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Brian Mayer: product and marketing strategy consultant.

I am based in New York City and I update my blog infrequently. About me.
From Kharkiv

From Kharkiv

It has been 20 months to the day since I first arrived at the snow covered Ukraine-Poland border to help refugees. I never expected to cross the border, and I certainly never expected to be as far east as Kharkiv. But here I am, back in Ukraine for what must be my fifth trip this year and maybe tenth overall. I’ve lost count.

We are now entering the third winter of this horrible war, and things have certainly changed in that time — for the war, for us an organization, and for me.

At the beginning, even on the Polish side of the border, the atmosphere was hot and intense. Thousands of refugees poured across the border by the minute, and everyone needed something urgently. I was at the Pryzemysl train station when the first train with Mariupol refugees arrived. Knowing what they had gone through, and hearing their stories — even talking to the ones who couldn’t speak any English — was heartbreaking. They had gone days without food in some cases. They carried their whole lives with them in makeshift baggage.

Three generations of women from one Odessa family, the first refugees I drove to Warsaw from the border, April 2022.

Now, the war has become the new normal on the home front, so much so that wandering the bustling streets of Kharkiv or Kyiv or Lviv you might not know there even was a war going on, aside from the occasional blackout and the hum of electric generators, high fuel prices, a 10pm curfew, and the occasional wail of air sirens that everyone now ignores. When I first entered Ukraine, it was at 4am after a grueling cross-border journey to deliver my first humanitarian shipment. The mood in Lviv was somber and intense. Now, the cable cars rumble monotonously through the cobbled European streets while children play in the public square. I was here in Kharkiv in June 2022, right after the Russians pulled back from the outskirts of the city, and it was a ghost town, with windows boarded up and rubble and broken glass and spent munitions everywhere. Now, traffic is back, and I had a drink last night at a bustling popular local coffee bar.

Our first major cross-border shipment, in no man’s land, May 2022.

The work we are doing as an organization, too, has changed drastically. I and my fellow volunteers, haphazardly organized, uncoordinated and running on adrenaline, worked 18-hour days helping people find transport into Europe, passing out food and water and power banks, sometimes driving six hours to Warsaw and back in one day. Over time, we started organizing volunteers to arrange cross-border shipments. That first summer, I drove humanitarian aid across the border over 40 times, sometimes twice in one day.

Our first trash truck delivered on behalf of the people of Westport, CT for their new Sister City, welcomed by Mayor Zhuravlev, right. Taken in Lyman, Donetsk, January 2023.

All this while my brother, always the smarter one, was organizing us as a real US-based nonprofit. Donations that used to come into my personal Venmo were now flowing through our new website. We held fundraisers and promoted the work we were doing on social media and amongst friends. Before long, we had a small staff and a collection of international volunteers in the US and Germany and a ground team in Ukraine, and we were working closer and closer to the front lines, where civilians victimized by war needed the most help. By last winter, we had established our first sister city between Lyman, Donetsk and Westport, CT. And 7 other amazing sister city partnerships followed.

Delivery seeds to families in Lyman, Donetsk, April 2023.

Going into this year, we knew that the war would fall behind in public consciousness as more dramatic, fresher stories took center stage. But thousands of civilians on the ground in east Ukraine have still spent the last year without homes, without heat, without electricity, and without infrastructure. And as many basic needs like food and medicine are now being supplied by lots of fantastic NGOs now operating on the ground, municipal needs — things that cities need to keep functioning like utility lines, clean water, and public safety — are still far behind.

The first happy customer for our new clean water station in Sviatohirsk, Donetsk, September 2023.

That is why UAI is now laser-focused on helping our sister cities’ largest most urgent municipal needs, as we engage our US town partners to supply everything from dump trucks to cold weather gear for our friends in the east. This year alone, thanks to your donations and support, we’ve delivered:

  • Clean water access to over 100,000 civilians on the front lines in Ukraine, including two mobile water trucks that operate independently from village to village
  • Reconstruction of over 20 apartment buildings with 100s of units, employing local labor and materials
  • Enough vegetable seeds for every family in Lyman and Sviatohirsk to replant their farms and gardens after liberation
  • Trash trucks, dump trucks, ambulances, squad cars and delivery vans to support communities of more than 25,000 residents
  • Equipment for hundreds of first responders including flashlights, socks, boots, tools, cold weather gear
  • Hundreds of stoves, electric generators, internet access, school supplies, blankets, medical and reconstruction aid
  • One (and soon to be more!) wood pellet production machine to provide enough fuel to heat 1,000 homes delivered just in time for winter

All of this would not have been possible without the steadfast dedication and support of our Sister City Committees, who, for every town in our program, worked tirelessly to raise awareness and fundraise for our friends in Ukraine. These programs have shown how people can come together to help complete strangers in a time of need, and have been inspiring. If you served on a Sister City Committee or volunteered to help at one of our local fundraising events, thank you.

The Fairfield / Kostiantynivka Sister City Steering Committee with Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick, September 2023.

