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Tampa-based Project Dynamo rescues an American nuclear scientist living in Ukraine

Two men in military dress sit in a car at night. One is facing an older man in a white t-shirt.
Project DYNAMO
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Brian Stern (left) and John Spor (right) drove nearly 20 hours and across 30 Russian checkpoints from Mariupol, Ukraine, to Poland where Spor's family waited to greet him.

John Spor fled his home in Mariupol, Ukraine, after Russian missiles touched down in the city. Chechen-Russian forces ransacked his residence and had been hunting him since.

Tampa-based nonprofit, Project Dynamo, rescued an American nuclear scientist from his longtime home in Ukraine last week.

John Spor, the founder of Texas Photonics, was driven nearly 20 hours across the country from Mariupol to a border crossing in Poland where his family waited to greet him. Spor's knowledge of sensitive U.S. military technology put a target on his back, and forced him to flee the country, said Brain Stern, co-founder of the nonprofit.

“John Spor was like the Mick Jagger of Maruipol,” Stern said. “He's a very successful businessman. He's an American citizen. He has the second largest house on the beach in Mariupol and is proud of his hard work. And everyone knows what he does for a living, because frankly, there's no reason to hide.”

Spor left his home in Mariupol after Russian missiles hit the city in March. Chechen-Russian forces ransacked his residence and had been hunting him since.

“They stole all my televisions and all my electric heaters and drank 40 bottles of booze,” he said. “They broke a couple of windows, they broke two doors getting in, but other than that my house was unscathed.”

Two pairs of people embrace on a sidewalk. In the background, a brown building is visible next to a transit stop.
Project DYNAMO
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John Spor and his son, Sean, (left) are reunited after Spor reaches safety on the Polish border.

Stern said he had to disguise Spor and prepare him for the long, treacherous journey. One way they did this was by passing him off as handicapped.

“We got him on crutches. We didn't get new crutches, we got old crutches. Because brand new, shiny crutches stick out,” Stern said. “And then having him practice how to stand up and sit down with crutches, because at a Russian checkpoint, people like me, are looking for people who are trying to fake it.”

Spor said he had to walk down five flights of stairs on the crutches.

“It took 10 minutes to get downstairs with crutches, but I couldn't ditch the crutches and walk down which would’ve taken about a minute,” Spor said. “I had to do it the hard way to play the part.”

Stern and Spor crossed more than 30 Russian checkpoints before they made it safely to Poland, where Spor’s son and sister waited.

“Project Dynamo has been with our family every step of the way through this nightmare. Dynamo has been the answer to our family’s prayers,” Lauri Weigle, Spor’s sister, said in a press release.

Stern said after a stressful rescue mission, he can't relax until he crosses the border into safety.

"That's my favorite part,” he said. “I don't take a deep breath until I see the hugs and kisses and stuff. You know, that's where I take a deep breath, and I go, ‘Mission complete.’"

Two men hold up their glasses of beer and smile.
Project Dynamo
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John Spor (left) and Brian Stern (right) share a round of beers after a successful mission.

But Stern said there may not be many more happy reunions.

Project Dynamo is running on fumes as donations have dwindled down to almost nothing, he added.

And he worries the war in Ukraine is only just beginning.

"Russia is gaining ground, they're not losing — any indication to suggest that this war is anything close to over, is insane to say,” Stern said. “It's like saying two plus two equals five."

Stern said if 10,000 people gave $1 to the nonprofit, he could get 300 American and Ukrainian refugees out of danger.

Project Dynamo has rescued about 2,000 Ukrainian and American citizens from the war since February.

“I'm scared to death,” Stern said. “Our demand for rescues is increasing, not decreasing.”

You can support Project Dynamo at their website here.

Jack Prator is the WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for summer of 2022.