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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 Lviv

From Lviv

I’m back in Ukraine.

In the last few weeks, my work here has become a full time job, on top of the day job I already have. Doing the first from 8am-3pm and the second from 3pm-midnight has left me little time to write. Now I find myself in a relatively quiet spot on a relatively quiet weekend to jot down some thoughts.

There’s a conventional wisdom in military life that routine is important and necessary for success, and I’m getting a real firsthand lesson. As one of my ex-military colleagues here (two tours Afghanistan, one tour Bosnia, one tour Somalia) tells me, the adrenaline wears off in the first couple days, and at that point you “mellow out” which I can now feel happening to me. Although the missions I’m running are becoming increasingly more dangerous, things that felt risky only a month ago seem now to be rather banal. At the same time, the routine I’ve developed — logistics and supply in the morning, my day job at night, and a solid 8 hours of sleep — has kept me grounded and productive even while the situation here becomes more chaotic.

One of the Canadian expats I’ve done a couple missions with over here is part of a group we fondly refer to as the “Eh Team.” A beer brewer back home, he has been driving thousands of kilometers across Europe and Ukraine for extraction and supply missions. He’s also a tall, stout man with an intimidating beard and an encyclopedic knowledge of history. He and I got to talking the other night in Przemysl about how often we cry, and over what things. The most recent thing that got him was learning that due to lack of basic tetanus medication, simple flesh wounds are now being treated in the field with full arm amputations. This is confirmed by reports of the number of amputees coming out of Donetsk and Mariupol that need extraction. Right now, my Canadian friend is on his way to Italy driving a boy with cancer and his family to a safe place for treatment, hopefully listening to the podcast I recommended to him.

A Scottish guy (bloke?) I met at the same pub that night is here with his mom. He has a key chain with five car keys — his van and car in Ukraine, his van and car in Poland, and his car back home. A Pole I met grew up in the UK and is working with a trade union to send supplies to their comrades across the border. I’m working with two teams of drivers here — a British girl with a Gaelic name who is working to supply soldiers on the front lines with basics (toothbrushes, towels, etc) and a Danish girl who has a 5-man drive team doing extractions and supply runs to the far east. Two of her team are medics, and they have intel connections in the military to plot safe driving routes cleared of Russian activity. A Californian ex-pro surfer, now in real estate, is staying in a flat in Lviv and is now running regular missions to Kyiv, Kharkiv and elsewhere with his Ukrainian girlfriend, a police cadet who first mistranslated her occupation as “Baby Police,” a joke we’re having fun with. By far my favorite colleague in the last month has been a Scottish film logistics coordinator who has a gift for gab, a larger than life personality, and a work ethic to match — she drove 7 cross-border missions in just one week, at one point crossing the border twice in one day. She has selfies with all her favorite border guards.

Our saving grace this month came in the form of a direct descendant of a famous European composer and looks just like him (not giving internet sleuths anything else). He showed up in Przemysl with 80 pallets of humanitarian aid donated by an Italian NGO and absolutely no instructions or equipment to get it the last leg of the journey into Ukraine. We’ve partnered with him and his team to transport over 60 pallets of his supplies so far to various destinations in Ukraine: an orphanage, a refugee center, our warehouse in Kharkiv, and another Kharkiv aid office. The two warehouses they are storing their stuff in looks like an Eataly with Nutella, Biscotti, and many other famous Italian brands. We’ll be sending the remaining goods to front line soldiers and a church in Odessa.

We also ran a mission for SSF, transporting large 30 suitcases of concierge medical treatments for survivors of Mariupol and Donbas. By far the most rewarding mission we’ve done so far was to bring 2 pallets of toys and candy and chocolate to an orphanage in Lviv. The children came out to help us carry the boxes in, and we had great fun with these eager little laborers. One of the Italians got her hair braided.

And of course, every time we come across the border now we bring 200-400L of diesel, since none of the supply missions in Ukraine are possible without it, and the gas stations are all out. I’ve started getting texts from strange Ukrainian numbers asking me if I could import fuel for them, at a price of course. I won’t be doing that, even at cost — since everything I do has to be humanitarian only, I’m only importing diesel for our driver networks to run supplies. It is frustrating, however, that the main cause of gas shortages the Ukrainian government itself imposing price caps. I guess I know now how smugglers get started.

There’s no question that I’ve become “established” here, and may even be developing a reputation. I’m frequently fielding requests now that are becoming increasingly difficult to manage, and some of which I may not be able to help at all. But I’m doing what I can. Keeping all the available vehicles, supply needs, border crossings and meetup times in my head is becoming a full time job. Everything here is volunteer coordinated, and volunteers frequently disappear and appear from all over the world.

We found out at a presentation from a local NGO that 12 million Ukrainians are now internally displaced. Unlike those displaced persons abroad, internally displaced persons have no easy access to food or medicine. There is little commercial availability of goods and grocery shelves in the east are empty. In the most dangerous parts of the country, the only way to get supplies is through volunteer driver teams, most of them Ukrainians who risk their lives to bring food to loved ones trapped near or behind enemy lines. Since Russia pulled back from Kharkiv, we thought the humanitarian need would be less. It’s greater.

