Fundraising for Refugee Dignity Aid in Ukraine

To my friends, colleagues, and fellow humans — thank you for the love I have felt from so many as we have tried to support the Ukrainian people. On Sunday I caught a bus from Moldova, where I was volunteering to help refugees from the war, to the port city of Odesa, Ukraine, where I previously spent eight days getting to know the home town of so many of the people I am trying to serve. Unlike in Moldova, where people walk the streets and attend shops and pubs in relative normalcy, the mood in Odesa is more tense and muted. In part, no doubt, this is due to the actual fighting — Kherson, less than 150 miles from the city, was liberated just weeks ago; rockets and drones continue to rain down, and surely many family members and friends of those I met are on the front lines. But there are also more than 600,000 internally displaced refugees in and around Odesa, some of whom I have met personally. They are tired, worried, and scared. They stand in long lines to receive food aid and other basic necessities. They come from all over the country, and their stories move me deeply. As we have spoken over the last weeks, a desire has grown in my heart — an idea to provide some small help to these people, channeling the love I feel from all over the world into a concrete form of assistance for some of these struggling individuals.

Let me back up just a little. I’ve been volunteering to help Ukrainian refugees in Moldova from October to November with a lovely organization. It’s called Refugee Support Europe, and their motto is “Aid with Dignity.” It’s a small but powerful organization which has a unique model of humanitarian aid. We might describe it as (a) laser-focused on respect for refugees and (b) delivering resources and services at the lowest possible cost by relying on volunteer labor. Over the years, I have watched this model develop into a worldwide network of former volunteers whose selflessness is remarkable, and in addition, I truly feel that it has helped those forced into refugeehood feel like “fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys” (Dickens). After visiting Ukraine last month, my idea was this: let’s expand Refugee Support and create a new distribution site in the Odesa, based on the stories I heard and the extraordinary need I observed at food aid distribution sites. However, after several conversations, due to financial and other considerations, they made the decision not to expand but rather encouraged me to replicate their model on my own (helped by the fact that I managed one of their distribution sites in Greece in 2017 for several months and helped them implement several important changes). That means, along with a number of organizational and legal challenges which I will tackle in the coming weeks, fundraising.

So I come to the request: If you and your loved ones are able and feel so moved, would you be willing to help me get this new version of “Aid with Dignity” off the ground? 100% of your donation will go to purchasing food and hygiene items for internally displaced refugees from the war or to paying rent and utilities for the distribution center (more details on operations below), and you will receive a weekly donor email providing updates on our operations as well as stories from Ukrainians whose lives have been completely upended by this crisis. And of course, you will have my undying gratitude. If we can just get this thing funded for a few months, I hope to win funding from larger international non-profit organizations and reduce our reliance on private donors. If you’re able to give, visit https://fundly.com/dignified-humanitarian-aid-for-ukraine or reach out to me personally if that is easier. If you can’t give, please consider sharing this article or link with your friends and family. All donors will receive our weekly donor email with updates from the situation on the ground.

The “Aid with Dignity” Model

Giving aid with dignity starts with finding a good local partner, a non-profit/NGO which can assist in identifying and prioritizing potential recipients of aid. Since we operate on a volunteer basis and use English as an organizational language, a local partner helps us ensure that we are reaching the communities most in need and that we are responsive to their desires. Additionally, local partners can often help coordinate relationships with government offices and with other NGOs involved in the relief effort.

In the case of Odesa, I have discussed the project plan with several local partners. The following have expressed a willingness to work with us to identify refugees in need:

  • Manifest Mira (“Manifest Peace”), an Odesa-based org which runs refugee shelters and distributes emergency aid
  • Ukraine Assistance Organization (Medical Charity), which offers free home health visits for needy Ukrainians in rural areas
  • New Dawn, a refugee center in Odesa which distributes thousands of pounds of food, hygiene items, and clothing every day
  • League of Justice and Law Foundation, an Odesa soup kitchen which provides hundreds of hot meals daily to needy Ukrainians and military servicepeople

If an Aid with Dignity project is focused on distribution of food and hygiene items, as we will be in Odesa, the next step is to find a local supermarket partner which can sell us the items for a reasonable cost. Working locally like this allows us to put money back into the community and also allows us to avoid long supply chains back to our home countries. Some supermarket chains will even give discounts or free delivery in light of the charitable work we’re doing, which is a great help.

