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From Warsaw

From Warsaw

April 3, 2022 7:31 pmComments are Disabled

I’m beginning to viscerally understand the reality that so many before me have learned since time immemorial: finding stuff you need during a war is hard.

It’s not just the difficulty of procuring military equipment that always seems to be in short supply. There’s a speed at which basic everyday goods are destroyed during conflict for which even the most perfect supply lines aren’t efficient. Homes can’t be built, food can’t be grown, arms can’t be mended, and cars can’t be manufactured in quantities anywhere close to the rate at which they are destroyed. Every bomb that destroys a hospital or a warehouse or a house is creating aftershocks far beyond the initial devastation and pain — and those aftershocks are, even a month after the Russian invasion — emptying shelves in towns all across Europe and beyond, driving up prices and making procurement of critical goods impossible. Of course, it is always the most critical goods that are gone the fastest. Try finding tourniquets in bulk right now, or bullet proof vests, or Jeeps within 1000km of the border…you’ll get the idea (and, if you can find any of these PLEASE tell me).

This is why I am 2 days into volunteering for this effort and I’m getting texts from Lviv to Kharkiv asking me for help sourcing everything from food to equipment to medicine to everything in between. Kharkiv is one of the hardest hit cities and refugees pouring over the border were telling me yesterday that 70-90% of the city has been destroyed already. Every kitchen and pantry in rubble is a family that needs food; every hospital in rubble is a slew of patients that need medicine. From what I gather, civilian volunteer groups all across Ukraine are begging their counterparts in Poland, Romania and elsewhere in Europe for help and almost none of the effort is working through official channels. Now, of course there is an official effort of course organized by governments and their militaries — but what I’m seeing is that, on the ground, this war is being fought and won by the volunteers, which is every single person and structure and vehicle and piece of equipment and dollar (hryvnia?) in the country. Putin thinks he’s facing an army of 250,000. He’s facing an army of 44 million.

I’m also learning intimately about the fog of war. Even in today’s hyperconnected world, where I’m getting information directly from the front faster than most folks at home are seeing it on the news, you never can be entirely sure who you’re talking to or whether or not they are for real. I’ve only gone through trusted sources (friends of friends of friends…) and I can safely hope that the massive humanitarian package I’m delivering to the border tomorrow will be safely shepherded across Ukraine to Kharkiv to aid the hardest hit victims there…but you never know for sure.

Everyone I’m talking to or about inside and outside Ukraine right now is “a guy” — a guy who runs a civilian brigade, a guy who picks up packages at the border for delivery, a guy who serves in an artillery unit who needs equipment, a guy who finds used cars in Europe to send to the front, a guy in Poland who fronts the money for the cars and finds drivers, a guy running a daily rescue convoy to Lviv, a guy who builds DIY drones…and all of these guys are acting voluntarily and with great common cause, working through informal networks of friends and countrymen, volunteers and military liaisons. I don’t know the last names or even Facebook profiles of most of the people I’m trying to help. I just know that they need help, and until I was actually here, I don’t think it would have been possible to understand the scale of the need and the complexity of the problems.

One example: when the war broke out, Ukraine apparently forbid the banks from allowing money to leave the country, which might seem like a sensible solution. But the result is that many essential supplies inside of Ukraine quickly ran out and Ukrainians couldn’t move money to Europe to pay for replacements. Even now, there are Ukrainians pooling money to buy expensive (and critical) thermal detection drones and other military equipment and have the money but can’t use it. I understand that now PayPal and some other P2P solutions work in a limited fashion, but it still isn’t nearly the same as allowing bigger bank-to-bank transfers. (I’m speaking with one of my ‘guys’ now about how to get Bitcoin bought in Ukraine, sent over, converted to Zloty and used to purchase goods in Poland. If you have any ideas please let me know.)

Another example: the entire Ukraine economy will collapse if shops can’t re-open and sell goods. This is made impossible when goods are donated instead and provide impossible competition. We don’t want to hamper Ukraine when it needs recovery most, so we have to be careful that the humanitarian aid we send is only sent to volunteer groups serving the people most in need — not the folks with money who can afford to buy from stores (yes, stores are still open in many parts of the country especially in the west).

So this is all the stuff I’m learning in between playing the role of an Uber XL driver, which I pulled off successfully today. I woke this morning in Przemysl late — we all did, having been working at the train station until 1am the night before — and made it back to the train station around noon, where there was a throng of refugees waiting for bus and train tickets to their next destination. It didn’t take long to find some people who needed to go to Warsaw, but it did take long to load them all into the van with their luggage, between finding out where they were going (only one of them spoke English) and having two young kids in the group. We finally loaded up and hit the road.