Thanksfully, we successfully got a 10-ton truck to our Kharkiv warehouse this week, after almost a month of nonstop labor from over 30 nameless volunteers from all over the world. The food on this truck will feed the people of the Kharkiv region for maybe a week or two more, before we will have to send another. So far, in May, we’ve spent $1,617.92 on aid, and $1,583.71 on transport costs (mostly fuel). Note that most of the work we’ve done has been transport of existing supply caches, which is where most of the need is right now. The diesel alone to get the 10-ton truck across the country to Kharkiv costs $1,300.

Which is to say, we need more support. Your donations are helping a lot. We have a new Venmo now, @ukraineaidinternational, tied to our tax deductible bank, so please send more if you can.

Thank you all for your support.

May 22, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Lviv

From Lviv

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!

May 8, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Dubiecko

From Dubiecko

In one of his most memorable keynotes, Steve Jobs once told the graduates of Stanford University “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

I’m thinking about this because I’m back in Europe again, and it’s all because I cofounded a tech company in Chicago in 2008.

There, we met and brought on as one of our advisors Biju Kulathakal, an investor who, 14 years later in April 2022, posted on LinkedIn that he was in Poland looking for ways to support Ukraine refugees. I happened to see the post and reached out, we had a call, and now I’m working with him and his firm to establish a permanent humanitarian mission to help Ukrainian refugees. As he and his team race to set up the nonprofit legal and fundraising machinery, I’m on the Ukraine/Poland border managing our supply chain.

And today, with only $5,000 in initial donations, we procured 5.5 metric tons (over 12,000 pounds!) of food aid for our friends in Kharkiv, including fresh cabbage and carrots, which are desperately needed there right now. The food is being stored in the Lviv warehouse right now, and will be en route to Kharkiv by this weekend.

For the curious, this shipment contains 2 tons of carrots, 2 tons of cabbage, 750kg of rice, 200kg of pasta, 960 cans of tuna (170g each), 200kg of sugar, 100kg of salt, and 5000 tea bags. Pretty incredible volume of food that I got a good picture of as we were loading this morning.

Last time, I was a new volunteer working full time and scrambling to figure out how things work here. Now, I’m an old hand, and much more efficient in everything from sourcing supplies to crossing the border. This morning, I met my Ukrainian counterparts for our handoff only 20 minutes later than expected, which is a miracle considering a typical border crossing can take 5-7 hours here (I also have some tricks up my sleeve which I’m not eager to publicize).

I also had the opportunity to witness the multi-km-long line of cars waiting to cross into Ukraine from the Poland side, which I hadn’t seen before. My friend told me that this particular border crossing is one of the few that’s now allowing cars to be imported (as in, brought in permanently with the correct registration), which explained the line. It was almost at a standstill.

After the supply dropoff this morning, I drove back to the train station at Przemysl to meet some of the new volunteers, one of whom I had a long conversation with. She works in DC and is living at the border helping coordinate refugee resettlement with friends + family funds. Like so many out of towners here, she just decided to fly in and help with no plan, and has worked so hard to help as many people as possible. It’s incredible to me that the entire operation at the Przemysl is volunteer driven with almost no central coordination, and yet somehow it all works.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that there were slightly more services available to refugees getting off the trains than there were last month (for example, free phone cards), and there were two ticket windows open this time as opposed to just the one. But in general the government is still quite limited in terms of involvement, and thousands of people still pour across this particular border every day. And that isn’t to mention the thousands who are stuck or stranded in Ukraine, especially the mostly elderly and children of Kharkiv who desperately need help.

Quite simply, the people of Ukraine who have been most victimized by this war can’t get the humanitarian aid they need without help.

Which brings us to you, our donors.

We’re back, and this time we’re scaling our operation. The organization we’re working with is supporting 15,000 homeless families in Kharkiv right now, which at 3 people per family and 300 grams of daily food needed per person is 13.5 kilotons of food needed every day, or about 100 kilotons per week. We hope to supply at least 10% of these needs with 10 kiloton shipments to start, scaling as we go to account for the evolving needs on the ground.

For $20,000 we can arrange one 10 kiloton shipment with the right nutritional balance of grains, meat, fresh produce, tea and snacks including transport and storage fees.

For $20,000, we can provide 10,000 people who have been made homeless by war a hot meal.

For $20,000, you can save lives.

When you donate, you are directly funding this effort. So please reach out if you want to donate — your donations will be tax deductible this time!! — and we will set up a website soon to make it even easier.

Also please reach out if you can help source any of the supplies listed in my previous posts. We have many shipments coming into our Przemysl warehouse now of medicine and other supplies, and for this I am eternally grateful.

May 5, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From New York City

From New York City

I’m finally back in NYC and after a couple days of returning back to “normal,” including catching up at my day job and taking some R&R, I’m ready and excited to tell you about the next phase of our fledgling operation on the ground in Ukraine and Poland.

First off, let me profusely thank each and every one of you who donated. Over the last two weeks, you all donated $23,172.12, of which every single penny has been spent as follows.

