As Manfred Hin tinkers in his backyard workshop in the sweltering north Queensland heat, his heart and mind are thousands of kilometres away.
The 66-year-old Townsville builder spent most of 2023 volunteering in Ukraine, restoring homes and schools ravaged by Russian attacks.
The experience has changed the course of his life.
“I’m conscious … I could be killed. I’ve lost three people working with me,” he said.
“But how do you concern yourself with what might happen in the face of what has happened to other people?
“Every time it gets a bit too noisy from the rockets and from the artillery, I tell them to turn up AC/DC so we don’t hear it anymore, and we keep going.”
Mr Hin has been involved in rebuilding more than 50 houses and a dozen schools damaged during the ongoing war with Russia.
Working with Ukrainian charity Brave to Rebuild, he has become a mentor to young volunteers.
He has also personally sourced three tonnes of donated tools.
“It’s a never-ending story, but you can’t sit back and do nothing,” Mr Hin said.
Growing up in post-war Germany before emigrating to Australia in 1983, the veteran builder has been horrified by the scale of human suffering in Ukraine.
“When you’re over there, it is almost like mirror image to World War II,” he said.
“I couldn’t help when I was a little boy but now I can.
“It’s a call of the heart, I would say.”
Mr Hin’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
Tasmanian carpenter Hamish Stirling read an ABC News article about the builder’s work in Ukraine.
The story struck a chord.
“I thought it was a really effective way for me to contribute to the effort,” Mr Stirling said.
The 36-year-old spent a few months learning Ukrainian before packing his bags and boarding a flight to Europe.
“At the time I was working for myself … so I put work on hold for three months and took over what tools I could fit in my luggage allowance,” he said.
Mr Stirling split his time between two volunteer organisations, where he demolished damaged homes and rebuilt others from the ground up.
“[On] some streets, you’ll have every third or fourth house completely destroyed,” he said.
“[There’s] a lot of potholes in the ground from mortars landing, and bullet holes on the fences and … burnt out cars; that’s a really common sight.”
The carpenter said that he was brought to tears to witness the grit and spirit of Ukrainians who had lost so much in the war.
“Even just clearing rubble and demolishing a partially destroyed house means that they can rebuild and get on with their lives again,” he said.
“That means everything when you’ve got nothing.”
Mr Stirling said he was rewarded with warm hospitality and “lots of hugs”.
“That, and the homemade vodka,” he laughed.
“There was a bit of that floating around during work.”
Builders without borders
Manfred Hin returned to Townsville last month to see his family, but has no intention of remaining in Australia for long.
After spending a few months raising crucial funds, he will return to Ukraine where he has “hundreds of houses” lined up for repairs as the war stretches on.
“The average cost of rebuilding a house in Ukraine is $2,500, which is not a lot,” Mr Hin said.
“We’re not talking about a fully furnished house, it’s not a mansion.
“But it is [getting] the walls restored, the roof put on, the windows and the doors, some heating and sanitation … and water flowing.”
The builder has already connected with dozens of tradespeople from across the world to continue the reconstruction work.
His long-term goal is to create a permanent network of “builders without borders”.
“There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands [of people] waiting for a little bit of help,” Mr Hin said.