The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

‘People started asking us to help them and we couldn’t say no’ – Kharkiv volunteers

Neil Camilleri and Liza Kozlenko Thursday, 19 May 2022, 12:54 Last update: about 2 months ago

Neil Camilleri and Liza Kozlenko reporting from Kharkiv in Ukraine

When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, elderly and infirm people started calling Galina and her husband Sergey to help them by taking them food, medicines and other supplies. Within a few days, the Kharkiv couple had set up a volunteer NGO that rescues and helps people all over the bombed-out city.

The Malta Independent sat down with the two volunteers at the primary school that has been turned into the headquarters for the operation they run. They now have several volunteers involved, and the place is packed to the roof with food, drinks, nappies and medical supplies. Yet what they have is never enough. There are simply too many people who have ended up homeless or trapped in their damaged apartments, particularly in the Saltivka district, which has borne the brunt of Russian artillery and rocket attacks on the city.

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Galina and Sergey have been volunteering since the 2014 war, but it was only recently that they have formed a full-blown NGO to help the elderly, infirm and those who simply don’t have anyone to take care of them.

“Elderly people started calling us and asking us to bring them food and medicine.They were running out of everything. We could not say no,” says Galina. 

“Initially, the headquarters was our apartment. At first it was just me, my husband, our daughter and our son-in-law. Eventually we got more volunteers to help out.”

Galina explains that it was very difficult to transfer humanitarian aid to Kharkiv by car so they created a hub at the railway station.  The operation continued to grow and they eventually moved to the primary school where we met them. They had plans to move to another school, but the building was bombed two days prior to the interview. 

“Today, we have private sponsors who send us money and supplies. It’s a small charity organisation but we are in the process of registering the NGO and we are building relationships with many more organisations. People who we had helped before and who have since moved abroad also help us out. We also receive small donations form charities on the western side of Ukraine.”

The NGO helps anyone in need, irrespective of their age. They extract people from their bombed-out homes and take them to safety.

In the beginning they started from Saltivka. “There was one family, a young man whose mother is paralysed. They got stuck on the 14th floor and the volunteers kept bringing them food. The apartment had been struck by a missile and was partially destroyed.There were no elevators and rescuers had to deliver food by hand every couple of days.”

Sergey tells us about another case. “There was a family in Saltivka district. The grandmother was 99, the mother was 80 and the daughter was 60. They all needed evacuation. I had to carry the grandma in my arms while the area was being shelled. We had trouble finding her documents but eventually we found them and managed to take her to the train station to be evacuated.”

Asked if he feels scared during these extractions, Sergey says all volunteers feel fear, “but the work has to be done.”

Galina explains that some of the volunteers are also residents who have lost their homes. Yet they make do and spend their days helping others.

“There is a family of three. Their block of flats was partially destroyed. Their house will probably collapse because it is so damaged, but they still come here to volunteer.”

“Many of our cars were damaged during the shelling, but the guys went out and fixed them and then kept on driving to deliver the help to the people in need. Entire families work here.

Sometimes, young people start volunteering and eventually their parents join them. There are also people who are unemployed and are happy to volunteer just as long as they get something to eat at the centre.”

Galina says that the volunteers started out with basic equipment and would often have to carry people in blankets used as makeshift stretchers. They have since received much better equipment, but the volunteers are still willing to carry people in their arms if they have to.”

Their work sometimes leads to love stories, too. The couple told us about two elderly women who were evacuated to Germany and Poland and who found love there after they met two other Ukrainian men who had also been evacuated.

They have also helped eight mothers who gave birth over the past few weeks by providing them with the necessary items, including baby milk and nappies.

“The situation is getting worse and worse. It’s getting more difficult to get supplies to Kharkiv. Before, the government would do that but now the volunteers are doing more and more. This is just the beginning. Even if the war ended tomorrow, there will be people in need of help for many months to come.” 

The NGO is called ‘Association for the Protection of Human Rights in Ukraine, Osnovyansky Unit.’ 

Sponsors may send funds to the organisation by bank transfer on the following Ukrainian account:  5354 3210 2049 1586 Kharlamova Galina/Ukrsibbank, or by PayPal on: [email protected]

Photos: Giuseppe Attard


Our team in Ukraine would like to thank the following companies for their support:

GO - for providing them with unlimited mobile data.

Moneybase, EY Malta, APS Bank, Jesmond Mizzi Financial Advisors, Multi Packaging Limited for providing financial support.

 

The Malta Police Force for providing the team with protective equipment.

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