Grassroots Groups Lead Ukraine's Aid Efforts

Informal volunteer initiatives receive a fraction of donations but provide the bulk of humanitarian assistance.

Grassroots Groups Lead Ukraine's Aid Efforts

Informal volunteer initiatives receive a fraction of donations but provide the bulk of humanitarian assistance.

Volunteers at the support center for residents of temporarily occupied territories in Zaporizhzhia. The centre was set up by residents of Tokmak, a city in Zaporizhzhia region, which fell under Russian control in the first weeks of Russia’s invasion. It is one of the many grassroots initiatives that have been providing the core of the humanitarian support to Ukrainians directly affected by the war.
Volunteers at the support center for residents of temporarily occupied territories in Zaporizhzhia. The centre was set up by residents of Tokmak, a city in Zaporizhzhia region, which fell under Russian control in the first weeks of Russia’s invasion. It is one of the many grassroots initiatives that have been providing the core of the humanitarian support to Ukrainians directly affected by the war. © Zaporizhzhia Centre of Investigations/incentre.zp.ua
Tuesday, 4 October, 2022

Russian forces arrived in Tokmak in the early days of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Soon after the occupation, supplies of food and medicine ran low in the 30,000-strong city in south-eastern Ukraine. Those who managed to flee headed to Zaporizhzhia, the region’s administrative centre some 100 kilometres north.

Many found shelter at the Centre for Support of Residents of the Temporarily Occupied Territories. Housed in a regional council building, the centre has recruited some 30 volunteers to help people fleeing the invasion.

“We provide food and medicine, but also help with communication and administration: how to find housing, or fill in registration [forms],” said Askad Ashurbiekov, 32, a Zaporizhzhia city council deputy who himself fled Tokmak. “The aim is to make this place the centre where a person can come and find out how to improve his life in Zaporizhzhia.”

Informal community groups like this are key to delivering the humanitarian assistance Ukraine has received in the six months of war. Experts note that although they provide most of the aid to the conflict’s displaced, they have received just 0.24 per cent of the over 2.2 billion US dollars of donations that have poured into Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.

Many initiatives are one-person operations.

A recent report by the research and policy consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes concluded that large international aid organisations held about 85 per cent of donations, but faced challenges delivering assistance amid continuous fighting and difficulty accessing areas where aid is most needed.

Local Ukrainian groups, on the other hand, were best placed to support communities but received a fraction of the financial support. Over 150 NGOs and about 1,700 newly-created aid groups provided assistance at a regional and community level.

According to the report, funded by the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub, only 20 international NGO and humanitarian organisations had personnel in Ukraine at the time of the invasion. The lack of prescribed plans in case of war, problems with financing and logistics, internal bureaucratic procedures and absence of coordination between such agencies did not allow for a rapid scale-up of their work.

"Operational data of these organisations and publicly available materials in which they talk about their activities, as a rule, exaggerate the presence of international assistance in Ukraine," the report stated.

NEW INITIATIVES

As Russian rockets rained down on cities and millions of Ukrainians fled, aid appeals mushroomed worldwide. Donations started pouring in to support the estimated 16 million Ukrainians who were forced to leave their homes - about 40 per cent of the country's population - of whom about 7.7 million went abroad.

Some large Ukrainian charities, like the foundation led by TV personality Serhiy Prytula, were already active. Ukraine has a vibrant civil society and the social fabric proved resilient in the wake of the full-scale attack.

A plethora of initiatives were created to respond to the emergency, many tiny, yet vital to keep communities and individuals going.

Some residents in Shushkivtsi, a village in the central region of Ternopil have been renovating abandoned houses for IDPs coming from the east. They were driven by the local priest, 37-year-old Oleksii Filiuk, who started asking homeowners to allow them to use their empty properties.

"Currently, in a village of 80 people, there are as many as 84 refugees, the displaced outnumber the residents…People are grateful to have a roof over their heads, to receive food and clothes. This past Easter I had in church the largest number of parishioners of all my 17 years of service,” the priest told IWPR.

Some of the houses had been empty for up to 20 years. Led by Filiuk, volunteers cleared courtyards, removed cobwebs, plastered cracks and painted walls.

About 120 kilometres east, in Khmelnytsky, 51-year-old entrepreneur Viktor Stetsiuk teamed up with his neighbours to house the displaced.

"We created a shelter for up to 150 people in our warehouse’s basement, people still come today,” Stetsiuk, who also lectures at Khmelnytskyi National University’s Faculty of Information Technologies, told IWPR. “We set up a food distribution point and started making mattresses, blankets, and pillows.

Many initiatives are one-person operations.

Communication manager Olena Kulyhina, 37, started collecting medicines to send to relatives in the Kherson region, one of the areas Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed to Russia on September 30.

I began helping the community of my city, several times we successfully transferred medicines for 30-40 people, and then information about us spread, and many more people began to contact me, Kulyhina told IWPR.

The collection and dispatch of medicines was also the focus for Kateryna Sporysh, a 31-year old journalist who relocated to Lviv from Kyiv and began collecting and distributing medical supplies to hard-hit areas of Ukraine. These include painkillers, heart and thyroid medicines to bandages, syringes and hemostatic treatments which in the early stages of the invasion were hard to find and remain in short supply in vast areas of eastern Ukraine.

"Personal motives are intertwined with collective ones."

In Kyiv, 31-year-old German language teacher Roman Rybakov started the Solomia initiative to collect medicines for the Ukrainian army. About 100 people donate regularly and Solomia provides anything soldiers need, from clothing to thermal imagers.

Kulyhina, Sporysh and Rybabkov fundraised through word-of-mouth: first through friends and families, then reaching out to their social media circles, but without setting up a structured organisation. Nonetheless, they managed to distribute tens of thousands of items directly to those who needed them the most.

Children also rallied. The world checkers champion, ten-year-old Valeriia Yezhov, raised nearly 600 US dollars by playing the board game with passers-by on the streets of Kyiv, which she donated to Prytula's foundation to support the Ukrainian military. 

In Chernivtsi, in the west of the country, 11-year-old Maksim Haiduchenko became an internet sensation when the notes he put up in his new neighbourhood were picked up on the web.

“I will take out the garbage - UAH 5. I will bring water (max five-litre container) UAH 5. I walk a pet - 25 UAH(from 15 to 70 US cents),” read the sign.

The boy, displaced from Pokrovsk in the Donetsk region, collected enough cash or direct donations to send items including 25 bulletproof vests, a thermal imager and a night vision device to the Ukrainian military. Maksim and his mother also collected 50,000 hryvnias (1,400 dollars) for prosthetics and the rehabilitation of wounded Ukrainian soldiers.

Psychologist Oksana Zaitseva said that the need to be united in the face of Russian aggression had glued the country’s social fabric together.

She added, “Humanitarian initiatives have grown exponentially because personal motives are intertwined with collective ones.

This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).

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