What Ukrainians need most – Atlantic Council

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Balloons and a birthday cake might be the last thing you expect when you imagine a humanitarian donation center for Ukrainian refugees. But at Center Help Ukraine in Lublin, Poland, volunteers presented not one but two birthday cakes to mark a volunteer’s birthday on a recent sleepy Monday afternoon.

A collection of Ukrainian and international volunteers sorts donations from European Union countries into heaps. From the 4,000 square foot warehouse in Poland’s ninth largest city, trucks transport the packed pallets to Lviv in western Ukraine for distribution throughout the war-torn country.

Help Ukraine Center, the brainchild of Ukrainian businessman Andrey Stavnitser and his friends, opened days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Stavnitser works with Rozetka, the Ukrainian equivalent of Amazon, and Nova Poshta, the national version of DHL, to deliver free packages to specific addresses or to provide donated humanitarian aid to Ukrainians in need.

On a slow day in June, four little children of volunteers walk in and out of packed pallets, alternating between a game of tag and a handful of cookies when the watchful eyes of the women who run the help center look away.

In “Little Shanghai,” as the first section of the warehouse is called, women volunteers create personalized hygiene boxes for Ukrainian women. The help center sent specially prepared boxes with letters and comfort items for rape victims to Irpin.

In “Big Shanghai”, a new influx of volunteers from British first aid organization RE:ACT has just arrived, sorting bedding and towels. They are mostly retirees, but no one can keep up with them. A small woman who works quietly and diligently catches my eye. Tamara showed up at the aid center in a bathrobe in Mariupol, the largest of many Ukrainian cities wiped out by Vladimir Putin’s invading force. The help center equipped her with clothes. She now comes every day to help sort the aid packages.

The soundtrack is a mixture of tape, determination, laughs and light rock.

“They were so busy they couldn’t keep up [in March]says Colton Smith, a recent graduate of UC Santa Cruz who quit his job and moved to Poland to help out. Smith says compassion fatigue is real and visible at the warehouse.

Donations have dropped by 80% since the Center opened, but the needs of Ukrainians are only growing. The UNDP estimates that 9 out of 10 Ukrainians will be in poverty by the end of the year if the war does not end. In February, 15 trucks came every day. Now only two to three trucks arrive.

Part of the problem is simple logistics. “We can’t plan our work,” says Olga Rudnieva, the ultra-efficient director of Help Ukraine Center. At first people were transporting the goods for free, then they wanted the fuel covered, and now it costs 3,000 euros for a truck. “Drivers hate Poland,” she comments. Queues are incredibly long, sometimes stretching up to five days.

The Help Center needs to borrow or buy a 20 ton truck for around 20,000 euros to speed up its deliveries. About 100 pallets are awaiting delivery. “Those shouldn’t be here,” Olga said.

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The Help Center is one of the biggest NGOs in Poland for Ukrainians and has immediate needs.

The help center’s longtime Ukrainian cook has to go. Ukrainians are famous for their hospitality and the Help Center is a small microcosm of Ukraine. Biscuits, coffee and cookies cover two large tables for volunteers. In the improvised “kitchen”, two women make tubs of borscht and bread rolls to feed the 23 warehouse volunteers.

The help center also asks for generators for hospitals, simple canned foods like tuna, non-perishable foods like pasta and beans that can be cooked quickly, and energy bars.

“One of our biggest problems is that the volunteers leave,” says Rudnieva. Most volunteers come for a few weeks and some for a few months, all for their own account. Although hugely popular, a Michelin-starred chef who was between jobs was the only forklift driver in the warehouse and had to teach his replacement to drive over FaceTime.

Rudnieva has bigger problems. She fears that the world is moving. Ukraine no longer grabs headlines and attracts media attention as it once did. “People need to understand that the war is not over. We don’t want to make headlines with another Bucha or Irpin,” Rudnieva says with a grimace.

Before I rush into the pouring rain and head back to my hotel, Lasha Shikhashvili, an ethnic Georgian but longtime Kyiv resident and father of three, wants to speak. He left four days before the start of the war and comes to the Help Center because “mentally it helps”.

“All this war will end in peace,” predicts Shikhashvili, who lived through war in Georgia in the 1990s. He worries about the long-term effects of war, including domestic violence, suicide and violence in the home. society, and urges donors to focus on mental health.

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Help Ukraine Center has also spawned new initiatives. The special chemistry between Rudnieva, the director, and Stavnitser, the CEO and initiator of the warehouse, is evident.

Stavnitser and Rudnieva don’t have time for endless working group meetings on the eventual reconstruction of Ukraine or to prepare for a big job once the war is over. They are impatient and ruthlessly focused on results. They see a problem they can solve, break it down, and attack.

One example is the support offered to the many women serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Female soldiers in the Ukrainian army have long complained that the uniforms don’t fit them. They are still given men’s underwear and the big army backpacks give them back pain. Gynecologists had not been available on the front line for years.

Stavnitser, Rudnieva and other volunteers rearrange women’s uniforms. On Rudnieva’s iPhone, she shows me cute military green sports bras that will soon be produced in Ukraine. She also works to get medicine to fight yeast and bladder infections for women in the trenches, which are the most common problems faced by female soldiers.

Stavnitser recently flew to Turkey and found smaller uniforms that fit women. He also bought 500 ultralight Kevlar vests that weigh only 2.6 kilos and are more comfortable for women.

This is how Ukrainians solve problems. For years, young Ukrainian businessmen and activists have been turning heads with their moxie and dynamic spirit. The Ukraine Help Center is no exception. Its website proudly proclaims that the entire company receives no government support.

It is these local organizations such as Help Ukraine Center, Lifeline Ukraine and Razom that we should support, not the bloated international organizations with flashy billboards in European cities. A recent UK government-sponsored report found that while UN agencies and international NGOs received 87% of humanitarian funding for Ukraine after the Russian invasion, local NGOs provided almost all of the aid. humanitarian.

As I finally say goodbye to Rudnieva and prepare to leave, Shikhashvili stops me. He listened and said my language is wrong. “We don’t want to fix Ukraine. Ukraine is fixing the world,” observes Shikhashvili.

Melinda Haring is deputy director of the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council. She tweets @melindaharing.

Editor’s Note: To volunteer, please contact the Help Ukraine Center: https://helpukraine.center/

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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values ​​and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and the Central Asia to the East.

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Image: British firefighter Rob and retired midwife Shirley, two volunteers from the RE:ACT first aid organization sort bedding and towels on June 20 in Lublin, Poland, at the Help Ukraine Center. (Credit: Melinda Haring)

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