  • $10,876.22 on humanitarian aid for Ukrainians in Kharkiv, Lviv, and Sumy including food, diapers, sanitary supplies, and basic clothing
  • $4,870.18 on defense support for Ukrainians serving in the volunteer Territorial Defenses corps: helmets and temporary shelters
  • $2,686.11 on refugee relief at the border, giving Ukrainians traveling 6+ days with suitcases and power banks, and priceless hugs and emotional support
  • $2,397.90 on medical aid, sending tourniquets, lifesaving medications in short supply and first aid kits to Sumy, Donbass and Kharkiv
  • $1,734.77 on refugee + supply transport, personally resettling 15 refugees including one very old blind man and his wife who we reunited with their family in Brussels
  • $433.00 on storage, namely our new warehouse in Przemysl to empower more efficient transport with our new supply routes
  • $173.95 on fees, currency conversion and other

We also have received some heartwarming photos of families in Kharkiv who have received our food aid — taken on the front lines in the east. Many of the people receiving our food aid are homeless or elderly, in a city that has perpetual food shortages due to lack of reliable commercial shipping. Sharing this with permission.

It doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but it has made such a difference. We’ve managed to ship over 8 metric tons of food aid so far, and helped protect volunteer defenders from harm. We’ve supported refugees and their families, and continue to coordinate with logistics operations on the ground to ensure critical support is received by the people who need it most.

This is all due to your generous donations, and I can’t thank you enough.

So, where do we go from here? Reliable sources tell us that the war is not letting up, and only getting worse. I’m sure you’ve seen the news that both Russians and Ukrainians are preparing for a long war. This means more people killed and hurt, and more people in need of support.

The good news is, I’ve spent the last week planning our next steps, and I’m excited to share them with you all.

  1. First, on the funding side, we are establishing a 501(c)(3) to allow us to continue raising donations from more people and expand our operations. I’ve been speaking with one US-based partner in particular who is excited to work together on fundraising and establishing a legal structure for our efforts. More on this soon.
  2. Second, I’ve been working with, and continue to partner with some new friends from the UK who have been active on the border since the first days of the war, and who recently launched the Kharkiv-Przemysl Project to organize their efforts on the ground. They will be our primary points of contact at the border, helping to coordinate supply drop-offs at our warehouse and pickups to Ukraine. If you want to donate, this is the best place to do it for now and we will make sure that it gets spent transparently and effectively.
  3. Third, I myself am planning another trip back to the border in May, and I appreciate your support in advance and look forward to sending regular updates when I’m back.

Until then, thank you again for all your donations so far and helping support and protect Ukrainian civilians. I’ll be in touch soon with more updates.

Слава Україні.

April 17, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From 30,000 Feet

From 30,000 Feet

I’m writing to you from a physical and metaphorical distance that finally is giving me the opportunity to think about what I’ve seen in the past week on the ground in Ukraine and on the border in Poland. I can already say with confidence that this has been one of the most impactful and eye-opening experiences of my life.

For one, I finally understand a facet of human history that I haven’t ever been able to before. I obviously was not on the front, but even spending a short amount of time with people so close to the ever present danger of bombardment, and being so intimately connected with the efforts of a terrorized populace as they try to fight back in any way they can, the unspoken, fuzzy backdrop of so much of our literature and history and cultural memory is finally materializing into something real in my mind.

I understand war now in a way I never have before.

I have now seen first hand how totalizing war is on every thought in your being, that even when you are far back from the front and resting, or taking a minute to enjoy coffee with friends in between supply missions, it’s always in the back of your head. I’ve seen dentists and lawyers and truck drivers and civil engineers and software programmers drop everything in their day to day lives and work together to become defenders of their people without a thought to their safety or livelihood. I’ve felt the rush of adrenaline that keeps you awake for days on end and sharpens your thinking and memory and response time. Faced with such calamity — even second hand — there’s a feeling of urgency that overrides literally everything else, that keeps you working as hard as you can to help your friends, without a thought to yourself, because you’re scared and you have a hardcoded instinct to do anything it takes to survive. And there’s also the ability to open your soul and share and empathize with the pain of others, to be able to see refugees and veterans as people like you who found themselves in extraordinary situations and emotionally support them and physically comfort them with all your being.

I recall that quote from Robert E. Lee who said “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it,” and I’m ashamed to say there’s a part of me that has relished seeing thousands of people — including myself — operating at 110% of their capacity with a common noble mission, and admires the best parts of humanity that come to the fore when the stakes get so high.

It isn’t a coincidence that on my way to the airport I pulled up the Hamilton soundtrack, and I realized that Hamilton and his friends stealing cannons to use against the British in the American Revolution was exactly what my friends in Lviv were doing when they spent 3 days shopping for SUVs in Europe that they could buy and send to the front lines and raising money to purchase thermal imaging drones to better prepare for inbound enemy advances (WaPo has a story on this nationwide effort to procure drones today). This line in particular in Hamilton I never understood before my time in Ukraine:

You need all the help you can get, I have some friends:
Laurens, Mulligan, Marquis de Lafayette! Okay, what else?
We’ll need some spies on the inside
Some king’s men who might let some things slide
I’ll write to Congress and tell them we need supplies
You rally the guys, master the element of surprise

And now I realize I have now been a part of this very action on the ground. I realize that apart from the “official” movements of troops and political proclamations, wars are fought and won by volunteers working together for a common purpose, and require no official coordination whatsoever. That the American Revolution could have been won by the 18th century equivalent of WhatsApp groups coordinating the delivery of supplies and guns and ships to the front is something that simply never occurred to me, and seems almost obvious in retrospect. France didn’t just sign a piece of paper and send us a navy. Lafayette was Hamilton’s “Paris guy” who rallied the French court on behalf of his friends across the Atlantic and in service of deeper principle, just like so many Americans are doing right now for Ukrainians. Of course the Americans won the Revolutionary War, because their motivation to risk their safety and livelihood and wealth was far greater and more powerful than the most organized military in the world with little material or moral support from the population. This is why the Viet Cong won in Vietnam, and this is why the Taliban took back Afghanistan. And, of course, this is why Ukraine will win this war against Russia decisively.