Finally, on a personal note. This has been a challenging year, and I’ve learned a lot. Cofounding a nonprofit and growing it from the ground up has not been easy, and I’ve stumbled into many hard lessons along the way. I’ve been around long enough to know that there’s a moment in every project where it ceases to be shiny, new and exciting, and becomes just another regular job. However, rather than let UAI stultify as I may have if it were any other project, it has been my honor and privilege to watch our team grow, evolve and blossom over the last 20 months. I owe a huge debt to my brother and cofounder, Marshall, who has led this team through major ups and downs this year. Our little fledgling charity has reached a point where I have discovered — as many founders often do — that I am not even needed by my team for most things. Which is an amazing feeling! At the same time, it has given me excitement to think forward to next year, and the type of global community we want to build around sister cities and mutual aid. I can’t wait to share those plans with all of you soon.

My brother and I, cofounders of UAI, at the border of Donetsk Oblast, May 2023.

This year would not have been possible without our dedicated and hard working team: Alison, Bogdan, and Nikita, running all our operations and logistics inside Ukraine, the unstoppable Ally in Germany who has organized all our Sister City Committees remotely with hundreds of thousands of dollars raised since day one, Katya and Nataliia in Connecticut running the entire home office, and our newest addition as of this month, welcome to Karianne in Chicago who is now running our marketing! And so many other great volunteers, friends and partners we’ve worked with all year to deliver aid and support to civilians in need:

  • In Ukraine: Yaroslav, Ruslan, Alona, Svitlana, Ron, Nick, Vitaly, Evgeniya, Nate, Ben, Paul, Vlada, Brogan, Vova, Andrii, and Serhii, and countless more who took hours or days out of their lives to help with missions all around the country
  • Our international friends, honored representatives and nonprofit partners: Senator Blumenthal, Congressman Himes, State Senator Maher, Ken, Dan, Connie, Jessie, Olga, Annetta, Ben, Greg
  • Our groundbreaking US delegation to Donetsk Oblast: Jen Tooker, First Selectwoman of Westport CT, David Bindelglass, First Selectman of Easton CT, Foti Koskinas, Chief of Police of Westport CT
  • Our honored US Mayors and First Selectpeople: Caroline Simmons (Stamford CT), Fred Camillo (Greenwich CT), Tonya Graham (Ashland OR), Brenda Kupchick (Fairfield CT), Rudy Marconi (Ridgefield CT), Samantha Nestor (Weston CT), Darrell Steinberg (Sacramento CA)
  • …and so many others I’m probably doing a disservice to by neglecting to list here, and I’m sorry! It truly has been a team effort.

Finally, all of this would not have been possible without all of you, our donors and supporters. I know that there are a lot of important causes where you could be contributing your support, and you’ve chosen to help the Ukrainian people all year. On their behalf, and on behalf of the dedicated team at UAI, thank you, and have an amazing holiday and New Year!

December 3, 2023Comments are DisabledRead More
Seymour Mayer, 1926-2023

Seymour Mayer, 1926-2023

He never said he was hungry.

That’s the thought I have had over and over today, as I fast in observance, and in honor of, the first Yom Kippur in my life without my grandpa. It would have been his 98th Day of Atonement, every one of which he fasted if he could, even when he was in a concentration camp.

As a kid, nothing would earn me a rebuke from my grandfather faster than complaining about being hungry. He wouldn’t allow it. “You don’t know what real hunger is,” he would say. And never, no matter how long it had been since he had last eaten, did he ever even mention he was hungry. He knew that food, like life, was a gift. He ate when he could, and he never took what he had for granted.

I’ve been trying to write an obituary for my grandfather, who was an extraordinary man in so many ways. One early attempt started with me listing all of these ways in which he was extraordinary, one after another, in an uninterrupted stream: Holocaust survivor, shoemaker, woodworker, painter, jeweler, avid reader, news junkie, Scotch aficionado, successful immigrant, patriotic American, respected Jewish community leader, lap swimmer, soccer champion, dog lover, story teller, lecturer, chess player, five-language polyglot, husband, father, grandfather, uncle, great uncle, great-great uncle, friend, and beloved family patriarch.

But of course, what a man does in his life is very different from who he is, and what he meant to others. And this weekend, when his family and friends gathered from to bid him a final farewell and lay him to rest, it’s clear that he meant a lot to all of us.

For those of us who were lucky enough to know him, our lives were always enriched with his presence, and more importantly, his stories. Like many survivors of the Holocaust, he tended to fixate on happy memories from his childhood before the war, and had many stories to tell about the majority of his life that he spent in the Philadelphia suburbs, pursuing a humble career as a shoemaker, buying a home, raising a family and achieving the American dream.

But as he approached retirement, just about the time when I was beginning to develop my own childhood consciousness, he started to tell stories about the war, too. He opened up to his friends and family about being deported as a teenager from his hometown in Transylvania along with his mother, grandmother, father, sister and brother. About losing all of them, one by one, to gas chambers, summary execution, starvation, overwork, and illness. About surviving many near death experiences through a combination of luck and cleverness. About his internment in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Melk and Ebensee, and about his subsequent liberation by American forces. How he quickly gained his strength back at a displaced persons camp and became one if its star soccer players. How he found his way back to his hometown only to discover his family’s house and business had been ransacked. How he slowly came to realize that he was the sole survivor of his entire family, save for one aunt who had emigrated to Brooklyn before the war, and one half sister who had made it to Israel. How he eventually made it to his aunt in New York by claiming, for quota purposes, to have been born in Czechoslovakia. How he eventually became a citizen and successful shoemaker, and started a family and legacy of his own.

