At the end of 2021, the global refugee population reached an unprecedented 26.6 million, with 68 percent of refugees coming from five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has forced more than 4.3 million people in Ukraine to flee the country within just several weeks, making the exodus the largest movement of people in Europe since World War II.
Many large nongovernmental organizations are focusing on supporting the millions of refugees who are entering Poland. While the Polish government has been hospitable toward many white Ukrainians, it is holding some refugees of color who are fleeing Ukraine in detention camps. Meanwhile, governments and organizations in Romania and Moldova, both smaller and relatively lower-income countries compared to Poland, are scrambling to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees with little outside support.
“It feels like the eye of the storm right now,” said Walker Frahm, chief operations officer of Lifting Hands International, an aid organization helping refugees achieve stability and self-sufficiency. Frahm, who had spent a week and a half in Moldova and Romania in mid-March, told Truthout that about a quarter of the 400,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine who had entered Moldova remain in the country of just 2.6 million. Since the country is unable to provide shelter space to all but a fraction of refugees, Moldovan families have generously volunteered their private homes to accommodate the vast majority of them. Frahm said he had heard reports of discrimination toward refugees from Ukraine who are of Indian, Roma and African descent in the countries, although he said he didn’t witness discrimination firsthand.
Frahm said most people fleeing Ukraine did not understand why the Russian government was bombing them, and saw their stay as short-term. “They don’t consider themselves refugees,” he said. “They say, ‘Yes, I’ve been forced from my home because of war, but we’re going to go back as soon as it settles down.’”
But as Putin’s invasion drags on, grassroots networks are making plans to support people for the long haul.
There is generally an outpouring of international support when crises emerge, with piles of aid accumulating at border crossings. On-the-ground organizations can quickly become overwhelmed unless they have proper places to store items. To solve this problem, an informal, loosely connected grassroots aid network of about a dozen groups is working on establishing supply chains and long-term warehouse aid hubs in Moldova, Romania and Slovakia, and hope to set up hubs at halfway points in places like the Netherlands and Germany.
“We could just hop around from crisis to crisis, chasing the news cycle, but from a human perspective, from an impact perspective, we want to make sure that we don’t disappear as soon as the news goes away,” Frahms explained. “We want to be able to continue meeting needs as long as they’re there.”
Before collecting aid, Lifting Hands International conducted an on-the-ground needs assessment to ensure refugees are receiving items that they actually want and need. Then, they advertised the needs through social media and an app called JustServe. People can purchase requested items and send them directly to Lifting Hands International’s warehouse in Utah or drop them off to about 60 drop-off points throughout the state — a network that Lifting Hands International had established while supporting Afghan, Syrian, and other refugees for years. Lifting Hands International volunteers pick up aid from the drop-off points, which are mostly volunteers’ homes, and bring it to the warehouse.
Once upon a time, we thought it might be hard to fill our humanitarian aid warehouse in Utah. Now we're afraid it isn't big enough!
THANK YOU to our Utah program staff, volunteers, drop-off locations representatives, donors, and partner orgs for keeping this warehouse full! ❤️ pic.twitter.com/62ZwMmLUC7
— Lifting Hands NGO (@LiftingHandsINT) March 17, 2022
Another group called Distribute Aid — a Swedish nonprofit that has specialized in providing logistical support for humanitarian relief in the U.K., France, Lebanon, Greece, the U.S., and elsewhere — coordinates shipments for grassroots organizations, including Lifting Hands International. “We have the time and the resources to actually look at what the import and export requirements are, to make sure that people are ready to get the cheapest shipping possible for them,” Nicole Tingle, Distribute Aid’s regional director for Europe, told Truthout. “And then they can focus on running their collections, doing fundraisers, making sure that they’re building out their programs and projects to the best of their abilities.”
Lifting Hands International and Distribute Aid will be sending their first joint aid shipment container with hygiene supplies and other nonfood items from Utah to an aid hub that had been a decommissioned event center in Iași, Romania. “Our aid that is going there will support some longer-term shelters where the initial support from community members is starting to peter out and they’re anticipating there will be many unmet needs as the war drags on,” Frahm said. They’ll be sending a container to Moldova soon, where the situation is increasingly desperate.
To minimize emissions, maximize efficiency and cut shipping delivery times, Distribute Aid is also developing a supply chain visibility tool that will take stock of what items grassroots groups have and need. “With our needs assessment surveys, we ask each group what they have too much of,” said Taylor Fairbank, Distribute Aid’s operations director, “and instead of every group having to contact every other group to figure it out, they just have to fill out our one survey, and then we can do the matching on the back end and suggest trades to them.”
But they are also connecting disparate groups with each other directly. “We’ve put a lot of groups that are in countries bordering Ukraine in contact with each other in WhatsApp group chats,” said Tingle.
Some newly formed grassroots groups are stepping up to meet the unique needs of marginalized people fleeing Ukraine.
Black Women for Black Lives is providing direct financial support to Black people fleeing Ukraine in the face of so-called “Ukrainians First” policies, whereby members of the African diaspora who were living in Ukraine when the war started are now being held hostage in the war-torn country while white Ukrainians are allowed to flee. “In just 5 short weeks, we’ve been able to help evacuate people out of Ukraine, help them pay for food when their city was under siege and even help them afford accommodation, transportation and medical aid,” the organization wrote on its fundraiser page. After raising more than £326,000 across several platforms and helping more than 2,000 people, BW4BL stopped raising funds on April 5.
Outright International, a global LGBTQ+ human rights organization headquartered in New York City, is accepting donations for local, vetted organizations that are helping LGBTQ+ people who are fleeing Ukraine to find safe shelter.
And while the refugee solidarity movement has been delighted to see a flood of solidarity for refugees fleeing Ukraine, they note that millions of Black and Brown refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and elsewhere are still being detained in horrendous conditions across the world. A harrowing new investigative report by ProPublica, for example, revealed that U.S. shelters holding Afghan child refugees have been ill-equipped to provide them with culturally appropriate care. Some children are attempting to commit suicide, starting fights and running away, according to the report.
“These conditions are a choice that has been made again and again by political actors for their own gain — whether that be in attempting to unite voters against a common ‘enemy’ or using displaced people as bargaining chips in political disputes,” Tingle said.
In an op-ed for Al Jazeera, South Sudanese refugee, activist and writer Nhial Deng, wrote that he was pleased to see the world unite to support Ukrainians, but questioned where these world leaders, corporations and universities were when armed invaders attacked and burned his village 11 years ago. “Where were the people of goodwill offering for me to stay with them instead of being stuck in a refugee camp for a decade?” he wrote. “People can — when they want — respond to refugees at their countries’ borders with compassion and love, rather than suspicion, fear and indifference.”
Distribute Aid, Lifting Hands International, and others in the refugee solidarity movement hope that newly galvanized activists will make connections between the plights of Ukrainians and others who are forced to flee their homes.
While compassionate disaster relief efforts can make refugees’ lives easier, on their own, they ultimately won’t prevent the next mass forced displacement.
“People are fleeing climate change driven by for-profit companies, or wars driven by interests of imperialist governments,” said Fairbank. “The West is especially complicit in outsourcing the violence that is driving its economic growth on to poor Black and Brown countries and then punishing those who dare flee to safety. So not only do we have to create a welcoming atmosphere to those who make it to our borders, but we have to support grassroots movements in our own countries and around the world that are fighting back against politicians and companies who capitalize off these harmful conditions.”