‘Ripping our hearts out:’ Enraged Central Floridians watch Ukraine invasion and pray

ORLANDO, Fla. — The baggy eyes betray Shawn Sullivan. The worn look and pale skin contrast the demeanor he’s trying to put forth: a man on a mission with a world of problems to solve, people to help and not enough time to get them done.


The clean suit can’t protect him from his own mind. The mask of adrenaline built up over hours of CNN coverage and phone calls melting away the moment he begins to remember the images of bombs falling on a country he considers a second home.

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“Just absolute, absolute rage,” he said, voice quivering and eyes glistening. “There’s no justifiable excuse in the world for what’s happening in Ukraine right now.”

Sullivan has dedicated his life to the eastern European country, flying back and forth for more than two decades as the leader of Mission 823. His group dedicates itself to service: displaced families, orphaned children and any other humanitarian need that comes up.

The challenges are about to be practically insurmountable.

“Every single connection that I have in Ukraine was giving testimony of large explosions,” he said. “Everything that we’re doing right now is related to relief for protection from the war.”

It was a war that didn’t need to happen. In the early morning hours of February 24, Russia’s authoritarian President Vladimir Putin gave the long-expected order for his troops to invade the neighboring country, excusing his decision as an attempt to protect ethnic Russians from a made-up “genocide.” United States intelligence officials believe he is trying to reinstate the 19th century Russian Empire and install a pro-Russian puppet government.

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It isn’t sitting well with Ukraine’s citizens or their allies around the world. The country is putting up the best fight it can, though it’s vastly outgunned. Anti-war rallies have taken place in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Asia, Europe and in almost every major US city, including Orlando, where more than 100 people gathered by Lake Eola.

“I’m not sleeping since six yesterday [morning],” Nikola Iankovskyi said, adding that many of his childhood friends were on the front lines. “I’m monitoring the news. I’m talking to those guys.”

Sullivan didn’t attend the rally, as he had to prepare for fundraising meetings the next day. His organization took in 50 additional Ukrainians in one facility overnight and is building more shelters. Many of his staff members are stuck in place. His volunteers’ everyday jobs no longer exist, and the banking system has temporarily stopped.

“They will not stop fighting,” he said, saying Ukraine had a long-term future as a nation thanks to the fire in the people’s blood. “They love their country and they will die trying to keep [it].”

Mission 823 will be there to pick up whatever is left. Sullivan sympathized with the Russian population who watched its leadership derail into madness. He sympathizes more with the 10 million people that are expected to be displaced.

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As for whether he’ll go back soon, he said he’d prefer to wait until the war passes – but he’s prepared to return if he’s called.

“We love the people of Ukraine, and we will continue to serve in Ukraine as long as God allows,” he said.

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