But now, as I fly away at the rate of one mile every second, I’m realizing with regret that the farther I get from Ukraine, the less visceral the urgency of our mission becomes, and the less real the pain of the refugees at the Przemysl train station feels. I don’t want it to happen, but I feel it happening and I feel guilty about it.

I feel guilty that I am able to just get on a plane and escape with ease, knowing that so many of my Ukrainian brothers and sisters are trapped in a daily horror in which they have no choice but to fight back. And all that adrenaline only lasts so long, and eventually you have to get used to the tragedy of a new normal as you continue to watch your friends and family and countrymen die needless and brutal deaths. That’s a normal that so many of my Ukrainian friends old and new feel right now. The pain of this war will last for decades after the final bomb falls, and the media cycle will eventually fly away just like I am right now. That doesn’t seem right, but I know it will happen just like it has happened for every other human tragedy, and the victims and survivors will learn to persevere. If history tells us anything, the cauldron of this war will forge a new generation of strong, prosperous and visionary leaders who will change the course of humanity. But right now, Ukrainians don’t need praise, or sympathy.

Right now Ukrainians need help.

I listed a couple days ago what the urgent needs are, and I’ve started to work with some friends here to organize our efforts around two main missions: First, supplying Ukrainians trapped in Kharkiv, Mariupol, Donbas, and other hard hit areas with large and growing displaced persons. The needs here are centered on food, medicine, and sanitary needs. The second mission is helping Ukrainian refugees crossing the border get access to travel, shelter, and basic travel necessities. The typical refugee crossing the border has spent 1-2 days in travel already, and has several days left to go. Everything from neck pillows to power banks to rolling suitcases makes a huge difference.

There’s one more mission that we are engaging in, which is to procure critical defensive military aid and ship it to the front. We do not want to participate in the procurement of offensive weapons for obvious reasons, but boots, gloves, helmets, night vision goggles, bulletproof vests, and thermal drones are sorely needed to protect Ukrainian soldiers and civilian fighters and are all in short supply throughout Europe. So we will continue to pursue these opportunities when they come up.

Now, I’m sorry I haven’t updated you all in a couple days, but I’ve been real busy! We got a 4,000kg food shipment assembled in our Lviv warehouse for transit to Kharkiv, and we just paid for another 2,000kg of food, bringing the total amount of humanitarian aid we’ve bought with your donations to 6.75 metric tons in just one week, most of it going all the way to the front. We’re getting more efficient with every shipment. The first was taken over by a friend and had to be rerouted due to bad paperwork, the second I brought over personally, the third was 2x as large and we were able to hand off in no man’s land at a new border crossing. The fourth we were able to buy directly from a warehouse in Lviv, skipping border crossing altogether (although that doesn’t cover a lot of important foodstuffs that we can only get affordably in Poland, so we’ll need to keep doing cross-border shipments).

I’m also happy to report that as of yesterday, we have a new warehouse in Przemysl that we will use to receive shipments from all over the world of donations in kind, and we have our supply routes set up to get these into Ukraine and to the front lines where they’re needed. Our goal is to get the to point where we can organize 20-ton shipments on a weekly basis.

WE WILL NEED YOUR HELP FOR THIS, and please anticipate an email in the next 2-3 days outlining how we’re planning to structure receiving donations (my personal Venmo won’t cut it) and utilizing them, including donations in kind.

In the meantime, I want to thank you all for your donations and words of encouragement and support. Because of you, hundreds of homeless families in eastern Ukraine are eating full meals tonight, and many more thousands will with our future efforts. I am grateful and inspired by the collective spirit and action that has brought us this far, and if I wasn’t convinced before, I am now that the entire world is with Ukraine, even if not everyone can declare it aloud.

More soon from New York. Слава Україні.

April 10, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Warsaw

From Warsaw

Good morning from Warsaw. I took the night off last night, and saw a Ukrainian friend from Lviv who told me her story of leaving with her mom shortly after she woke up to the sound of explosions. She and her mom spent 3 days in their car waiting at the border to cross, which makes the almost 5 hours I spent there sound luxurious.

I also learned last night that Russian speakers in the western part of the country have been getting real rough treatment by Ukrainian speakers since the war started, with “only Ukrainian spoken here” signs in restaurants and — shockingly — physical assaults, including some graphic pictures she showed me of a Russian-speaking friend of hers who was beaten and cut up by Ukrainian nationalists. Though she wants to go back to Ukraine, having Russian ancestry, she’s almost as scared of her neighbors as she is of Russian soldiers. Europe is no picnic for immigrants, either. “I don’t know where to go” she told me.

That was a side of the war I haven’t heard about yet, another layer of complexity whereby the Russian minority in the west is suffering the consequences of Putin’s assault on the east. It will also no doubt throw fuel on the fire of Putin’s lies justifying his invasion of a sovereign nation, to “protect” Russians from Ukrainian “Nazis.” I also learned about Polish and German language products finding their way onto supermarket shelves in the east, likely due to black market dealers who are profiteering off the goodwill of neighbor nations. War is complicated, and really does bring out the worst of humanity in so many ways.