Renting a good site is crucial as well. Aid with Dignity generally means finding a storefront or location which has or can be partitioned into a minimum of three rooms: a reception area, a “sales floor,” and a stock room. A comfortable reception area allows us to welcome refugees and other recipients of aid in a warm and dignified manner — we will generally have tea and small snacks available to anyone who comes in, which is particularly helpful if there is a long waiting time, and also allows us to keep the “sales floor” or distribution area from getting too crowded. In the reception area we also complete the paperwork required by every humanitarian distribution, including records for donors, any documentation required by local governments, and processes to ensure that aid is distributed as fairly as possible (such as an ID check to ensure that each household receives aid after the same number of days). From there, aid recipients pass to the sales floor, where they are given a specific number of points (based solely on the number of individuals in the household) and invited to choose from a variety of items. Each item costs a certain number of points, which are based entirely on the cost of goods for the organization. That element of personal choice is key to the dignity model, so the item selection will vary from location to location and can also change over time based on feedback from the customers themselves. The stock room, of course, is reserved for volunteers, who make frequent runs for restocking in order to keep the shelves as full as possible. This keeps the sales floor looking as much like a normal market as possible and lends a sense of normalcy to the whole affair.

“Aid with Dignity” can also encompass a variety of activities outside of distributing humanitarian items. In its Cyprus location, for example, Refugee Support provides some employment services to help refugees find jobs in the local economy. Additional activities are always driven by the needs of the community, but also depend on the skills and interests of volunteers, coordinators, and donors.

This “shop-based” model of dignified aid distribution, introduced by Refugee Support only a few years ago, has already caught on in other humanitarian organizations and may prove to be a real game-changer for non-profit work around the world. It’s exciting to be part of such a movement and rewarding to try to provide aid with true dignity.

Budget and Operations Proposals for Odesa, Ukraine

A “Dignity Center” (as distribution sites are often called) in Ukraine would be anticipated to cost at least $7,500 per month and would require a staff of one coordinator and at least two volunteers to keep things running smoothly. The monthly budget breaks down in the following manner:

  • $6,000 for food and hygiene items*
  • $1,000 for rent and utilities**
  • $500 for repairs and other surprise expenses

*This is based on a minimum of 50 people served per weekday, each receiving $7 worth of goods for adults or $3.50 for children, with a 65–35 ratio of adults to children as in Moldova presently.

**Real estate prices are quite low in Ukraine currently, but gas is quite high because of Russian attacks, so this is an estimate

As far as volunteers go, we are currently accepting applications! If you feel comfortable coming to Ukraine for 2–8 weeks and are eager to help, please reach out to refugee.dignity.ua@gmail.com. Please be aware that there is an interview process and that volunteers with some prior experience will be prioritized. Also, remember that Ukraine is currently at war, and while risk of loss of life in Odesa is extremely low, there will be some discomfort: frequent blackouts, daily air raid sirens, potential shortages of gas for heating, and perhaps even a necessity of going to a bomb shelters occasionally. We take the severity of the situation seriously and are fully prepared to send volunteers home who do not behave responsibly or who treat refugees and fellow volunteers without dignity. That said, if you are able to volunteer, it will be likely one of the greatest experiences of your life — I always say that volunteers, if they take their role seriously, are blessed just as much as the people they are supposedly serving.

For those who can’t support the effort financially or by volunteering on site, there are also opportunities to help remotely. Accounting, social media management, newsletter editing, and other such activities can all be done, to some degree, from a distance and by willing volunteers. Feel free to reach out if any of those appeal to you or if you have any other ideas of how you might contribute. Every starfish counts, as they say!

Well. If you’ve reached the end, first of all, kudos. This was long. It is also an ambitious undertaking and it will take many of us working together to achieve it. But I do believe its possible — even probable — that we will find a way to provide a little more “Aid with Dignity” in Ukraine. Even in the midst of war, and in the midst of our own personal challenges, we cannot forget to keep our hearts turned partially outwards to our fellow creatures. For every way in which you do that, dear reader, every day, thank you.

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Abe Collier

Abe Collier

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“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’