The stories that he told about his life are so remarkable, they are hard to believe. That’s why he took us to Europe to visit the concentration camps in which he was imprisoned. That’s why he took us to his hometown to visit his school, his street, his doctor’s office where he was born, and the site of the temporary ghetto where he was held awaiting the cattle cars.

And that’s also why he knew he had to write down his experiences, so that we would learn from our past, lest we be doomed to repeat it. It’s a lesson he hammered into us many times over the years, as, being the avid reader and amateur historian that he was, he would frequently draw historical parallels to current events. Most recently, he lamented the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, observing that maybe the Ukrainians “weren’t so bad after all.” For a man who often cursed the Ukrainian kapos who treated him so badly in the camps and celebrated the Russians who fought and defeated the Nazis, one might find such a reversal surprising, but it was entirely in character for him to always look for the good in all people. He was never bitter or vengeful about what happened to him.

But what I found so inspiring about my grandfather was not just how he survived the Holocaust, World War II, the Great Depression, the Spanish flu, Covid, a heart attack, a fall, major surgery, and my grandma’s cooking — but how he lived, not just for himself but for others. How he stood up for workers he thought were being underpaid. How he made custom shoes for women whose feet were too big for their standard sizes, because he wanted all women to feel beautiful. How he became a respected elder and patriarch for a family across two continents, who all looked up to him and were inspired by him. How he worked every day and saved every penny to raise a son to accomplish even more than he had. How he took care of his wife, Roz, not only through 60 years of marriage, but every day she suffered and declined from her illness.

Most people are fortunate if they get to know any of their grandparents for any time at all. Few are as fortunate as I have been to know my grandpa as long as I have. Although it is no small feat living almost a century, what always impressed me most about my grandfather was his determination to not just survive, but to live his life happily. For a man whose innocent and carefree childhood was shattered by war, genocide, and unspeakable and profound loss, my “grandpa from Philadelphia” lived his life with only humor, joy and love in his heart. For that alone, I am grateful to be able to honor his legacy.

September 25, 2023Comments are DisabledRead More
From Lviv

From Lviv

It took a tragedy to remind us why we’re all here.

Our trusted and loyal canine friend, Monty, who has been with our team from the beginning, passed away unexpectedly this week. The whole team has been shaken.

I was already planning to come back to Ukraine but the timing was such that I arrived just in time for Monty’s funeral. And what I saw there moved me to tears. His entire family — his mom, Liz, his friends and colleagues who have been on the front with him, those who rescued Monty at the beginning, even those abroad who have never met him in person, came to the funeral or called in via video. We eulogized him, and Richard, who was also with him from the beginning, made him a beautiful coffin replete with Ukrainian flags and flowers. We opened his coffin for a final goodbye. Monty wore his war vest with police patches he earned in the field. Alison sang a traditional Scottish funeral hymn. Liz poured out some of his favorite whisky. Ukrainian police and civilians, foreign volunteers, his best canine friend, and close human family and friends bore witness. He was buried with full honors.

Like many dogs, Monty exemplified the best in loyalty, friendship, and unconditional love. But unlike most dogs, he lived his life in near constant danger, to support and bring joy to thousands of Ukrainian civilians living bravely on the brink of war. He brought smiles to the faces of hardened police and military veterans. Mayor Oleksandr Zhuravlev of Lyman, who never smiles — especially in photos — couldn’t even resist Monty’s charm and spunky character.

Through this unspoken bond with his countless human friends, Monty represented the best of what we hope to achieve here in Ukraine. We know we cannot fight this war or change the outcome of the conflict. But we can, and I hope we do, help bring happiness and safety and relief to the people who need it most. Monty showed us the way.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that Monty’s untimely death has hit everyone so hard, when there are so many tragedies surrounding us every day. And I think the reason is that many of us are working and living every day on a dangerous mission, and there’s a real possibility that at any time, someone on our brave front line team may become a casualty of this war. And this is something we all fear and never speak about. Our grief over Monty is grief for everyone we have loved and held close out here.

Despite the tragic circumstance, I think we all needed this time to come together and reflect on why we’re here. We spend so much time in the metaphorical — and literal — trenches, working every day to help the most helpless victims of this war…sometimes we forget to look up and remind ourselves of the greater things we’re striving for: a victory for solidarity over tyranny, for friends over foes, and for love over hate.

Thank you, Monty…for the gift you brought us in life and even beyond. We will always remember you, and do everything we can to honor your legacy. Rest in peace.

April 23, 2023Comments are DisabledRead More
From Miami

From Miami

A year ago yesterday I was at a restaurant here in Miami with my Ukrainian friends, debating what was on everybody’s mind at the time: whether Putin would actually send his troops then building up on the border into another sovereign nation to invade.

