dithered on delivering more aid. As the war heads into a third year and hope becomes hard to hold onto, family and friends wonder what his sacrifice will mean.

Seventh and eighth grade students at St. Nicholas Cathedral School say the Pledge Of Allegiance during a prayer vigil for Ukraine inside the school’s gymnasium in Ukrainian Village on Thursday.

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“That’s the saddest part,” said Zoryana Yavorski, his younger sister. (They spell their name differently in English.) “It was hard enough to lose him, but to think it might have been done in vain and the dream of what he died for is not going to happen — that’s another heartbreak.”

That dream was democracy and a “truly independent” Ukraine, his sister said, where he could return with his wife, Oksana Bila, also born in Ukraine, and their daughter Solomia, 6 — .

Fighting for those ideals, even if it meant risking his life, was “the right thing to do” in his eyes, his sister said.

“I decided my place was here,” Yavorskyi says in a video recorded July 2022 in “beautiful and war-ravaged Ukraine.”

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“I’m not just here because I’m of Ukrainian background or because it’s a war between good and evil,” he says in the video, in which he’s seated, wearing fatigues and holding an AK-47-style assault rifle. The stakes are bigger than Ukraine, he says, about freedom and democracy, “American values.”

Those values were fostered living in the United States, mostly around Chicago, aside from a stint in the U.S. military that brought him to Germany, and in Ukraine, where the family lived until 1996.

From left Oksana Bila (wife), and Solomia Yavorska (daughter) sit tougher at St Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church located at 5000 N. Cumberland Ave. as Maria Yavorska (mother) watches, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. Myhailo a U.S. Army veteran was killed in action fighting as a volunteer soldier in Ukraine in the Lugansk Oblast last year.

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Yavorskyi was born in 1980, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and his first school lessons were propaganda. A dutiful student with a sharp memory, he came home touting the virtues of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, only to be rebuffed by his grandparents, who had lived through several occupations.

“ “He’s like a god and did all these great things,’ ” Yavorski remembered her brother saying of Lenin.

“No, this is one of the biggest criminals in the history of the world,” said Yaroslav Boychuk, the father of their mother, Maria Yavorska.

The family remained in Ukraine only a few years after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

They won a green card in a lottery to come to the United States and settled initially in Logan Square before moving closer to O’Hare Airport. Yavorskyi graduated from Schurz High School.

Yavorskyi took in his new country with gusto, learning English by reading a dictionary and joining the military to pay for college.

“He was a fun guy to be around and he knew how to make people laugh,” said Charles Gipson, a close friend from the army. “He and I used to talk on the phone for hours, ripping on each other and debating various topics, from religion to politics, theories and personal beliefs.”

“Ski,” as Gipson calls him, never warned him he was heading to Ukraine.

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“I’m not sure why he didn’t tell me he was going,” Gipson said. “Maybe he thought I would try and talk him out of it. Maybe in the back of his head he knew there was a chance he wouldn’t come back, and saying goodbye to his best friend made it too real. Breaks my heart knowing I wasn’t able to say goodbye.”

He didn’t warn the family, either, for similar reasons, his sister suspects.

“It’s really hard when someone is leaving to fight in the war,” she said. “You can’t even put into words how hard it is to say goodbye.”

Younger by 17 months, Yavorski visited her big brother twice in Ukraine and became close to his unit, joining their group chat where she became “Chicago 2” as she threw herself into supplying them with everything from boots and thermal underwear to helmets and medical kits.

She also learned what his unit was doing, things her brother never shared with their mother.

“My son was protecting me from everything,” Yavorska said. “He was always ‘training,’ not fighting, always happy and I believed him.”

Maria Yavorska places a photo of her son Myhailo Yavorskyi at a memorial near the alter at St Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church located at 5000 N. Cumberland Ave., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. Myhailo a U.S. Army veteran was killed in action fighting as a volunteer soldier in Ukraine in the Lugansk Oblast last year.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

She holds onto her memories of the son who loved reading so much he never went anywhere without a book and the father so crazy about his daughter he cherished every second with her.

In reality, “Chicago” was deployed to hot spots around Ukraine -, his sister said, as part of an intelligence unit scoping out enemy lines and coming “so close to their positions he could hear their conversations.”

He died at 43 in the Luhansk province, his sister said, the easternmost part of the country, which borders Russia and has seen some of the most intense fighting.

“Chicago” fell under enemy artillery fire while dragging wounded comrades away from the front lines. Those actions have brought him under consideration for the Hero of Ukraine, the country’s highest decoration, in addition to two other medals he received, his sister said.

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“Zirochka,” he told her on her last visit in December 2022, preparing her for the event of his death. “Don’t leave my boys behind.”

The younger sister has thrown herself into that work, registering her efforts to supply troops as Brave Like Ukraine, a nonprofit so named because Yavorskyi represents an example of what it means to be Ukrainian.

In Chicago, Bila remembers him first as the passionate guy she met at a friends’ party, married in 2012 and who couldn’t have been more thrilled by their daughter. Every Aug. 31, the anniversary of that party, the couple celebrated at Butterfly Sushi on Grand Avenue, where she first told him she was pregnant with Solomia.

Oksana Bila and her daughter Solomia Yavorska sit next to a photo of her husband Myhailo Yavorskyi at St Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church located at 5000 N. Cumberland Ave., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. Myhailo a U.S. Army veteran was killed in action fighting as a volunteer soldier in Ukraine in the Lugansk Oblast last year.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“I will always remember how he looked at me and how happy he was,” she said. “He was always dreaming to be a father.

“He wouldn’t respect himself if he stayed out of this,” Bila said. “He believed in leading by example and wanted everyone to see it’s not just a war for Ukraine, but everyone’s war.”

“For peace and democracy,” she said, “he thought no sacrifice was too big.”

Myhailo Yavorskyi, center, is one of five photos displayed of Chicago area men who were killed fighting in Ukraine, as St Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church located at 5000 N. Cumberland Ave., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Contributing: Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere.

Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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