However, as I’ve learned in the last week, war also brings out the best of humanity. I’ve seen tractor drivers collaborating with programmers and civil engineers pooling money from friends and families to procure and transport vehicles to support the war effort, and I’ve seen strangers work together to transport food and medicine and relieve humanitarian needs, often with no relationship to each other and connected in a chain of mutual friends. When something needs to be done, no one yet has asked what’s in it for them, but has unquestioningly sprung into action. We’ve moved mountains in the last week alone just because Ukrainians are united in their dedication to the dream of a sovereign and free Ukraine. No doubt there are political divides, just like there are in any nation. But when confronted with a foreign invader, these political divides fade away and lieu of something more important, and more powerful.

In the 12 hours I’ve been in Warsaw, the adrenaline and intensity of my time on the border has slowly faded away. Here, we are back to the banality of normal life: traffic, grocery stores, ordering an Uber, waiting for a train. But even in Warsaw I haven’t been able to totally disconnect from the border. There’s a giant tent outside the central train station with volunteers serving food to inbound refugees, and in the elevator at my hotel I heard a family speaking Russian, and I asked where they were from. “Mariupol” the mom said.

I think I understand now a little better what it’s like for people who have come from these situations, either as veterans or survivors of war. There’s a part of me right now that feels relieved to be away from it all, and a part of me that’s almost addicted to the adrenaline and wants to go back. Because I know that right now, the urgency I felt to move as fast as possible to help people who are trapped in a city with no access to supply routes is still real and present in Ukraine, even though my physical distance from it makes it seem less urgent.

This is why I am committed to getting at least one more major aid shipment out this week, and we will start in Warsaw with the unattainable grains they can’t get in Ukraine. We’ll get that across the border Sunday, and we’ll load it onto the truck with the food that we can buy Lviv, and send it off to Kharkiv immediately before the Russians cut off the supply route — we heard a rumor that it is happening soon. It’s worth noting that my new friend who’s in my phone only as “Lviv Food Handoff” is risking his life driving to Kharkiv right now to drop off the humanitarian aid we delivered this week as well.

He’s a dentist.

April 8, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Rzeszow

From Rzeszow

I’m back from Ukraine, safely in a cheap hotel about an hour north of the border. I go to Warsaw tomorrow to organize one last major shipment to Lviv before I depart back for New York.

I’m happy to report that our humanitarian aid supply chain is officially up and running! As of today, our first major aid package with 500kg of food is on its way to Kharkiv to assist displaced persons, 70 first aid kits are going to Sumy, and, as a bonus, we were able to deliver 3 night vision goggles which are on their way to the front. I was also honored to participate, but not directly involved in, the delivery of a used SUV last night that will also be sent to the front to be used as a makeshift humvee.

Despite the success of our mission, it was not without its hiccups. I’d like to propose a wartime corollary to Murphy’s Law: In war, everything that can go wrong, will go wrong twice. And when it comes to wartime supply logistics, the reality on the ground is that nothing is dependable — because dependability went out the window the moment that Putin decided to invade a sovereign country and start murdering its people.

Right now, as far as I know, there’s only one company right now you can use to ship large parcels into Ukraine (Lviv only), and I still haven’t been able to get them on the phone to find out the biggest packages they ship and how expensive it would be. I would be pleasantly surprised if they do truckloads.

Shopkeepers and merchants can evidently place orders through their regular commercial shipping routes, and life seems relatively normal in Lviv (except for the checkpoints and sandbags everywhere). But having gone through a border crossing in the middle of the night and waiting at least 2.5 hours, I can’t imagine that the war doesn’t have a deleterious effect on commercial shipping as well. This probably would explain why I’m still hearing about half full grocery store shelves in Lviv, and my new “Lviv warehouse guy” told me that some food has become too expensive or unavailable altogether. Those are the goods we will start shipping from Poland, and we are getting the contact info of the wholesalers in Lviv that can help us buy and ship food that’s already inside Ukraine to the front.

Which is all to say that whereas commercial shipping is operational, emergency humanitarian aid shipping is certainly not. This is why hundreds of independently run humanitarian convoys are currently running, and everyone who’s interested in getting donated supplies into Ukraine right now needs to use one of these or set up their own supply chain. But there’s risks to the first that the cargo will get deprioritized or rerouted (which is what happened in our first shipment), and there’s a slew of surmountable, but extremely difficult, challenges to the second.

I’ve met many folks on both sides of the border now involved in informal supply chains and that seems to be the way most of the aid is getting where it needs to go right now, and since it is all a volunteer effort it is quite efficient from a monetary perspective. Of course the tradeoff is that it’s slow, clunky, and extremely fickle. In order to get our humanitarian package to Lviv we had to deal with:

  • 4-hour+ late arrival times from partners on the ground
  • 2.5 hour border crossings
  • Paperwork for a newly purchased SUV that never got done properly
  • Last minute documentation needs
  • Almost running out of gas
  • Wrong addresses
  • Missed phone calls at pickups
  • Having to wait for the warehouse owner to approve delivery

These challenges, however, were nothing compared to the constant, ever-present anxiety of being in a country at war. After spending only a couple hours in wartime Ukraine, every minute my urgency grew to get out — and I actually had the option to leave at any time in a city that’s relatively safe so close to the border. So many millions of Ukrainians can’t leave — not just fighting aged men, but people trapped in enemy territory, people with mobility needs, orphans, itinerant folks and displaced persons. From what my host told me, after a couple weeks the feeling of anxiety that I was experiencing “fades into the background.” I can only imagine it must be like what life was like in the US after 9/11, where for a while we didn’t know if another attack would be coming and there was a constant tension in the air, but we didn’t really talk about it after a while and tried to live life normally.