No one at dinner that night believed it would happen.

A year later, look how wrong we were. The last year has brought unbelievable destruction and pain to the people of Ukraine. Having made 5 trips there to date, I’ve seen firsthand how brutal and oppressive Russia’s illegal, unjustified occupation of east Ukraine has been. I’ve seen entire neighborhoods leveled. I’ve seen communities lining up to get dirty water from the ground. I’ve driven for hundreds of kilometers through densely populated regions shrouded in total darkness.

Life has become uneasily normal in many parts of Ukraine, with malls and restaurants open, playgrounds crowded, schools in session. Yet millions of families are burning makeshift wood stoves for heat. Electricity will often cut out for no reason for an arbitrary amount of time. And most importantly, people always have their eyes and ears angled skyward.

This 9-year-old boy we met in Lyman, Donetsk Oblast on Christmas Day was in the middle of opening a present we brought him when we saw — and then heard — some artillery fire. “That’s one of ours,” he said matter-of-factly. “Counter missile defense.”

The fact that a child is identifying rocket barrages by sound while most kids his age are learning their multiplication tables is hard to bear. So, too, is the thought of millions of children who have been forcibly evicted, orphaned, kidnapped, raped or killed in the last year. The young men who have had to go off and die for someone else’s warped sense of history and ambition. The elderly who have frozen to death in the unforgiving winter.

As horrible as the things I have seen and heard in the last year are, they have driven me to keep going. I started this blog when I first landed on the border with Poland, never intending to even set foot in Ukraine. When I first crossed the border, it was to bring one trunkful of aid across, and eventually as I started to make the trip more frequently, entire trucks’ full. Before I knew it, I was organizing tens, and then hundreds of volunteers to do the same. Donor dollars kept pouring in. With the help of generous family and friends, and the support of all of you who subscribed to my blog and followed me on social media, we worked together to bring more humanitarian aid to more civilians, unlocking incredible partnerships with other NGOs all over Ukraine.

Before I knew it, Ukraine Aid International was born, a nonprofit whose focus and purpose has become increasingly clear: to bring humanitarian aid directly to the civilians who need it most. Not to the warehouses of Lviv and Kyiv which are overflowing with donated aid, but to the front-line communities who have suffered the most from this terrible war, and who have nothing.

These communities are the hardest to reach, and we have now built an entire fleet of volunteer drivers and vehicles to organize transport of critical humanitarian aid to the people who need it. Through over 500 successful missions to date, we have delivered over 1 million pounds of humanitarian aid to front-line communities.

We have also created an invaluable Sister City partnership between my hometown of Westport, CT and Lyman, pictured above. This partnership has already unlocked over $250,000 worth of aid which has paid for construction materials, municipal vehicles, police gear, and more.

I’m so proud of this partnership, and I’m so grateful to Westport First Selectwoman Jen Tooker, Police Chief Foti Koskinas, Lyman Mayor Alexander Zuravlov, Dan Woog, Katya Wauchope, my brother Marshall, and of course Liz Olegov and Richard von Groeling without whom this work would not have been possible. And we’re building more of these partnerships as we speak!

Throughout this all, you have all been so supportive of our efforts to scale our impact. You have all donated, asked friends to donate, made introductions, and told the world what is happening in Ukraine and what can be done to help. Thank you all so much for all your generosity in the last year.

Going into the second year of this terrible war, our work is not done. In fact, it’s just beginning.

We’re raising $1 million right now with the goal of delivering over 10 million pounds of humanitarian aid to front-line communities in east Ukraine in the next year. We need your help to tell your friends about this effort. We need your help to keep the spirit of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people alive, even after it has slipped out of the media narrative and the political winds in the US are wavering. People are still suffering and dying, and UAI will be on the ground as long as we possibly can be.

Will you donate now and help Ukrainians survive year two?

We couldn’t be more grateful for your support, and I’ll continue to update you all on our efforts as I can. In the meantime, Slava Ukraini — as long as we’re all in this together, we will prevail.

February 24, 2023Comments are DisabledRead More
Night Before Christmas, Written from Lyman, Ukraine

Night Before Christmas, Written from Lyman, Ukraine

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through Ukraine,
The missiles were landing on farmlands of grain.
The people of Donbas stood up to the test,
But the houses were dark from the East to the West.

And Putin was sleeping all snug in his bed
While visions of sugar plums danced in his head,
Dreaming of empire, warm to his core,
He couldn’t help secretly whispering, “war!”

When out on his roof, there arose such a clatter!
He sprung to his feet and exclaimed “what’s the matter?!”
“I do hope that something is not out of order…”
“Is it an assassin, or worse, a reporter?”

In his fluffy pajamas he looked out below,
And he couldn’t believe who he saw in the snow!
With robes of red satin and flowing white hair
It was Santa and sleigh, in the heart of Red Square!

“At last!” Putin shrieked with a cry of delight
“St. Nick has come to bring me presents tonight!”
He hopped to the door and he ran down the stairs,
And giddy with glee he shed all of his cares.

