With our humanitarian funds from donations largely expended, I'm going to be focusing more energy on how I can help on the economic and housing recovery
Ukraine's Prior PR Problem
All the accolades about the Ukrainian patriotic spirit and bravery of the last two months stand in contrast to decades of, let’s say, not-so-flattering portrayals. Until recently, I wouldn’t be surprised if more Europeans had a better impression of Russians than Ukrainians. While such impressions are not based on much personal experience for most folks, several factors contribute. Corruption stands out in any assessment of the Ukrainian state and society. A hacker’s haven is another common criticism. Heck, just being one of Europe’s several poor and seemingly unsophisticated eastern neighbours is perhaps the most common general perception that makes Europeans suspicious.
A joke from SNL’s Weekend Update a couple months ago made me chuckle not because it was accurate with my own perception but rather with the common misconception. Co-host Colin Jost said something to the effect: “Russia is poised to invade Ukraine, but here at SNL we just want to know “why?” Has Russia run out of counterfeit vodka and track suits?” Ukraine isn’t really known for being among Europe’s more desirable places, but neither is Russia, and if you dig a little, you’ll find this is a double-edged jest.
While I have spent a lot of time getting to know Ukraine in the last seven years, most Europeans haven't. In Italy, for example, it’s not uncommon to meet people today who simply do not believe the images coming out of, say, Mariupol. Some news sources dealing with this incredulity give the excuse that people believe Ukraine is a deeply corrupt society and kind of just lump Ukrainians in with Russians and thus neither side is to be believed. It’s a human condition, I reckon, to assess based on the actors rather than the actual events and the evidence therewith. It’s a poor assessment, in most cases, and made all the more quickly in this case because people don’t want to believe what’s really happening. For many outsiders, knowing the truth of the cause and the events of this war would mean they could not sit idly by, and most Europeans simply don’t want to get involved at the level that is truly necessary.
At the government level, inaction or slow action often stems from political decisions made by leaders looking to hold on to power, not necessarily a reflection of the larger moral standing of their populations. Take France, for example, where Macron has largely been sidelined because of his election battle. His opponent in the run-off election – which he just won yesterday – was Marine Le Pen, an unabashed supporter of tearing down the fabric of society with lazy promises and a large array of scapegoats. She has close ties to Moscow, and Moscow supports candidates like her for the very reason that she looks to weaken the Anglo-American influence in Europe and the model of moderation embraced by Macron. Remember the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests)? That’s all tied in with Le Pen’s boost from the last election. She gained nearly 10 points from five years ago.
There are still a great many Europeans, however, who are way out ahead of the political establishment and removed from the populist threads of society. I’ve been quite critical of the German government’s ineptitude and hypocrisy, but the genuine effort by a large swath of German people has been rather full-throated comparatively. I have seen and heard of quite a lot of Germans standing up with financial support and getting their own hands dirty, as I like to say.
From what I can see, though, we’re going to need both political will and individual spirit to win the long war and it’s going to be sloppy along the way, just like democracies are. In the short-run, however, I don’t think more proactive countries – the US, UK, Canada, the Visegrad three, the Nordics, and the Baltics – should be slowed by waiting on the EU’s biggest economies – Germany, France, and Italy – to join the fight. Those politicians and parties will have to own their choice to do little in the face of human atrocity and the assault on the freedom endured by European neighbours. I do not think history will be kind to them. So when I make my rather undiplomatic assessments of Berlin, I’m not speaking of all those Berliners who are dedicating themselves to a cause bigger than themselves.
Humanitarian Aid & Vigilance
Take for example, Alex 21, a group that has grown much like most efforts I’ve witnessed here in Ukraine over the last two months: organically and guided by intent and need and not by preconception. Starting as a set of individuals, mostly in Berlin, who were loosely working together on transporting aid materials to the Ukrainian border and bringing refugees back to Berlin by bus, they have grown into an organisation of dozens of overlapping interests that connect all the way to the front lines of the war in eastern Ukraine.
Their name derives from a story that I’ll use to introduce the subject of human trafficking to this wide-sweeping crisis that I’ve been documenting these last two months. Among the many of the group's early refugees was a young woman named Alex, who is 21 years old. Upon arrival in Berlin, she was immediately targeted by human traffickers posing as volunteers who were wearing the “volunteer” vests that have become quite familiar to people around Europe in transport hubs. She recognised the threat and contacted Richard and Liz, my two friends at Alex 21, who quickly were able to get other genuine volunteers on the scene and save Alex from being abducted. In fact, they tell me, police were able to get on the scene and arrest the two traffickers.