Of course, I can’t complain at all and I have no idea what it’s like to live with this perpetual fear of threat, but I viscerally understand it better now than I ever did before. In startup world, they say to know your customer, and there is no better motivator for the work we are doing than having just a little bit of an inkling of what people are going through right now, and what they are escaping from when they come across the border. I had to deal with the potential of a threat for only 12 hours. Many of these refugees have been under literal bombardment for weeks. This is why when a door slammed at the Przemysl train station this week, the entire room jumped a foot. This is why my driver today got into a huge blowup fight with a warehouse worker over a minor car issue. Everyone is on edge, and you can feel it in the air in Lviv.

But staying in Lviv, I met so many great new friends and partners, all of whom were doing everything they can to help the war effort. In fact, one of the reasons why it was so difficult to make everything work logistically was that everyone was also running missions for other folks — shuttling packages, driving people to various places, and so on, and traffic in Lviv being what it is combined with compounding complexity and timing issues across everyone’s activities, it’s surprising that anything ever came together at all. But the fact is that everyone in Lviv understands the urgency of the mission, and no one is asking “what’s in it for me” or failing to offer a helping hand when needed. In one instance, four of us were in the SUV waiting for a pickup, and, even though none of them knew more than a couple words in English, we managed to have a full conversation about the effectiveness of grassroots efforts in this war against Russia, and how Putin cannot win this war because he doesn’t have the people on his side. This is the truly first WhatsApp war — where logistics, supply, strategy, propaganda and defense efforts meld together seamlessly in a web of informal communication lines. The biggest thing I have learned in Ukraine was the best way to have a successful organization that I look forward to taking home with me for my day job: Give people a vision to fight for and the empowerment to do whatever they can, and they will do magic for the cause.

It also didn’t occur to me until I came to Ukraine that I hadn’t talked to any of the men involved in this crisis yet. All the men 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country, and so being in Ukraine I was finally able to get to know how men are coping with this war. In just a day, I met men who are working their day jobs in between organizing civilian defense efforts, men who had fled the violence in the east with their families and were just laying low, men who in civilian life have blue collar jobs but are now taking an active part in procuring supplies (like our SUV!) for the war effort. Some men are alone, having sent their families abroad. Many others are not, and one of their wives even made me lunch today! This man also asked me if I could get a helmet for his best friend who’s about to go to the front and doesn’t have one. I said I would do my best, and I intend to.

With the help of many of these men (and a couple women too!), we were able to work together to hand off 2 of 3 shipments that I personally supervised, and the third which my friend delivered after I left. I was then given a ride back to the border where a queue of at least 2,000 Ukrainians were waiting to cross on foot. Fortunately, I had a friend who had come across earlier to interview people and had already been waiting an hour, so I was able to push in, but as it turned out it didn’t save that much time.

We waited for 4.5 hours to get across back to Poland, and this was probably the highlight of my entire trip so far.

It was not just living the experience, for just a little bit, of the pain refugees have to go through crossing a border after weeks of traveling west to flee bombardment, rape, and as we’re now learning, massacre by Russian soldiers. Being in a crowd of thousands pressing towards the border as the last, painful leg of their journey, and watching the children behaving so well and obediently, and the old women patiently standing for hours, and the dogs getting antsy and picking fights with each other, it’s hard not to imagine, if even for a second, that I’m not just another privileged American who made the choice to be here, but that I could be any one of these people. And indeed, almost all of us have refugees in our families. Such is the banality of displacement during wartime throughout history.

When we were approaching the exit customs, maybe it was my imagination, but I swear I could feel the growing anticipation and bated excitement of the crowd around me as the promise of safety and security was in view. When we finally crossed the border, I felt for a small moment some relief, as if I myself had escaped a war torn country and finally arrived in freedom on the other side. Of course whatever I felt, it must be one fraction of the relief that these refugees who have been traveling for days are feeling, and despite my cynicism about the NGO camp on the other side of the foot border, it was quite nice to have a warm bowl of soup provided by United Sikhs after almost 5 hours of standing around in the cold.

Hopefully when our aid package arrives, our displaced friends in Kharkiv will have that feeling soon, too.

April 6, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Lviv

From Lviv

It’s a little past 6am in the morning and I haven’t slept since 9am yesterday. I’ve learned more about logistics in the last 21 hours than I ever thought I needed to know. I certainly didn’t think I’d find myself in a war zone trying to tie off the loose ends of a supply chain that didn’t exist a week ago, but here we are. Sitting in a sprinter van a stone’s throw away is a humanitarian package that took 12 hours to make its way from Warsaw to Lviv, where tomorrow (later today?) it will be picked up bound for Kharkiv, Sumy and other of the most devastated parts of Ukraine.

