Anna Abramzon

Chicago to Mariupol: A network rescues Ukrainians

Pavel's team evacuates children from hot zone in Ukraine. March 14, 2022
Ukraine TrustChain evacuates children from hot zone in Ukraine. (courtesy)

For Many Soviet immigrants in America, the War in Ukraine is “Go Time”

One morning in 1990, when I was 8 years old, I got out of bed and doubled over in pain. I looked down to find a marble-sized lump protruding from my lower abdomen. My mom looked like she was about to faint. Not only did my parents fear the worst for my health, but they also only had days left on their health insurance policy. I was hospitalized. Thankfully, the frightening lump turned out to be a hernia, but I would still need to undergo surgery. My procedure, however, was not an emergency compared to patients with gunshot wounds who kept rolling into the inner-city hospital that busy Chicago weekend. While I lay in the hospital bed awaiting my turn, the clock was ticking on our expiring health insurance. 

My family and I had come to the United States as refugees from Soviet Ukraine a year earlier. An out-of-pocket hospital stay and surgery was unthinkable to my parents, who were both working for minimum wage.  Like most new immigrants in a foreign land, they didn’t know how to navigate this system. They were beside themselves.

That is when an American volunteer, sent by Jewish aid agencies, swooped in to help. She made some calls. Suddenly, we had the attention of the administrative staff. When the surgeon, who was an Argentine immigrant himself, was made aware of the situation, he agreed to perform the surgery after-hours to make sure it was completed before the health insurance deadline. He even saw me for post-surgery follow ups for free. 

My story is not unique. We, Soviet immigrants who arrived as children, grew up in the shadow of our parents’ bravery. Our families dived head-first into the unknown so that we could be free to thrive. On the other side of that unknown was a passionate group of American advocates, volunteers, and change-makers. And we remember. Now we are American adults who are in a position to also be advocates and volunteers. While we cherished our Soviet culture and roots, many of us did not spend a lot of time looking back at the places we left. Our lives were here. But then Russia attacked Ukraine and everything changed. 

Running Logistics in a War Zone

When the war began, my first impulse was to help in the only ways I knew. Like so many people, I began to fundraise and donate to established humanitarian organizations. My friend, Olga Shafran; however, joined a group that was trying a different approach. 

Like me, Olga arrived here as a child and settled outside Chicago. Refugee aid organizations aided her parents in finding jobs and helped them get settled. Today Olga is a high school math teacher in the very same area where she grew up. She married a fellow Soviet immigrant, Sergey, and they have two beautiful kids. She and Sergey never expected to become a part of a Homefront effort in the region they left so long ago.

Olga Shafran arrived in Chicago from Belarus in September, 1992. (courtesy)

When Olga and I spoke at the very start of the war, she was so distraught she could barely talk. “I am in despair,” she texted me. Like all of us, she felt helpless and didn’t know what to do. That was when she learned that her friend, Daniil Cherkasskiy, had found a way to get money into the hands of a handful of Ukrainians on the ground who were running rescue operations. He had established two trusted sources. One was a woman in Kyiv who was trying to provide food to people trapped in their homes or the subway stations. The other was a man who started immediately evacuating orphaned children from the hot zones.

Olga Shafran with Ukraine TrustChain founder, Daniil Cherkasskiy, at a fundraiser for Ukraine. (courtesy)

“I was so inspired by these volunteers in Ukraine selflessly putting themselves in great danger to help others,” Olga tells me, “that I immediately began fundraising. I just started asking everyone I know if they wanted to send money directly to Ukraine.” Mobilizing quickly as the bombs rained down, they used social media to build connections on the ground in war-torn cities. They identified immediate needs, such as hospitals needing supplies, elderly folks in need of medication, children and young mothers needing a ride out of the hot zones, and began funding the efforts of their counterparts on the ground in Ukraine. A group of volunteers from across the United States joined a Zoom call to coordinate. Some of them were friends before this, some were meeting for the first time. The Ukraine TrustChain was born. 

Natalia’s team handing out food in liberated areas of Ukraine, April 7, 2022. (courtesy)

Within a month, their US coordination team had grown to 26 volunteers. They are teachers and engineers, marketing professionals, executives, and tech experts. Their teams in Ukraine are also regular people with no particular military or war-related training, who choose to risk their lives daily to aid more and more people in desperate situations. Andriy is a priest who organizes teams that systematically evacuate orphanages and nursing homes from the Kharkiv area, often under direct enemy fire. Dina, a realtor in her former life, procures aid and manages a network of volunteers in Kharkiv who support the elderly and people in need. In the early weeks, her buses evacuated hundreds of people daily. Karina, also a realtor, supports miraculous evacuation missions to Mariupol, Berdyansk, Severodonetsk, Lysychans’k, and other hard-hit cities. Kseniia, a florist, heads a massive volunteer operation in the Kyiv area. Pavel’s caravans have evacuated over 11,000 people, more than half of them kids, from the most dangerous battle zones of Southern, Eastern and Northeastern Ukraine. On the fourth day of the war, TrustChain sponsored a bus that allowed Pavel to evacuate an orphanage out of Kherson a day before the city was taken by the enemy. These are just a few of the everyday people in the Ukraine TrustChain who decided to stay in Ukraine and put their lives on the line. 

