The images are horrifying: decimated cities, children huddled together in bunkers, a pregnant woman being carried out of a bombed-out maternity hospital, people running for cover as debris showers down on them from the missile strike of a nearby shopping center, dead bodies of civilians strewn along abandoned streets.
Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine on February 24th and the resulting war has created a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions, marked by extreme human suffering and trauma. Thousands of civilians have been killed and millions more live under constant bombardment. According to the latest numbers from the UN Refugee Agency, 6.5 million refugees have fled the country, around 8 million have been displaced within Ukraine, and 13 million are stranded and unable to leave affected areas. Just one month into the war, the PEW Research Center already ranked the Ukrainian refugee crisis as one of the worst in modern history.
The millions of refugees who have been forced to flee have left behind everything—homes, jobs, security, often even family members. The majority of those most impacted are women, children, the elderly, and the disabled.
Neighboring Poland has received the vast majority of the refugees—more than 3.5 million as of 27 May 2022.
In the face of such egregious human suffering, most of us long to help in some way. But how can we be most effective in our efforts?
We recently traveled to Poland and Ukraine to find out.
We first joined our friend Erica Glenn, a visiting professor of music, Fulbright scholar, and fluent speaker of both Ukrainian and Russian, in Warsaw. We spent the next few weeks volunteering 1) in several refugee centers in Warsaw and Przemyśl(near the border of Poland and Ukraine), 2) at a shelter for refugee women and children in Warsaw, 3) at a tent for women and children right at the border in Medyka, and 4) at a school in Ukraine that has been repurposed as a temporary shelter for orphans and refugee families. We also traveled to Krakow to observe what was happening there and to meet with a contact who was doing extraordinary work in providing ongoing assistance to refugees in a constantly changing situation.
Based on our own personal experience, conversations with multiple refugees and on-the-ground volunteers, consultations with leaders of NGOs and other nonprofit charitable organizations, and a lot of independent research, here are some specific actionable items that we can fully recommend:
Most organizations that we worked with and spoke to said that they prefer “money over stuff.” These organizations know what the actual (and evolving) needs are, and with donations they can purchase goods locally which saves on shipping costs, limits the carbon footprint, and benefits local economies.
Instead of sending stuff, consider monetizing it. A garage sale, neighborhood yard sale, or raffle can yield proceeds which you can donate to on-the-ground organizations. You can also monetize skills: hold a benefit concert, art show, sporting event, or bake sale and donate all proceeds to the organizations that are getting things done.
Here are a few organizations that we can recommend without hesitation. All have been given 4-star ratings (out of 4) by Charity Navigator. These ratings are based on financial efficiency and transparency of operations.
And here are several other smaller organizations doing extraordinary things that we can personally vouch for:
2. Provide In-Kind Donations
Again, food, clothing, diapers, and many other material goods are usually best purchased and distributed through local channels in the areas of need (Ukraine and/or bordering countries). There are some items, however, that may not be not readily available there. These include medical supplies, body armor, water filters, solar generators, and so forth. Find organizations that are sending these kinds of goods, and support them however you can. Often you can learn what is needed and fundraise for these organizations on your own.
From our personal experience volunteering at multiple shelters and refugee centers, we learned that some of the most needed and appreciated items are simple hygiene kits containing things like a toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, and a bar of soap. You can learn more about how to assemble or purchase items for these kinds of hygiene kits here. Items for feminine hygiene kits such as these or these are also in great demand.
Volunteering can take on many different forms. You can find organizations close to home where you can donate time or skills. You can fundraise (again, “money over stuff”), and can engage in service projects like those curated by justserve.org—a fantastic service that directly links volunteers to the volunteer needs of charitable organizations in their area.
If you have the time, the means, and the will, you can also travel directly to Poland or one of the other neighboring countries that are providing safe harbor for Ukrainian refugees. The need there is vast, especially if you are a trained health care professional or speak Ukrainian or Russian (there is a tremendous need for translators).
There are some important caveats though. Don’t go unless you are prepared to be entirely self-sufficient. If you go expecting to be housed, fed, or otherwise cared for, you will be adding to the problem, not helping.
Sometimes you can link up with an organization and go as an official volunteer with that organization. Again, you should be prepared to pay your own way though.
Don’t go on your own unless you have at least a few contacts in-country and a general idea of where and how you will be helpful. Don’t go if you can’t speak Ukrainian, Russian, and/or the language of the country where you’ll be serving or unless you have a translator.