He threw open the doors of the Kremlin with joy
And said “Santa, I knew I had been a good boy!”
And Santa Klaus laughed with a proud “Ho Ho Ho,”
And said “there is something that you ought to know.”

“I know that it’s not quite what you want to hear,
But no, you have not been a good boy this year”
“The kids of the world will be merry tonight,
But not those of Ukraine without any light,”

“Not the kids who you’ve robbed of their fathers and moms,”
“Not the kids you’ve made homeless with missiles and bombs,”
“Not the kids who’ve lost limbs from your terrible war,”
“Not the kids who are orphaned and will grow up poor,”

“Not the kids who you’ve kidnapped while they were at play”
“Not the kids who’ve been trafficked and sold far away”
“Not the kids who your soldiers have raped and have maimed,”
“Not the kids who will suffer in ways still unnamed.”

“So Vladimir you asked if you have done right,”
“And as Santa I’m sorry to tell you ‘Not quite.’”
When Santa was done he pulled on his beard,
And Putin was flustered and blustered “that’s weird!”

“You said things that might make me look bad to some,”
“But you’re here with your sleigh, Santa…why did you come?”
With a gleam in his eye Santa said “time you knew,”
“I brought something special that’s meant just for you.”

And then Santa went deep in his sleigh to the back,
And pulled out a truly gargantuan sack
And heaved it to Putin whose arms spread out
Only to find coal, coal and more coal inside!

“How could you,” said Santa, “to dare have the nerve”
“To think I don’t bring children what they deserve!”
And with that he spurned Rudolph, completely nonplussed,
And left Putin’s coal-dusted face in the dust.

Now St. Nick flies forth for each good girl and boy,
To bring every Ukrainian well deserved joy,
And to those in Ukraine who are fighting the fight,
Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!

December 24, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Kyiv

From Kyiv

I’m sitting in a London-themed coffee shop in north central Kyiv, surrounded by portraits of Queen Elizabeth II artistically shrouded in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. There’s a Big Ben grandfather clock and a classic red telephone booth door for an entrance, and this place looks and feels 100% normal for a cosmopolitan, vibrant city but for the diesel generator humming on the sidewalk keeping the lights on.

On the drive into the city Monday night, the countryside was pitch black for hundreds of kilometers, punctuated only by headlights. Every place I’ve stayed or been since coming to Ukraine has had intermittent blackouts, and in some places electricity has only been available 2-3 hours per day. Forget about internet unless you’re in a 5-star hotel. Despite the restrictions, last night we stumbled upon a nightclub going strong at 10pm (curfew is at 11). Russians be damned, the Ukrainians still know how to party.

But there is a grim fear on everyone’s mind here at all times. Drone attacks are frequent, unexpected and random. Air raid sirens make the thought of a restful night a wishful one. And we’re in Kyiv, still much safer a place than Dnipro or Kramatorsk or Uman or Kharkiv, all closer to the front lines. The temperature is below freezing in the east, and millions of Ukrainians are without heat or electricity. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of innocent civilians will die from exposure alone, and their blood will be on Putin’s hands.

We’re doing what we can to help. Thanks to Dan Woog of 06880, my hometown’s local blog, we’ve announced a massive sister city partnership with the city of Lyman, Ukraine, a recently liberated town about the same size as Westport. We had a lovely Zoom call last week with Jen Tooker, the First Selectwoman of Westport, and Oleksandr Zhuravlov, the Mayor of Lyman, last week to plan the announcement.

Thanks to this article alone, over $85,000 has been raised already that will be going directly to help the people of Lyman and the surrounding villages, which have been absolutely devastated by Russian occupation. This is one of the former elementary schools of Lyman, which took years to build and only minutes to destroy:

We’ve spent the last couple days in Kyiv taking meetings, which have all been amazing and unlocked new avenues of development which I’ll report on soon. But the most exciting meeting so far has been with Yaroslav, who runs “Wise Water,” a new business he started at the beginning of the war to build clean water filters for destroyed communities. Thanks to his work, and your donations, we’ve already deployed 7 clean water filtration systems in and around the city of Mykolaiv, providing 84,000 people daily with clean drinking water — over 30% of the city. Through other donations, Yaroslav is currently building the systems to supply the rest of the city as well, so it’s safe to say that Ukraine Aid International, in partnership with Alex21 for Ukraine and Wise Water, will have brought drinking water to an entire devastated city of 250,000 people (450k before the war).

Here’s Liz Olegov of Alex21 introducing us to Yaroslav and his work. And the next project she referred to, the below truck, will be ready in two weeks to bring clean water to the remotest, hardest hit areas of Ukraine that need clean water the most and don’t have any infrastructure left.

You can help with this project!! It will cost $20,000 to fit this truck with a mobile clean water system and you can make a tax deductible donation here:

Thank you so much for all of your support so far and for following along. Will continue to post updates as we prepare our massive delivery run to Lyman.

