The volunteers shouldering Ukraine’s humanitarian response

Mutual aid networks in Ukraine have stepped up to support those in need across the country, writes Tina Burrett.

A woman with a child, fleeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine, speaks with a volunteer as she browses for basic necessities and clothes at the Humanitarian Aid Headquarters in Perechyn, Ukraine, April 6, 2022.
REUTERS/Serhii Hudak

Before Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, Anatoly was the top sushi master in Odessa. Now he makes a simple beef stew with vegetables to feed those in need. Every day an army of volunteers like him show up at restaurants across Ukraine to cook meals and deliver them to their neighbours.

Countless volunteers are helping to protect and support their fellow citizens. Svetlana takes great personal risks to get meals to hard-to-reach communities in Russian occupied towns around Kharkiv. And outside Lviv railway station, Ivan, a car-dealer turned soup-chef sets up a huge cauldron to greet those arriving from the East, through the below freezing temperatures of the night, with a bowl of welcome warmth.

‘Everyone does what they can,’ says Olenka Dmytryk, a PhD researcher on Ukrainian art and social movements at Cambridge University, originally from a city in the eastern Donetsk oblast ‘Ukraine has a long history of self-organization and our country wouldn’t exist now without it,’ she says.

Ukraine has a long history of self-organization and our country wouldn’t exist now without it

Following Russia’s invasion on 24 February, most international aid agencies initially paused their operations and evacuated their staff. Local groups and citizen volunteers are therefore at the centre of Ukraine’s humanitarian response, providing food, shelter and other support to the estimated 10 million Ukrainians displaced by fighting and to the most vulnerable who are unable to move to safer locations. Ever since Russia’s first incursion into Ukraine in 2014, bureaucratic hurdles have impeded international agencies from meeting immediate humanitarian needs. ‘Grassroots movements and individual volunteers can move faster and are more effective at providing relief,’ explains Olenka.

In Kyiv volunteers drive residents fleeing the city to the railway station, dodging the Russian shells that now makes this once simple journey fraught with danger. When one driver’s car was destroyed by a bombardment, he was donated another to continue his mission.

Yuri, an IT specialist in Lviv, left his job soon after the invasion. He has since become a volunteer coordinator, helping displaced people arriving in the city to find shelter. ‘In the hours after the invasion I got in my car and drove around Lviv asking people how I could help,’ he says. Since then, he has done everything from buying chainsaws (for soldiers cutting down trees to make roadblocks) to helping neighbours unload and sort truckloads of donations. He worries, however, that as the war goes on, the volunteer response might become unsustainable. ‘We thought the war was going to be a sprint, but it now looks like a marathon,’ he says. As more people leave Ukraine’s besieged cities, fewer able volunteers remain to take care of those too elderly, ill or otherwise unable to move.

Rising to the challenge

Existing grassroots movements are reorienting their activities to provide humanitarian support. For the past five years, Mariupol-based artists’ collective Freefilmers have been working with marginalized communities in Eastern Ukraine to record cultural life and memories outside of mainstream narratives. Now the organization’s members work to support underground artists, queer activists, neurodivergent people and the wider community around Mariupol by transporting humanitarian aid to hospitals and volunteer centres. The Freefilmers’ bus has been repurposed to deliver medical supplies and other essentials to Eastern regions and to transport refugees away from areas most affected by the war. The collectives’ filmmakers are determined to remain in Ukraine’s Eastern region to document its struggle for survival and to preserve its unique culture that is part of a wider Ukrainian identity that Vladimir Putin denies exists.

ReSew is a Kyiv-based feminist sewing co-operative which has previously campaigned against discrimination in the garment industry, conducting workshops for the LGBTQI+ community on making accessible clothing for trans and non-binary people. Now the co-operative’s centre has been transformed into a shelter and a hub for local people in need of food, water and help in relocating.

Volunteer networks bring together groups of people who know each other. They deliver results because they are bound by trust. When they ask for help, people trust that their friends and neighbours will deliver more immediately than any state institution or international agency

Digital volunteering and coordination are important elements in the success of Ukraine’s grassroots humanitarian response. Telegram is being used by residents of Mariupol, which has been heavily bombarded during the Russian invasion, to search for missing relatives. Volunteers throughout the country are using the app too, including to coordinate the movement of refugee caravans heading to Ukraine’s borders. ‘Every community has a Telegram chat group where people can exchange information and find support,’ says Olenka Dmytryk.

Hundreds of organizations have set up social media pages to allow direct donations and to send volunteers and resources to areas that are most in need. Happy Paw, for example, is a charity using social media to channel support to 60 animal shelters throughout Ukraine, while Everybody Can coordinates help for disabled people and the hospitals that continue to care for them.

Digital coordination is also essential to Ukraine’s territorial defence. Civilians can report details about the movements of Russian troops and tanks to Ukraine’s national authorities. ‘Anyone with a smart phone can take part in national defence,’ says Iuliia, a Kyiv-based security analyst. Volunteers are also using social media to outpace Russia’s propaganda machine by warning people about false narratives – that Ukraine is surrendering or that President Volodymyr Zelensky has fled Kyiv, for example – before they take root.

Learning from the past

Volunteer social networks were critical to Ukraine’s defences when Russia first invaded the Donbas region in 2014,’ says Jeff Witsoe, an anthropologist at Union College researching on Ukraine. ‘At the time, Ukraine’s formal defences were subpar and volunteers stepped up to fight and to supply those on the frontlines. Following Russia’s new offensive, these networks have scaled-up and spread across the country.’

Volunteer networks were also essential in supporting the Euromaidan anti-government protest camps that sprang up in Kyiv and other cities during Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, and which forced out then-president Viktor Yanukovych. Medical professionals, food distributors and lawyers coordinated to meet the needs of protesters and, in the process, created their own institutions in parallel with the state. Fearing arrest, protesters shunned government hospitals, choosing instead to seek medical attention at field clinics run by volunteer doctors. This example points to another reason why this kind of response is effective. ‘Volunteer networks bring together groups of people who know each other. They deliver results because they are bound by trust. When they ask for help, people trust that their friends and neighbours will deliver more immediately than any state institution or international agency,’ says Jeff Witsoe.

Self-sacrifice and defiance now define the Ukrainian people, to themselves and to the rest of the world. ‘Our people are our salvation,’ says Olenka Dmytryk. Indeed, the horizontal movements and mutual aid Ukrainians are developing in their bleakest hour point to a brighter future. There are glimmers of hope in the dark.