One of the cities so far not yet devastated — and I hope never will be — is Lviv. I say without reservation that Lviv is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I first visited just before the pandemic for work, and found everything about the city from the people to the architecture to the culture simply magical. Unfortunately, I am here tonight under very different circumstances.

Tonight (or at least now until I get some good sleep), I’m crashing at a friend’s house outside the city, along with two families from Kharkiv who are also staying here.

In that sprinter van downstairs is the second of two shipments we’ve tried today, and the good news is, we’re getting better! At 10am this morning (yesterday?) it was yet another freezing morning with light snow in this extremely small border town, which has a charming eastern European milieu. We made it to the border to meet the convoy as scheduled and proceeded to hand off our humanitarian package of food and sanitary supplies, whose size could best be described as a “maxi van full.” It completely filled up the trailer and we had to load some back seats as well, passing bags of flour and pasta and sanitary pads and diapers, bucket brigade style.

I was offered a spot in the convoy, but unfortunately my rental van (which I can’t take across the border) was parked at the refugee camp at the border station and they wouldn’t let me keep it there. I was a little bummed out, not least because I was concerned something would go wrong and the package wouldn’t get delivered where it was supposed to. It turns out my fears were realized immediately when customs demanded to know what was in the cargo and where it was going. (Apparently, these new regulations have popped up since the beginning of the war to respond to black market dealers, and we didn’t know about them.) Not knowing what to say—“Brian’s friend in Lviv” didn’t cut it—they gave the location of the last place they did a supply drop, a children’s hospital in Lviv.

So the good news is, our humanitarian aid package was gladly received at a hospital that needed the aid, and will no doubt be put to good use. The bad news is, it didn’t make it to Kharkiv because the convoy leader, a stickler for the rules, refused to hand it off to anyone else other than the place he declared at customs it would go.

We learned a lot from this test shipment, first and foremost being you can’t always 100% trust that something’s going to get done correctly unless you do it yourself, and the second being to fully understand the current rules and regulations especially when they’re changing all the time. Such is the reality of building a new supply line into a war zone.

After the convoy went across the border, we spent a little more time at the camp getting to know the *one* refugee there, a beauty salon owner who had spent two days traveling from Kharkiv and had at least another day of travel to go. Then we shuttled off to the main refugee camp across the foot border in Przemysl, and we learned, to our surprise, that giant refugee camps with no refugees in them are a thing. The camp outside border control is the size of at least two football fields, and is almost completely populated by NGO tents and volunteers, with a trickle of refugees coming through who seem to barely need any of the myriad of supplies offered to them (cookies, tea, diapers, etc). Volunteers aren’t even helping them carry their bags to the bus! This is probably a change from when the war started, but I gather that most of the refugee aid needs are being misdirected at this point.

At the train station in Przemysl, the exact opposite is true. At one point tonight, shortly after the train from Kyiv arrived, I noted that there were over 250 people waiting to buy tickets and ONLY ONE TICKET WINDOW OPEN. Which was, needless to say, extremely frustrating, considering that we have been reliably told that NGOs are not allowed at the train station, which might explain why they’re all serving tea and biscuits to their own workers while thousands of refugees arrive off of trains unassisted.

So, I find myself ending an 18-hour day where I found myself shuttling between border towns, helping refugees buy bus tickets and carry bags, organizing new supply missions with other convoys, and giving several refugees free rides to the Tesco refugee center. And it all ended with me waiting for 2 hours to cross the border in the dead of night with Yuriy and Igor (not their real names), two guys I had never met before who drove to Warsaw and picked up our humanitarian shipment and then drove it to the border and across. It was nice to meet another American from Philly coming the other direction who had just finished dropping off his delivery of helmets and bullet proof vests. (I have his info now…maybe we can work together!)

Needless to say, I’m exhausted, but I am very happy that we are finally on the verge of unlocking this supply route, one which promises to effectively deliver aid to the farthest flung cities in Ukraine.

Like I said, I’ve learned a lot about logistics in the last 24 hours. First of all, I’m finding that *everyone* here has supply chain problems, and when I revealed that we had a convoy going over, we were immediately asked to add additional equipment. So tomorrow we actually have to deliver *three* packages to three different recipients bound for different parts of the country instead of just one. Economies of scale for the win!

I’ve also seen what good looks like in terms of well organized convoys — on time, paperwork in order, dressed in the appropriate “official” gear, and choosing the right border crossing with minimal traffic. The guys this morning had it down to a science, and my makeshift DIY convoy was late, picked up unscheduled passengers along the way (although some lovely middle aged Ukrainian women told me I was one of them), almost ran out of gas and barely got one of their cars across due to paperwork mishaps.

Finally, I’ve learned that people with common cause don’t even need to speak the same language to work together, and that certainly was true today. Several strangers who have never met have come together to make this supply chain work, and I can’t wait to see it all come to fruition soon. The last hour riding with Yuriy through military checkpoints as the sun came up, having a full conversation in sign language about his son’s karate championship with a quarter ton of barley in the trunk was probably the highlight of my trip so far.

Now that I’m safe in Lviv, I have some planning to do for future deliveries after a couple hours of rest. But I’m happy that this delivery is almost where it needs to go next!

More tomorrow.

April 5, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From [Undisclosed]

From [Undisclosed]

I’m writing to you from a town you’ve never heard of on the Polish side of the border with Ukraine, a town so small that it took an hour of driving through dark country streets to get here with no other cars on the road.

