Aid for Ukraine: love and logistics - Dani Garavelli

IN the Hindu Temple in Glasgow’s West End, Pauline Lambie is counting baby bottles and beakers as she places them one by one in a giant bag. By the time I arrive, she has reached 100. We survey what remains - a mish mash of plastic drinking vessels in a see-through container - and agree it looks like a “guess the number” contest. Later, as I watch other bags being loaded onto a lorry, she will shout the final tally - “600” - to me as she passes.

Lambie - one of around 100 volunteers who have come and gone throughout the day- is carrying out her inventory in a sea of jumble. Almost every square inch of floor is covered with blankets, towels, clothes, toys, all of which have to be sifted and sorted. Every room in the temple, including the kitchen, is the same.

Lambie had not set out to offer her services. But she had passed the building in the morning and realised they were required. Thanks to her and others, the foyer is now stacked with goods packed and ready for transportation to the Polish/ Ukrainian border. They are all clearly marked: 20 x pillows; 50 x blankets; 50 x sleeping bags and so on.

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It’s an uphill struggle. At the entrance, a cardboard sign reads: “No more donations.” Yet, at 5.30pm on Thursday, there is a steady stream of people turning up with fresh loads. Distressed by images of suffering, they are desperate to give. Some are unhappy to be turned away. And the volunteers are reluctant to stamp on their generosity. And so those who express disappointment are allowed to add their bags to the pile, regardless.

Helping Ukraine Campaign at Hindu Mandir Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin/JPIMedia

Outside, I meet Kasia Sebastainowicz, 33, who kick-started this humanitarian venture. A single mum to a five-year-old boy, she knows what it feels like to be scared. She left Poland as a teenager after the death of her mother. By the age of 16, she was working with street children in Azerbaijan.

When Putin invaded Ukraine, her aunt and cousin, who still live in Poland, drove to the border and brought back two families to live in their homes. Thousands of miles away in Scotland, Sebastainowicz wanted to contribute too. She decided to drive a transit van full of goods to her homeland to help families like hers who had taken in refugees.

She approached her friends Gillian McCallum, a former political adviser, and Akshay Goenka, who runs a career development company. McCallum posedt a tweet asking for donations and, within 24 hours, 200 people had sent emails of support. Goenka asked the Hindu Temple if they could use the building as a base and set up Facebook and JustGiving pages. The donations began to pour in.

It quickly became clear this aid operation would require more than a transit van. Goenka contacted Stuart Nicol Transport and the company agreed to supply some lorries and drivers. He says he hopes other haulage firms will also come on board.

International aid charity Glasgow The Caring City has sent a second phase of requested aid to the Ukraine/Poland border. Picture: Craig Foy / SNS Group

“We have already raised £7,000,” says Goenka. “Now we are looking to Scottish businesses to donate larger chunks because, while the trucks and the drivers will be provided by our haulage partners, we will be paying for fuel. And we have worked out it will cost £2,000 a trip.”

Sebastainowicz, an office administrator in Wishaw, is overwhelmed by the response to her plea. “I was crying when I read all the emails,” she says. “It’s like a dream.” She is in tears when the first of three Stuart Nicol lorries arrives and a chain of men hoist the sacks on board. But it’s not long before the vehicle is full and only the tiniest of dents has been made on the stockpile.

“We expect to clear 40 pallets tonight," Goenka says, "but there are more than 200 pallets here.” I ask him if he is daunted by what he and the others have taken on. “Yes,” he replies. “And I am nervous. I have a massive weight on my shoulder. If this fails, who takes responsibility?“

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Hindu Mandir Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin/JPIMedia

The war in Ukraine is showcasing the best and worst of humanity. Every night, the news brings fresh horrors: babies born in bunkers, a nuclear power station shelled, families ripped apart. But we are also seeing great acts of kindness: Poles travelling to the border to pick up those who have fled; Germans meeting refugees off planes at Berlin airport; people opening up their homes and hearts in the darkest of hours.

Here in the UK, there is a limit to what individuals can do. While EU countries are allowing all Ukrainian refugees to stay for three years without claiming asylum, the UK government visa rules have been relaxed only for those with close relatives already living in Britain. Last week, SNP defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald urged Home Secretary Priti Patel to fix the gap after speaking to a Ukrainian friend who wanted to come to the UK but has no family here.

Elsewhere, Gavin Price, who owns the Schiehallion Hotel and Fountain Bar in Aberfeldy, has offered employment to two Ukrainians. He has promised to cover the cost of flights, accommodation and work visas, but has been told the paperwork could take up to three months to sort out. SNP MP Pete Wishart has taken up his case. “Surely we must be in a position where we could set this red tape aside,” he told Parliament last week.