December 21, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Copenhagen

From Copenhagen

I’m sitting in a Copenhagen coffee shop during a brief layover on my way back to New York. On my walk here from the train station, I’ve already seen two Ukrainian flags flying. Seeing this vociferous support from the free citizens of yet another European country has been a moving and fitting bookend for my trip.

In the last week, we’ve seen intensified attacks in Mykolaiv and Kharkiv, and a Russian facility holding Ukrainian prisoners of war destroyed in an apparent false flag operation. Some of my Ukrainian friends abroad think that the outcome of the war is heavily in Putin’s favor. I’m not so sure.

What I’ve seen in the past month is dedicated volunteers from Ukraine and around the world working together to repel this unique and dangerous threat. These front-line volunteers, many of them foreigners who have permanently moved to Ukraine to drive trucks, carry boxes, treat wounds, and enlist in the defense force, are at the front lines of a global effort to stem Russian aggression, and the political implications of this war that reverberate far beyond the yellow sunflower fields of this beautiful country. As Russia continues to violate international law in its bombardment of civilian neighborhoods and targeting of humanitarian aid workers, the people and their advocates are not cowed, but are working closely together to evolve their tactics and continue to get aid to the front lines where it’s needed most.

At the same time, the war has become a part of everyday life for Ukrainians, as they juggle their normal jobs and errands and social activities with the war effort. One of my partners on the ground is a full time dental surgeon who sets aside a portion of his income to fund the basic needs of displaced civilians and front line soldiers. On the other end of the spectrum, a new friend I made in Kyiv recently proposed to his girlfriend by dropping a ring as a payload from one of his self-made bomber drones.

When I first came out to the border in April, we were in a deep refugee crisis. Now, most refugees have settled abroad or returned home, and most internally displaced persons have created new lives for themselves in new cities, although many will want to return home after the war. When I came out to Ukraine again in May, a deep economic crisis had set in, with diesel shortages and skyrocketing prices, and Ukrainians close to occupation zones finding it harder and harder to procure basic needs.

Now, five months into the war, Ukraine is facing a crisis of character, as Russian occupation has cleaved off large swaths of the country, trapping so many Ukrainians in a new world with a new language, culture and history, under a brutal system of summary justice and arbitrary violence. Families have been forcibly separated and children have been “repatriated” to Russia. Meanwhile, Ukrainians close to the front lines face the hard choice every day of whether to escape if they can from the only homes they have, or try to continue to live their lives as normally as possible, as the booms of artillery echo frequently on the horizon.

I wrote in my last update that I didn’t feel like my presence in the country was as necessary anymore, and now as I’m on my way back to the United States, I am more certain than ever that this will be my last trip to Ukraine for some time. That’s not to say that I won’t continue to support key partners on the ground who will continue the work. In fact, that’s one of the many reasons I feel comfortable stepping away: The volunteers I work with on the ground have become almost professional in their efficiency and effectiveness. Another reason is that my best skills in logistics and problem solving are less helpful now that the reality of war has become normalized: We know where the problems are and how to solve them, and what remains is mostly execution, which is best left to the full timers. The last reason I am comfortable stepping away is that the best way for me to contribute right now is to refocus my efforts on raising money in the United States and funneling it to the ground organizations doing the best work, and I can only do that if I stay local.

I’ve been inspired by the front line volunteers who take aid to the remotest parts of the country where even the government won’t go. I’ve also been inspired by all of you who have supported these efforts with your time and money and encouragement. So far, 100% of your donations have gone to support relief efforts for refugees, internally displaced persons and Ukrainians trapped near or at the front lines.

That said, there’s always more to do. Right now, we’re raising money to purchase three water filtration systems for Mykolaiv and the non-occupied areas of Donetsk Oblast, where the Russians have poisoned the wells and no clean drinking water is available. Each system costs $6250 and can supply an entire town’s worth of clean water per day, eliminating the need for the locals to figure out how to get expensive bottled water delivered into a hot zone. We will install these filtration systems ourselves at secure location and facilitate the delivery of clean water to the towns and cities in the region that need it most.

If you’d like to contribute to this effort, please donate to our 501(c)3 now.

Of course, not all the work we do is strictly material. I’d like to leave you with a sweet story. One of our front line volunteers recently learned about a girl in Bucha who missed her 5th birthday while the town was under occupation, so he and other volunteers in the area organized a belated birthday parade for her. Her home had been ransacked by Russian soldiers and she had lost her bicycle, so they also got her a new one as a gift. The video, and this photo of a child traumatized by war now reunited with her favorite bicycle, speak for themselves.

Thank you for all your support, and as always, Слава Україні.

July 31, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Kharkiv

From Kharkiv

Insulin has to be stored between 5 and 15 degrees Celsius. The only way to transport something over 1,000 km at that temperature during a record-breaking heat wave is a refrigerated truck, which I happen to have. That is why I find myself at the other end of Ukraine this morning, about 20km from the front lines with the near constant echo of explosions in the distance.

I’m here at the house of my friend Nick, who fled this city with many others in the first week of the Russian invasion, although he has since returned many times to deliver lifesaving humanitarian aid to displaced persons here. His in-laws, who are staying in his house and hosting us, had most of their neighborhood destroyed by the initial shelling, and have also lost their summer home to Russian occupation.

