I was five years old when my family immigrated to Chicago from Odesa. My early childhood memories as a Jewish Ukrainian are steeped in my grandparents' stories of Hitler’s brutality and so much lost under Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Even through peacetime, remnants of fear — born from the oppression, the corruption, the deception and the cruelty of previous generations — persisted through my youth.
I know what it’s like to be a refugee. Politically, emotionally. I know what it’s like to leave home and everything familiar — family, friends, childhood comfort — and find oneself displaced and lost. It is at once a very common story, for so many left the Soviet Union in this way, and yet one that is also intimately my own.
On February 24, when I woke to read that Russia was attacking my home, Ukraine — a peaceful, democratic nation — I felt empty, agony. I was seeing in real time echoes of my heritage. Mothers sheltering their babies as they fled, narrowly escaping shelling. Children confused and waiting by desolate train tracks for a kindertransport-style escape. Fathers and sons and brothers parting from families — their own children — to protect their country.
Innocent Ukrainians were likewise waking to shock and terror. Only they were in it.
In America, from the comfort of my home, in my stable and predictable life, I felt powerless. And exacerbating this existential pain was the Sisyphean state of international humanitarian organizations that lost access to corridors for evacuations, faced logistical shipping challenges and lacked the insider knowledge of the Ukrainian communities necessary to deliver life-saving supplies.
Seniors and children with diabetes who couldn’t get insulin. Mothers desperate for formula and diapers. Civilians huddled, from cold, hunger, fear. Stockpiles of humanitarian aid sitting in warehouses to the west, out of reach to Ukrainians grasping for anything to help deal with the onslaught from the east.
Then my cousin called me. A group of her friends was building a grassroots aid organization to leverage established, trusted local volunteer teams in Ukraine. These networks were feeding and clothing people and driving them to safety. These on-the-ground connections were the resistance — the agency I was looking for. And all they needed was help buying fuel, potatoes and material to make coats.
So, as one does these days, I joined a meeting on Zoom. Daniil Cherkasskiy, the founder of Ukraine TrustChain, demonstrated the effectiveness, competency and compassion of these Ukrainian teams. It was clear how transformative this type of gap aid is and will continue to be until institutional humanitarian efforts can establish a meaningful presence.
Ukraine TrustChain (ukrainetrustchain.org) is based on a series of trusted connections among a 20-person team in the US. We are all volunteers — teachers (like me), lawyers, tech executives, developers, and professionals from a wide range of fields. Our primary mission is to raise funds to support our volunteer counterparts in Ukraine.
These US connections ensure donors can trust that funds will go where and when they are most needed: to Ukrainians on the ground, right now. They work quickly and effectively to perform harrowing evacuations, deliver life-saving medications and supply thousands with food. They reinvest in their communities by sourcing local goods.
Joining Ukraine TrustChain has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I’m part of a team showing Ukrainians that they are loved; they are cared for and seen. They are not alone. They have friends.
History will exalt those that answered the questions, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” Who else except us should hold up the person who — instead of leaving to save her own life — puts on a bulletproof vest and drives into bombing zones to save the lives of others, of children, of mothers?
As I grieve for those lost in my childhood homeland, I find solace in the story of Ukraine I will tell my daughters. It is a story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, a testament to their character and resilience, love and courage. It is the story of our past and the story of Ukraine's future.
Humanity pushing back against tyranny — at once a very common story, and yet one that is also intimately our own.