I would tell you the name of the town, but I’m trying to protect the confidentiality and crossing logistics of the convoy I’m in contact with here, organized by a local with several international volunteers including a very nice British man I’ve gotten to know over the last few days. Tomorrow, this convoy will pick up a package of humanitarian aid that all of you donated and deliver it to Lviv, where it will be in turn picked up by one of my contacts and taken to Kharkiv, where this is happening:

<p>Kharkiv residents rest as they shelter from attacks in a metro station, 10 March 2022</p>

According to first hand accounts from refugees coming across the border to volunteers at the train station today, it’s even worse in Kharkiv right now than anyone knows. They are reporting summary executions, children being sexually assaulted by soldiers, dead bodies in the streets, and at least 70% of the city in ruins.

My contacts in Kharkiv tell me that at least 40,000 people are in dire need of humanitarian aid from food to medicine to basic sanitary supplies, so this is where our first supply shipment is headed.

Bound for Kharkiv tomorrow, to be distributed to those most in need, will be a sizable shipment of:

  • Grains (Flour, Rice, Beans, Pasta)
  • Canned Fish, Meat, Vegetables
  • Diapers
  • Sanitary Pads
  • MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat)
  • Candy for the kids

This shipment was paid for with YOUR donations, and is the first of what will hopefully be many. Using this first shipment, we’re testing the logistics of a new supply route that runs from the border to Kharkiv through several handoff points. If it works, we have an even bigger shipment waiting at a restaurant supply warehouse in Warsaw. This second shipment will start its journey tomorrow evening and contains:

  • 100kg of pasta
  • 200kg of rice
  • 105kg of oatmeal
  • 100kg of tuna
  • 100kg of barley
  • 12kg of coffee

If this shipment works, we will have officially established a brand new way for supplies to reach the most hard hit areas of Ukraine, and hope to repeat the success with more frequent shipments, paid for with donations, to more cities in need.

But don’t get too excited yet. We still haven’t successfully gotten anything across the border, let alone across a war-torn country. I will of course keep everyone posted on progress, but it’s hard to believe that this all came together in just one day — and wouldn’t have been possible without an extraordinary network of volunteers in and out of Ukraine who have worked together (without knowing each other!), united around a common cause.

So it shouldn’t be surprised that today was a whirlwind, and involved meeting my new Warsaw friend, Tala, whom I met through a chain of mutual friends, and going to the local Selgros (their version of Costco) to pick up supplies for our first shipment to Kharkiv. We spent over 2 hours piling sacks of flour and pasta into a shopping cart and felt like we just weren’t making a dent — there had to be a better way to do this. We could spend every day shopping wholesale and driving van-loads to the border and we would end up servicing just a fraction of the humanitarian needs in Kharkiv alone, let alone the rest of Ukraine.

That’s when Tala got smart and contacted a family member who owns a restaurant and got the name of the supplier, whose warehouse we visited on the outskirts of Warsaw. They’re open 24/7 for pickup and all we had to do we was place an order for 500kg of food, which we did (spent only $2,000!), and voila: an industrial food supply we didn’t have to manually load into shopping carts, and was already packed into pallets! This all happened before 12pm, by the way.

The next challenge was organizing a warehouse pickup, which we eventually did thanks to a friend in Lviv who had a Ukrainian friend in Warsaw with a big van and was willing to drive back to Lviv tomorrow night, so that’s now scheduled. Then we had to organize the convoy in the morning for the first shipment, and make sure there was someone on the other side of the border to pick it up. And finally, I had to make it down to the border so I drove another 6 hours today, stopping over in Lublin to fill my van up the rest of the way with diapers, and of course buying another 100 power banks, 200 canvas bags and 30 duffel bags to hand out to refugees at the train station.

Like I said — it was a whirlwind — and I’ve put 1600km on the car so far — but for whatever reason, I’m just not tired. When I meet refugees who have been traveling for 24 hours, shell shocked, with a story in their eyes and desperation in their voice, and when I see the pictures on the news of the massacres in Irpin and Bucha, and hear stories of rape and abuse and murder and butchery happening to completely innocent people in a completely senseless war that was started by a madman who wants to see the world burn, it creates an anger and focus and adrenaline rush that makes all other material needs seem to melt away. I realized today that I haven’t eaten a full meal in days. I haven’t slept more than 6 hours. I haven’t thought about work or about my life back in the States. All I can think about is moving faster, harder, and doing as much as possible to maybe, maybe, make a dent in stopping this madness.

And none of this would be possible without your help. Every time a Venmo alert pops up on my phone it gives the ammunition to buy more supplies, reach out for more contacts for new supply lines, etc — but most of all, it encourages me that all of us are in this fight together and we can win it.

I wrote yesterday that this war was Putin vs. every man, woman and child in Ukraine. That was wrong. This war is Putin vs. every person in the free world who believes in the power of our liberal order: in civil rights, in democracy, in open discourse, in security and safety, in commerce, and most of all, in love and peace. What I have seen in the last four days has reaffirmed for me that this war is winnable because we all share a common purpose that is larger than ourselves, and that purpose is worth fighting for.

Thank you all again for your support.

April 4, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More
From Warsaw

From Warsaw

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.”

April 3, 2022Comments are DisabledRead More