Driving through the city yesterday, I was given a brief but intense tour of the various offices, municipal buildings, churches, malls and apartments that have been destroyed in the last few months under almost nonstop Russian artillery fire. “That was the main courthouse,” he said, pointing to an empty shell of a building next to a block-sized heap of mangled metal and rubble. I didn’t realize that the rockets had such a large blast radius, and apartments a block away all have significant damage and most of their windows smashed out, too. Even if the Russians are only ostensibly hitting military targets — which we know they are not — the civilian collateral damage is unavoidable.

And the physical damage is only part of the destruction. It’s hard for Nick to hide his sense of loss as he surveys the abandoned streets and shops of his hometown. “I used to spend 30 minutes in traffic here every morning,” Nick remarked sadly while we flew down the main avenue through dead traffic lights. There are people about, but very few shops open. Concrete and steel barricades block up the roads at key intervals, diverting what little traffic there is into snaking patterns around (currently abandoned) military outposts. Although it does seem like the skeleton economy here mostly exists to support the military defense, there are some faint signs of life as well, like the coffee shop where we enjoyed mojitos last night. There’s a sense of resilience in the streets.

It isn’t until you’re on the ground that you realize how large these cities are, and the apparent folly of trying to conquer one by force. The Russians could destroy an entire block every day and still would take weeks to reach the city center. That’s why although so much has been destroyed, many more buildings remain standing and it seems like it would be actually impossible to capture such a place under heavy resistance. I suppose this is one of the reasons Kharkiv successfully repelled the Russians, although from the explosions in the distance, it doesn’t sound like it.

Which brings us back to the insulin. Because of the war, medicine has been especially needed and especially short, and transporting it to this part of the country is expensive or impossible. The hospitals here in Kharkiv are constantly out of critical medications, of which insulin has been a constant need. That’s why our doctor friend in Lviv helped source the largest batch of insulin to date — several hundred one-month injectors — and we’ve been dutifully watching the temperature on the refrigeration unit for the last two days. The scariest times are when we had to open the truck to unload the other cold storage supplies we brought with us — fresh veggies, yogurt and milk — and the outdoor heat would rush in. Thankfully, we managed to keep the temperature from spiking above 15 and happily delivered the insulin, along with many other medical supplies, to the main hospital here yesterday. We also offloaded a couple hundred kg of support into SUVs bound for the front lines, including the remaining combat tourniquets.

After two days of driving, I’m finding myself drained. I’m not the only one. On the ground, the ceaseless adrenaline of the first month has yielded to an uneasy new calm for the Ukrainians here. People have returned to jobs and their families, and behind the front lines live relatively normal lives, albeit often in a new city. The stalemate at the front has become a form of background anxiety for everyone here, much like I imagine it has felt living in many places in the past during wartime. Most everyone has friends or family at the front, and every once in a while the news is punctuated by unexpected developments, like this week’s rocket attack in Vinnytsia. But for the most part, in places even this close to the fighting, people are out again, playing sports again, dating again, and getting speeding tickets again.

Which means the economy is back again. When I first came to the border, even basic supplies were proving impossible to find in Kharkiv and elsewhere in the east, and we would work for weeks, with over a hundred volunteers, to get a single 20-ton truck of food aid out here. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and thousands were living in the Kharkiv metro, living off of donated food. Now, it’s possible for most people to buy the food they need here and most displaced persons have found temporary homes with friends or family here or abroad. The economic shock of closing supply chains has lessened: Even truck lines at the border have returned to manageable levels. And donations have been pouring in for months, which means the warehouses in the west are stocked with medicine, clothes, food, and hygiene products. The effort and cost of obtaining and moving a couple hundred kilos of humanitarian aid — when it’s not lifesaving medication that can’t be gotten anywhere else — just isn’t worth it in many cases, which is why we have become a lot more selective about what we spend our efforts on to make sure it goes to where help is needed.

And where the help is needed, still, is at the front or near the front lines, where commercial routes are still struggling and villagers are either trapped by the advancing enemy or recently de-occupied. That is why I’m going to be refocusing my efforts on transport and supply to these hard hit regions through the network of front line drivers I’ve built over the last few months, and spending most of your donations on funding these trips, in a country where gas is somewhat available again but prohibitively expensive. Your ongoing support is appreciated and I will continue to keep you posted on our progress.

Thank you as always for your ongoing support of the Ukrainian people!

July 17, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Zhytomyr

From Zhytomyr

After a couple false starts involving bum paperwork and a particularly ornery Polish border officer, I’ve finally crossed into Ukraine and made my first delivery drop of the week in this sleepy town about two hours west of Kyiv. My new truck carries at least 8 pallets although under the weight of almost 2,000 kilos it was running a bit overloaded and sluggish — something that has not boded well for many of my driver friends here. Fortunately, the roads west of Kyiv are still pretty good so I didn’t encounter any car trouble.