If you do go on your own, don’t expect to be hand-held or told what to do. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and help however and wherever you can. At some of the large refugee reception centers such as the Global EXPO center in Warsaw which feeds and houses around 3,000 refugees at any given time, you can just show up, register as a volunteer (you’ll need to show your passport and fill out some forms), and then jump in. When we were in Poland/Ukraine, we did everything from helping with the mountains of daily laundry to sorting medical supplies to distributing bedding to vacuuming floors to handing out diapers and wipes to doing musical activities with children.
And don’t go empty handed. Find out what is needed and check a couple of extra bags full of supplies. Before we left, we networked with a number of people/organizations that were already entrenched in the work. We learned that many of the orphanages in Ukraine have received huge influxes of children since the war began and are completely unprepared to meet all their needs. One orphanage, for example, suddenly found itself with over 120 children and had only one barely-functioning washing machine. Several other orphanages and one shelter for disabled children also needed washing machines. We were able to fundraise before we left and raised enough money to purchase washing machines for these places. The washers were purchased in Ukraine and delivered directly to these centers by drivers with the Backroads Foundation—an organization that is getting supplies deep into Ukraine.
We also learned that, while these orphanages in Ukraine are being well taken care of in terms of food, clothing, and diapers, there is a great need for “comfort toys” and for books to keep the children occupied and their minds stimulated. We found a way to purchase a large number of children’s books in Ukrainian through amazon.pl (Poland). The books were delivered to a church in Warsaw where we picked them up, sorted and packaged them, and made sure they got to the drivers who would take them into Ukraine. We also connected with an organization called Dolls of Hope here in the US and brought four large checked bags full of hand-sewn stuffed bears with us. These, too, were taken to the orphanages by drivers with the Backroads Foundation and the Nishkam SWAT organization. We kept some of both the bears and the books to give to individual children who were crossing the border into Ukraine (for which we were often rewarded with radiant smiles from the children and grateful tears from their mothers) and we donated the remainder to The Ukrainian House in Warsaw where they were happily received.
Since Dr. Glenn’s focus is music and because she had already arranged to teach music classes to children at several of the centers in Warsaw, we also raised funds to purchase a large selection of quality wooden musical instruments.
Because of our successful fundraising efforts, we also had the means to directly assess needs and then meet them. Many times, we would show up at the huge refugee reception center in Warsaw, ask what their needs were right at that moment, and then go to the nearby Auchan (a store similar to Walmart here in the US) to purchase those items and take them right back to the grateful directors. We filled many a shopping cart with things like milk, t-shirts, shorts, duffel bags, coloring books, tennis shoes, chapstick, and sunscreen. We were also able to help purchase luggage (a high demand item for people who often have fled with only the clothing on their backs and whatever they could carry) and meet a number of other important one-on-one needs.
4. Get Involved Politically
Make your voice heard as an engaged citizen. For example, you can:
- Contact your members of Congress and ask them to prioritize aid for Ukraine.
- Reach out to your governor and other state leaders and ask how they plan to help with refugee relief efforts.
- Learn all you can about the Uniting for Ukraine process here in the US.
- Educate yourself about the abuses and human rights violations associated with this crisis, and do whatever you can to help. Support human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.
5. Help Refugees Where You Are
This aspect of refugee relief efforts is often overlooked, but it’s arguably one of the most important and rewarding.
If housing a family is not feasible, you might help refugees find affordable housing and/or assist them in outfitting their new living quarters. You can teach formal or informal language conversation classes, offer to accompany refugees to doctor appointments, job interviews, government offices, schools, and so forth. You can help with shopping and childcare, or you can tutor refugee children. On that point, you can support education for Ukrainians more generally. Go here, for example, for more information. And finally, you can help refugees find jobs, or, if you are a business owner, you can hire them.
While most Ukrainian refugees want to return to their beloved homeland as soon as possible, the fact is that no one knows when this conflict will end and when that will be possible. In the meantime, it’s important to do whatever we can to help these refugees integrate into their host communities so that they can feel safe and successful.
The Ukrainian crisis is severe and the need for helpers is great. We can do more than just watch the news, wring our hands, and offer prayers (though prayers, too, are needed). There are many concrete things that everyday Americans can do right now to help alleviate suffering and build peace. Please find a way to act today.
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Sharlee Mullins Glenn is an author, advocate, and community organizer. She volunteers with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) and sits on the advisory board of Brigham Young University’s Civic Engagement program.
Melissa Dalton-Bradford currently lives in Germany where she teaches German language and conversation classes to Ukrainian refugees for several hours every day. She is an author and the former executive director of the refugee nonprofit organization, Their Story is Our Story (TSOS).