Other people go on vacations. Wayne Chang visits war zones.
“I haven’t taken a vacation in five years,” says the civil engineer with a passion for projects that give people access to services he believes are basic human rights. “I joke that I take my vacation in the latest war zone. And I’m grateful they let me do this.”
Fewer than five months after Russia invaded Ukraine, escalating the Russo-Ukrainian War, Chang (’10 Civ. Eng.) traveled to the embattled country, the second-largest in Europe, to help local officials rebuild infrastructure struck by heavy artillery. He spent three months in Ukraine as a water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) technical adviser with Save the Children. The international, non-governmental organization has been operating in Ukraine since 2014.
Chang got the call to go to Ukraine while working for Boeing—his regular, full-time job—on assignment in South Carolina. He only had a few days to decide to go—and to get there. He worked in Ukraine from July 7 to September 30, 2022. Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 the same year.
It’s not that Chang is drawn to danger—natural disasters along with conflict. It’s that he wants to use his particular skills set to help people endure what is often among the most difficult times of their lives.
“We would go to the ministry of health or office of health and say, ‘How can we support you? How do we fill the gaps that you have?’” Chang says.
Much of his work involved updating spreadsheets and creating accountability reports. But he also spent much time in the field, visiting project sites and three of Save the Children’s four field offices. One was damaged in airstrikes.
“Air-raid alarms would go off all the time—9 o’clock in the morning, midnight, 3 a.m., whenever,” Chang says. “We were guessing (Russian forces) were making it so people couldn’t sleep well. It was very jarring the first few times it happened.”
Explosions were frequent. “You can hear the missiles explode when they’ve been intercepted. If they’re close enough to you, you can feel them,” Chang says, noting a missile hit Dnipro, in central Ukraine, less than a mile from his office which was near a trauma center and morgue.
“My daily walk was more informative than CNN or ABC,” he says. “We had an indication that the Kharkiv counteroffensive was underway even before it was announced, not because we had insider information but because we saw a whole bunch of casualties come in. We saw a lot of soldiers who were getting evacuated.”
Businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, and shops, remained open. “People were living their lives. They were stuck making due,” says Chang, whose luggage was lost en route to Ukraine. He arrived with one backpack but no suitcase and only the clothing he was wearing. He bought a new-to-him wardrobe of Ukrainian souvenir and aviation-themed T-shirts at a thrift shop. “That Macklemore song Thrift Shop was in my head,” he recalls with a laugh.
Chang worked six days a week, but often went in on his day off to catch up on paperwork. “Sunday was kind of a half day,” he says, noting the job was a paid position as part of a global emergency response team. “I’m on a list of people they call when they need expertise.”
Repairs to water and sanitation systems throughout the country took longer than normal due to the ongoing conflict, limited funds and supplies, and lots of documentation. “We have to document everything and track every cent and dollars so our donors can hold us accountable,” Chang explains.
While residents were awaiting repairs, “they had to use bottled water or personal wells or boil river water,” he says. “People were collecting water wherever they could.”
At each location he visited, Chang says, “You’d see pieces of missiles everywhere.”
In Dobropillia, in eastern Ukraine, his team made sewer system improvements and provided tools. In Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine, they provided diesel generators. In Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine, his team replaced gate valves in a pumping station. In Pavlohrad, it was a control panel in a pumping station. In Zaporizhia, a water pump, plus a pipe splicer and other equipment to help with repairs.
“A pump truck was hit by shelling early in the war in Boromlya. We procured a truck and provided it to them,” Chang says. “A water intake and filtration station was hit in Dmytrivka. Same in Chernihiv. (Russian forces) would target them. They knew exactly what they were hitting. It would knock out the water system. But it’s repairable. In Dmytrivka, (local officials) repaired the building, and we helped fix the intake. In Chernihiv, the building and the intake were obliterated. We rebuilt the building and repaired the intake.”
In Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine, “(Russian forces) were actively shelling the city. The main sewage pumping station wasn’t hit, but the lift pumps were getting wrecked by the shrapnel. Missiles were destroying the sewer lines, and pieces of metal and huge amounts of rocks were getting into the system because of the strikes. It shreds the pumps. We replaced one of their pumps the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.”
Ukraine was his fourth visit to a war zone. He worked in South Sudan twice as well as once in Ethiopia, where civil war broke out in late 2020. The government and its allies, Eritrea and the Amharas, are battling the dominant political party in the country’s northern Tigray Region. In 2021, the year Chang was there, fighting led to more than 5.1 displacements, the highest numbered recorded for any country in a given year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Due to escalating violence, Chang was evacuated a few days shy of his three-month commitment. He had been preparing to hand over his role to his replacement when rebel lines encompassed the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières project with which he was working. He and other aid workers “had to get pulled out of gunfire. We had to go the most roundabout route, skirting the border with Sudan, because we couldn’t cross directly. We skirted all the way around the fighting to the capital so we could fly out. It’s normally like an eight-hour drive. It took us 36 hours.”
It’s not all conflict. In 2020, Chang traveled to Puerto Rico for Doctors Without Borders to help with response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He got into international aid work in 2013 after Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines.
He started working at Boeing in late 2018 a product review engineer on the 777 and 777x program. “Boeing’s been quite generous,” Chang says. “They’ve let me go every year for the last three years.”
Chang uses a mix of vacation, sick, and unpaid leave for his humanitarian work. “I don’t take vacations,” he says. “I accumulate it for missions.”
Read about Chang’s engineering philanthropy in “Working through it,“ Spring 2021 issue.