Not meaning to offend the locals, this is one of those towns that I would never visit under normal circumstances. That said, it has been a major delivery point for our aid efforts, given the relationship between the Catholic Church here and the Mexican-Jewish NGO, Cadena. I’ve helped organize at least 30 pallets of shipments here so it was nice to finally meet the folks we’ve been helping. One of the running jokes we’ve shared with the Ukrainians is how many thousands of tortillas we’ve brought into this country unaccompanied by any salsa, guacamole or cheese — those will have to wait until we open our taqueria after the war.

For the last couple days, I’ve also gotten to play Santa Claus with the suitcase of 250 military-grade CAT combat tourniquets I brought with me, handing them out to volunteer drivers bound for front line soldiers and field hospitals. They’re a hot commodity and I’m doing my best to spread the love, but it isn’t enough. Calls for medical aid from tourniquets to IV catheters to even flu tabs have reached fever pitch. We’re working on a major shipment of insulin right now which has be taken in a refrigerated transport across 900 kilometers in the middle of summer.

The more we improve our ground operations — and they do really run efficiently — the more frustrating European bureaucracy has gotten. At least in Ukraine, you can usually grease the wheels for twenty bucks or a pack of cigarettes. The Europeans, on the other hand, seem to have a pathological addiction to red tape, and I fear it’s killing almost as many Ukrainians as the Russians are. These tourniquets I’m handing out now took two months to get into the country because they were held up in Polish customs for weeks. Another medical shipment we sent from the states was sent back, and is only now on its way to Lviv via an alternate route.

I’ve been in and around humanitarian efforts here since the first weeks of the war and I don’t know anyone who has successfully established a medical supply route. The best that anyone has come up with is sending volunteers to fly over with checked bags, which is grossly ineffective and horribly expensive. I just today found out that there’s one company that does it, but you have to break large shipments into smaller shipments. I’m going to reach out to them tomorrow to find out the deal, because there’s several pallets of aid we’re trying to move from Chicago…fingers crossed.

In the meantime, the work continues. Several orgs are successfully bringing in food aid right now, and there are plenty of drivers to take it. We’ve established an efficient communication network with good trust protocols (and believe it or not, burn protocols). There are so many individuals and groups working on the ground here, and it feels like I meet a new one every day. Ultimately, though, no matter what logo you’re representing, when you’re on the open road it’s just you and your truck, preferably with a good soundtrack (“Highway to Hell” always a good starting song).

Keep the donations coming. Every penny is being spent on food aid, medicine or diesel. You also helped buy an ambulance which crossed the border last week, and two water filtration systems for the city of Mykolaiv. Thank you.

July 10, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Newark

From Newark

I’m at the airport awaiting my connecting flight to Zurich. This time tomorrow I’ll be in Warsaw, and the day after, if all goes to plan, I’ll be back in Ukraine.

It has occurred to me how much has changed since I first flew out at the beginning of April. Then, Covid restrictions were still the norm, whereas now I don’t have to test or wear a mask anymore to get on a flight. The first day I was in Warsaw, snow covered the ground and it was below freezing all the way to Lviv. Now I hear summer temperatures have reached 35 degrees. When I first arrived at the border, the war was front page news everywhere in the world, and it was the most important thing that mattered to Americans no matter what their political leanings. Now, everything from the Supreme Court to economic worries have clouded our collective purpose and dragged us back into partisan bickering among ourselves.

But though it is 4 months later, the war is still on. The looming threat of death, imprisonment or occupation by foreign invaders is the one constant fear that every Ukrainian wakes up with every day and goes to sleep with every night. The importance of this war to the global order has not diminished.

Today is the 4th of July, and it is fitting that on the day we as Americans celebrate one country ridding itself of the yolk of tyranny, we have all but lost the will to defend another country struggling under the same predicament.

I’m not oblivious or insensitive to the real problems facing our country right now, but no matter what my country does wrong, I have always felt more proud of what we get right. Usually on July 4th, in between the barbecues and fireworks I will reflect on how lucky I am to be an American and all the privilege that comes with being able to call the US my home. I’ve also always felt that along with this privilege there is a responsibility we all have to help others defend their own freedoms, not just here but abroad as well. That’s why I am spending today not at a barbecue but at an airport, and I’m spending tonight not watching fireworks but flying a checked bag of tourniquets into Ukraine.

I just re-read the Declaration of Independence, a document whose words are as timeless as its principles. In addition to the ones everyone knows and will be quoted verbatim today, there’s one line that is resonating with me most today, as the Ukrainians are watching their country being chewed up piecemeal and their pleas for aid have fallen on increasingly deaf ears:

“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

Vladimir Putin is unfit to be the ruler of a free people, and if we don’t stop him today, no one will stop him tomorrow. This is, and continues to be, the fight for freedom of our time. That’s why, for me, to paraphrase a now-classic speech from the movie Independence Day, today is not just an American holiday, but a day when we all must celebrate and reaffirm freedom from oppression wherever it exists.

That’s why I’m proud to be going back, and I thank you as always for your support. I will send updates soon, and if you want to help our continuing efforts on the ground please donate now at

Happy Fourth, and Слава Україні!

July 4, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More