The mother of two young daughters spoke very good English, was well dressed, and, as I would learn later, was very well traveled, whereas the single woman with a cat spoke no English, smelled heavily of cigarettes, bought a beer for the road, and I suspect it was one of the only times she had left the country. The (cultural? class?) gap between these two women could not have been further apart, and it occurred to me that, absent this extraordinary situation, they probably would never run in the same circles let alone share a 6 hour car ride together. Travel makes strange bedfellows indeed.

We drove in silence for almost 2 hours (most of them were sleeping, and all of them were exhausted) before the teenage boy in the back noticed my “open door” alert was on. That’s when I learned that he spoke English too. When I asked him where he was from he said “Ukraine” and when I said “which city” he looked down and didn’t answer. I stopped asking questions after that.

After another hour, we pulled into a mall in Lublin, Poland where Jonathan and I had loaded up on supplies the day before. They used the toilet and the grocery store was open so we bought some food. After Lublin, my English-speaking passenger — soon to be a new friend — started telling me about their story. She, her daughters and her mother and law (who was sitting next to me in the front seat) left Odessa the night before, after deciding it was too risky for the girls to stay in the country. Her husband and her parents stayed behind. This morning, six bombs hit a factory or oil refinery outside Odessa. The main city is safe for now, but no one knows how long that will last.

The mother and teenage son were a different story that I couldn’t quite piece together. He had come from Israel through Ukraine, where he apparently had four brothers. However, he didn’t speak a word of Hebrew, and the mother evidently did speak a few words. She asked if I could take them back to the border later this week — and I don’t exactly know what they needed to do in Warsaw, or if both of them or just she is coming back.

The single woman with the cat didn’t speak a word of English and all I know is that we dropped her at the airport and we met her sister, to whom the cat apparently belonged, and her niece. I don’t know where she was going or where she came from.

This is all to say that every refugee has a different story, and you never know what they have seen on their long journey. You want to know, but they don’t always want to tell you. And some of them really want to tell you everything. My new friend and her family are going to England to settle with a host family, and we exchanged Instagram profiles. I hope I can host them in New York someday. The others I probably will never see again.

My original plan when I came here was to use Warsaw as a home base and move supplies to the border and people back. From my first round trip effort, I’m learning that moving people back is certainly the most rewarding, but supplies are far more effective. I could move, like I did today, 7 people every day and it would take me decades to make a dent in the refugee crisis. Besides, there are much larger and cheaper people moving alternatives, so I decided that I will happily carry refugees on the way back from supply runs (there will always be folks who need transport) but I will not make refugee carry the main purpose of my trip.

Which brings me back to square one: supplies, supplies, supplies. I am assembling an authoritative list of what is needed right now, and if you have any leads or can help in any way, please let me know ASAP since I am in a position to line up assistance while I’m here.

You can DONATE now and we will get these transported to Kharkiv and other hard hit areas:

  • Grains, pasta, flour, canned foods
  • Tea, coffee, cookies
  • Pampers, toothpaste, tooth brushes, wet wipes, liquid soap, shower gel, shampoo, sanitary pads
  • Sweets and toys for children
  • Water
  • OTC medicines

We need help sourcing these to Europe but can pay for them so please reach out if you have LEADS:

  • Painkillers (injections), blood-stopping medications, insulin, hormones, anti-shock (adrenaline), antibiotics
  • Tourniquets, cardio meds, bandages, medical dressing
  • Power banks
  • Travel pillows
  • Eye masks
  • Foldable duffel bags

Defense forces support — everything here is hard to get *and* expensive…if you have any LEADS or want to DONATE please let me know:

  • Drones
  • Used SUVs or Jeeps
  • Helmets
  • Bulletproof vests
  • Android tablets

It’s important to emphasize again that NEARLY THIS ENTIRE EFFORT IS VOLUNTEER DRIVEN. I haven’t encountered a single “official” NGO yet — not World Food Program, not Doctors Beyond Borders, not Save the Children, not International Red Cross — I know they’re operating and I’m sure they’re doing great work and there are lots of makeshift refugee camps sprung up all over, but the major need right now is not taking care of or transporting refugees, it’s getting goods into Ukraine, and even if every NGO is operating at full capacity, it isn’t enough for what Ukrainians need right now. We have to support an entire country’s economy that isn’t supporting itself — and that means getting supply runs up and running, funded by donors and run by volunteers. It has to be volunteers because money isn’t flowing easily right now so normal market mechanisms are broken.

You can donate directly to me on Venmo: @bmmayer, I will continue to post on my Instagram on how the money is being used, 100% will go towards the goods above, refugee transfer and resettlement, and transport costs, and if you want to earmark your donation for humanitarian needs *only* please specify that, because otherwise we are not differentiating types of need, just prioritizing them.

I can’t thank you all enough for your donations so far, and although we have more than enough money at the moment (only spent around 20% of what has been donated so far), this may change. Regardless, every penny will be spent on supporting refugees or getting supplies into Ukraine, and I will provide full transparency in future reports. For now, you’ll just have to trust me and let me be your “Ukraine guy.”

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