Ukraine TrustChain’s Pavel evacuates groups of refugees from hot zone in Ukraine March 14, 2022. (courtesy)

Ordinary People Doing the Extraordinary

To date, the Ukraine TrustChain has evacuated over 26,000 people, more than half of them children. They have set up refugee shelters in safer areas of Ukraine to house evacuees. They feed over 50,000 people weekly. Their teams were the first to enter Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin after the army de-mined. They came in with trucks of food and aid. After that they kept pushing Eastward all the way to the Belarus border, feeding those who have been trapped in villages and small towns.  They are now an official non-profit-organization in Illinois. All but two of their United States team came as child immigrants from the Soviet Union. 

Kseniia distributing supplies. April 11, 2022. (courtesy)

 “When we realized how much impact we could have, I felt better almost immediately,” Olga tells me. “Channeling my feelings into action was so much better than wallowing in pain.” Olga is now the liaison for two teams in Ukraine, based in Dnipro and working towards Kharkiv and Mariupol. “Now I can look at footage and say yes, that’s so sad, but not be a pile on the floor because I immediately think, okay what can we do now? I am exhausted, but I don’t have that horrible feeling of helplessness.” 

Evacuation in progress with Andriy’s team. March 14, 2022. (courtesy)

Olga is still teaching all her classes, and her husband hasn’t cut down on his hours working in cyber security. They juggle their responsibilities in the Chain in addition to maintaining their jobs and family. “Our kids are so neglected they started washing their own dishes,” she jokes. “Being part of the rescue effort is kind of blowing my mind. I’m studying maps, learning about different grades of bulletproof vests, etc. I never could’ve imagined that I would be doing any of this. But then again, I never imagined this war could happen.”

Go Time. 

This made me think of early 2020, when we were just beginning to understand the seriousness of the impending pandemic, and I was talking to a physician friend of mine. I asked her if she was nervous about what was to come. “I am,” she told me, “but also, this is what we trained for. For doctors, this is go-time.” 

Ukraine TrustChain’s Dina buys medicine daily in Dnipro and sends it to those who need it in Kharkiv. April 10, 2022. (courtesy)

Most Soviet immigrants in America are not trained to aid in a war.  And yet, this is our “go-time.” We went through our own refugee experience, so different from the horrors people are living through now, and yet now it is our turn to be on the other side, to step into the footsteps of our predecessors, to mobilize and help. When I check in on Olga, she tells me, “I don’t have any time to really process my emotions because I have so many things to do and people are counting on me. This is by far the most impactful thing I’ve ever done, and you know, I’m a teacher. Supposedly an impact-making profession.”

Meanwhile in Italy,  Vera Labrinovich, a refugee that Ukraine TrustChain recently evacuated, writes “Now I’m sitting in a room with all the amenities outside of Ukraine, I’m sitting and remembering, and it’s simply impossible to forget how we were sitting in the basement of our house with our neighbors, my paralyzed son was lying on a massage table without light, water, communications and in the cold…and how we were evacuated and the volunteers carried our son in a wheelchair through the entire crossing… with respect and great gratitude to all who were near. Hugs to you all and low bow to you!”

Ukraine TrustChain’s Karina and team setting up a refugee center in Dnipro. April 10, 2022. (courtesy)

The Soviet immigrant community has mobilized in ways I never imagined. Across the country, from manual labor collecting supplies and packaging boxes, to translating at the borders in California and Texas, to organizing fundraisers and advocating for refugee rights, those who came to this country from the Soviet Union, are in action.  Lawyers are advising refugees for free, therapists are seeing traumatized Ukrainian refugees pro bono.  People are opening up their spare bedrooms to refugee families. From celebrities to recent college grads to stay-at-home-moms, everyone is putting whatever skills and resources they have to use.  

Olga’s family just spent Passover Seder with the American volunteer family who “adopted” them for the 29th year in a row. As the refugee crisis grows, Ukrainian evacuees are beginning to make it to the United States. The need will continue to grow, evolve, and change and they will need our help, both in Ukraine and wherever they land. “I’m extremely honored to be able to do this work,” Olga tells me. “I’m in awe of our volunteers. They are showing me what real bravery looks like and what service to others looks like. They inspire me to keep going.”

About the Author
Anna Abramzon is an artist based in Los Angeles. Her work explores the intersection of contemporary figurative painting and traditional Judaica. She specializes in ketubah art, painted tallitot, and Jewish motifs. She is also a blogger on issues of Soviet Jewry, Israel, and Jewish lifestyle.
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