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From Lviv

From Lviv

May 8, 2022 5:29 amComments are Disabled

Sometime around 2:10am in the morning last night, as air raid sirens were blaring in Lviv along with almost every other region in the country, I found myself asking myself the same question that Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher asked when she found herself watching Scottish festival games in The CrownWhat on earth am I doing here?

The truth is, although part of my mission here is tactical — I’ve been touring warehouses, and meeting and breaking bread with our partners on the ground who receive our humanitarian shipments and speed them on to Kharkiv and elsewhere — there’s a deeper, more meaningful reason I am writing to you from a coffee shop in central Lviv during a period of high alert right before Putin’s “Victory Day” celebrations.

I want to remember what we’re fighting for.

Since my last visit here a month ago, I’ve been on opposite sides of the world and in opposite worlds. Only a week ago I was soaking up the sun in Southern California, eating in fine restaurants and seeing old friends, blissfully detached from the daily pain and suffering of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. I had the luxury of removing myself from the heat and fear of conflict, a luxury that so few Ukrainians have, even when they are thousands of miles away.

During this time, I had many sleepless nights regretting I was not meeting my basic obligations to this cause. When I had a chance to order more supplies and raise money and arrange their shipment from abroad, I’m ashamed to say I did not. Now I am back, and the failures of those weeks haunt me. How many lives could have been saved if I had rallied my doctor friends to assemble the medical parts list I had sitting in my email drafts for over a week? How many more kilos of food could we have gotten to needy children trapped in underground bunkers?

Ship times of 2-3 weeks to Poland are common, and I remember a month ago thinking that it was too slow — that the war might even be over by then. But the truth is, I don’t see how this war ends any time soon, and I should have been thinking further ahead.

Tomorrow, during Russia’s World War II Victory Day celebrations, my best guess is that Putin is going to announce a major escalation of hostilities, including direct threats on this beloved jewel of a city in western Ukraine that has become a symbol of hope and defiance.

Even today, Lviv is a vibrant, cosmopolitain city, and in my opinion, has one of the most beautiful city centers in the world. You walk down cobblestone streets lined with outdoor cafes and Gothic revival architecture: churches, museums, theaters, grand hotels, plazas with statues of old war heroes on horseback. Young people crowd the streets, laughing and dancing and playing live music, defiantly standing up to daily government warnings to stay inside (although I hear that it’s much less crowded this weekend than it is on a typical weekend).

There are juice bars and electric scooters and all the cafes have paper straws. There’s a cyberpunk culture and a gay scene and yellow trams rumbling by every 5 minutes. If you didn’t know there was a war, you wouldn’t know from being in the streets, except for an air raid siren going off every 6-8 hours and people meandering casually to the nearest shelter. And, of course, the soldiers everywhere, lending the city an eerie dread that might have been familiar during the last major war in Europe.

Although this city typically has around 700,000 residents, these days the population has swelled to over 1.5 million. Although most (non-fighting-age-men) here are able to leave, many don’t. And those that stay are living their normal lives, working their normal jobs with the backdrop of this horrible war that was brought upon them. At least they have created a new normal with curfew and restrictions on many common goods, and life goes on.

During an air raid siren yesterday, my dentist friend was in the middle of surgery. Like most residents here, he has learned to reflexively ignore the sirens, probably with the same indifference Americans tune out the latest outrages on cable news. “If there are explosions, then I will go” someone said to another friend of mine in the refugee center. Speaking from experience, when it’s 2am, you don’t really want to get out of your warm bed, get dressed and huddle in a freezing basement.

I experienced my first air raid within 30 seconds of being handed my hotel key. The receptionist made an announcement over the PA system, and before I had even checked in, she led me from the lobby to the bomb shelter across the street where we joined another 50 locals who strolled in. As I found out from my territorial defense friends during the raid, the sirens were going off everywhere in Ukraine due to a scramble of jets from the Black Sea. You never really know where the rockets will hit or how bad it will be, and cruise missiles even can be redirected. So you wait and you hope that this time, it isn’t you. We waited in that shelter, until my as-yet-uncharged phone reached 2% battery, and then were given the all clear to go upstairs.

The people of Bilohorivka weren’t so lucky.

The Ukrainians I have befriended here have universally adopted a characteristic callous humor about the daily dread imposed by imminent Russian threats. “If it’s a nuke, we’ll be dead anyway,” one said. “This could be psychological warfare…or not ;)” texted another. And if my last 24 hours are any indication, the “new normal” here involves gritting through routines with a cloud of anxiety hanging over everything, although even for me this has faded into the background. My new friends and I were able to enjoy ribs last night over beer and intellectual table conversation. I can see that living here is tolerable, for the millions of locals, refugees and expats volunteering in hundreds of makeshift refugee shelters and help sites. For many other parts of Ukraine, the shelling is constant, and the daily threat unbearable.

For those people, especially those in Kharkiv, Sumy, Donbas, and elsewhere in the east of the country, we can’t do anything about the Russian shelling but we can help provide humanitarian aid where it’s needed. With that in mind, let’s talk about the progress of our relief efforts.

I had an opportunity to tour our Lviv warehouse today, and survey the successful delivery of our last shipment, along with the foodstuffs available for purchase from the commercial importers. As a reminder, we make every effort to purchase food aid from legitimate commercial wholesalers in Ukraine, to keep the money and jobs in the economy. It doesn’t hurt that locally grown food is also cheaper, although this is changing now as well with massive fuel shortages.

There’s another element that is shaking up commercial shipping: a new benefit the Ukrainian government just imposed that allows for the importation of vehicles from abroad tax-free. The natural consequence of this policy change has been miles-long lines of imports waiting to cross the border into Ukraine from Poland, which I’ve seen in the last couple days. These imports are clogging up the customs lanes, with the unintended consequence of holding up normal commercial trucks for days on end. Combining this from the near universal unavailability of gasoline and long fueling lines at the few stations with supply, I suppose that prices are spiking everywhere and shortages are common.

This is what makes the work we do importing food and medicine from Poland even more important, especially now, when the urgency of the Ukraine War has taken a backseat to Roe v. Wade and other issues of the day across the world.

By next Tuesday, 40,000 people will be completely out of food.

My partners here tell me that 400 metric tons of food were donated in the first weeks of the war, and their food distribution center in Kharkiv has become the one most depended on by thousands of families without means every single day. Now, donations have dried up, both aid and cash. In fact, the only major food coming in to contribute to this effort right now is from our imports, and by next Tuesday, 40,000 people will be completely out of food.

So, the donations have stopped, and the supplies have dried up, and people will start starving if we don’t help them. That’s why what we’re doing is so urgent, and why I’m asking you to donate again, even if you have already. Lives depend on it.

I ask you to please donate, and if you have donated already, please donate again. The easiest way to send money is via Venmo or PayPal @bmmayer, as we’re still setting up our charitable accounts. Or you can send Bitcoin to 14GNoNvHXdTzFkPNgsWeW9gpQmavkQowki.

We also have a tax-deductible option via wire transfer — please email me directly and I will let you know the details.

Your donations will enable to constant flow of food and medicine to Kharkiv and elsewhere, where it is most desperately needed.

Thank you so much in advance, Happy Mothers’ Day and Слава Україні!

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