In the process of trying to get Alex safe housing, a group of activists and financial supporters emerged (as well as some characters of questionable intent). Their messages on their group communications always started with the subject line “Alex, 21, needs housing…” hence the eventual name. The group gelled together around Liz and Richard, who themselves were only loosely connected through Richard’s daughter in Berlin.
Their story wasn’t the first time I heard about the criminal element that shadowed the refugees. In Kyiv, I met a small team out of Geneva who were trying to compile a report on human trafficking of women that basically starts from the Ukrainian borders and extends outward across Europe. When I told them I hadn’t read anything about that yet, they said that was by political choice. Authorities are afraid that too much attention spent on the rare scary cases could make the refugee support job outside of Ukraine harder, and I understand that. To me, though, I see this as an important component in the need for greater support for Ukrainians inside Ukraine.
Inside Ukraine, there isn’t the financial incentive for criminal organisations to kidnap and subjugate women like there is outside of Ukraine. Inside Ukraine, there just isn’t financial incentive with prostitution and women are at least confident with the language.
I know of at least one time when a bus of Ukrainian women was driven from the Polish border to a German brothel whilst none of the women were aware of their destination. Once there, they were told that this is where they would live so long as they “worked”. The one woman Alex 21 talked to who was on that bus, took the first opportunity to get out of there. She was unaware of what happened with everyone else on that bus.
There is another story of a bus hijacked at the border that was later found in Istanbul, only half of the riders being found shortly thereafter. I wish I knew more about what happened, but I suspect there’s a mix of truth and fiction in the details.
These are not the majority cases, and I’m not witnessing any of these events, but given that multiple NGO and UN sources have stated off the record that human traffickers have been preying upon the refugees from the very beginning of the war, it’s easy to believe these are accurate stories. Organised crime has been running these schemes for decades and the war has just made the process all the easier for them, and quite possibly all the more profitable.
How Housing Inside Ukraine Matters
One of the best places to start protecting women from international trafficking is to provide housing for women and specifically solo-flying mothers in safer cities like L’viv. By this stage in the war, it’s clear that much of Ukraine will not see Russian ground forces or artillery barrages. Sure there are a number of cities in the east that haven’t been hit that could get badly damaged and soon. (A lot of this depends on the speed of the delivery of the US heavy weapons.) Those aren’t the cities where the short-term need can best be met.
Part of my on-going interest in the war effort is to address the housing issue inside Ukraine, both at the present and in the long-run. It’s part of my professional training and experience as a city planner and a real estate investor, although I’m no expert in subsidised housing. What I’m going to be doing over the coming weeks is looking more at what small role I can play in the reconstruction plans. I suspect it’s going to be a combination of plans to attract international private investment as well as my own small private investment initiatives. It’s really hard to know what the governments need because so much right now is focused on winning the war, as it should be. Part of all this, no doubt, is the desire to feel useful in the face of such daunting on-going challenges.
A quick round-up of our activities in the last ten days
In the last few days, some international supplies have been arriving at the Ferenc Street IDP centre, which has been hugely helpful. The shipments with which I am familiar came from Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia; our neighbours who share our fear of Russia. Still, in the last two weeks, our collective aid effort provided more than $6000 of aid, all of which was purchased locally. Some of the items, like the TOM peanut butter, is locally made here in the L'viv region.
We’re also working on another shipment of field rations to the troops out east. I’m getting a little more involved in the ingredients we’re going to be using in the next round. That's not because of my culinary acumen, as I’m sure you all suspect, but rather it has more to do with my interest in high-protein, calorie-dense, fibrous food that is excellent for athletes and soldiers alike. If the result is delicious and economical, I’m going to be looking for sales agents from Maine to Margaret River (Western Australia), so now is your chance to get in early on the next big thing. (I’m joking, of course. I’m not so sure there’s any room in the crowded protein-bar market for all those that are in there already.)
Encouraging Questions and Comments
This blog site gives you folks the opportunity to make comments, but I know it's not really a popular feature anywhere if no one else seems to be doing it. Still, I'd love to get some feedback, particularly if you have any questions about Ukraine, or the conflict, or even personal questions like what else would I be doing if I wasn't here. You can use the contact form if you don't already know my email or mobile number.
I'm very interested in hearing from you if you think that I make statements that don't seem to make much sense. I know there are quite a few of you who are concerned about escalation, for example, and probably are frustrated that I don't seem to share your concerns. Happy to answer that one, or discuss disagreements if you feel that it would be useful to you, me, or both of us.