Unable to open up their homes, Scots have been finding other ways to express their solidarity. Up and down the country, churches, shops, schools, nurseries and scout groups have been delivering goods to centres like the Hindu Temple or the Ukrainian Club in Edinburgh. Such gestures are a powerful antidote to all the hate. But they also expose the dilemmas at the heart of humanitarian efforts.

Akshay Goenka. Picture: John Devlin/JPIMedia

Some ad hoc ventures will be well-executed and may develop into something much bigger. The charity Mary’s Meals, for example, began with a gut reaction much like Sebastainowicz’s. Moved by footage of the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, brothers Magnus and Fergus MacFarlane-Barrow organised an appeal only to find themselves inundated. They bought a second-hand Land Rover and joined an aid convoy delivering donated goods to Medjugorje, a place of Catholic pilgrimage. They thought they’d done their bit. But donations kept on coming.

Magnus took a gap year from his job so he could make more trips to Bosnia, going on to form the charity Scottish International Relief (SIR). Over the next 10 years, the SIR expanded and evolved, eventually becoming Mary’s Meals which now feeds one million children a year.

But there have been other instances where humanitarian initiatives have proved counterproductive. One of the most notorious was the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when myriad NGOs and other organisations piled in, causing chaos. Sometimes good intentions are undermined by colonial attitudes. Those offering support wrongly assume they have a better understanding of what is needed than those who live in the affected country. In order to be useful, charities need to forge strong links with partner organisations on the ground and ensure they are not adding to existing pressures.

They also need to have a firm grasp of the system. Some of those trying to send lorry-loads of aid from the UK are already encountering issues with post-Brexit bureaucracy.

At the behest of two Polish workers, Bryce Cunningham, who owns Mossgiel Organic Farm in Ayrshire, began collecting goods including blankets, sleeping bags, nappies, canned food, sanitary products and first aid kits. In the end, there were enough donations for three lorry-loads. However, the first lorry was impounded in France overnight due to problems with documentation. After many stressful phone calls, that lorry reached Poland on Thursday.

The second lorry was driven by a Ukrainian driver, who was stranded in Scotland when the war broke out and offered to take a shipment of aid back to his homeland. But the company he was employed by had an account with a sanctioned Russian bank so he couldn’t make transactions. With no money and little English, he had to park in laybys as he couldn’t afford truck stops.

Kasia Sebastainowicz. Picture: John Devlin/JPIMedia

Local firm Carrs Billington, which sells used farm machinery and equipment, paid for fuel to get him on the road, while another group donated money for his ferry ticket and refuelling in Germany. At the time of writing , he had cleared UK and French customs and was heading east across Europe. The third lorry left Ayrshire on Friday afternoon.

Responding to a suggestion some of the goods might end up in landfill, Cunningham said: “We have sent only what Polish and Ukrainian charities requested, We know they have plans for its use.” Leftover donations will be handed to Scottish homeless charities or kept for refugees here.

Back in Glasgow, Sebastainowicz, Goenka and McCallum are struggling with logistics. Goenka says many Scottish haulage firms are used to importing and exporting new goods, whereas much of what they have collected is second-hand.

The lorries which left the Hindu Temple on Thursday night were heading heading not to Dover, but to the Stuart Nicol warehouses in Shotts where the goods were to be decanted and stored until their onward journey could be finalised. “The response to our appeal for Ukraine was overwhelming,” McCallum wrote the following night. “As a result we are having to sort out logistic issues and red tape and are in talks with organisations to help us. We are disappointed we can’t get the van out today but are doing our best to get to Poland ASAP.”

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One Scottish charity with a track record of transporting aid to crisis zones is Glasgow the Caring City, run by Ross Galbraith. The organisation, which has one employee - Galbraith - and 15 to 20 core volunteers, has worked in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, south Sudan, Iraq, the Middle East as well as in the wake of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. It has forged partnerships with foreign aid organisations and UK businesses willing to supply new goods at short notice.

As soon as it became clear refugees were likely to flee Ukraine, Galbraith contacted aid workers from the Red Cross in Serbia - with whom he has previously worked - and asked to be put in touch with their counterparts in Poland and Ukraine.

“We were told there was an urgent need for infant shoes so we went to one of our partners in London and they sent nine pallets which were with us by Friday [February 25],” he says.

The charity also has contacts with Polish businesses, one of which offered to take a shipment of aid out on Monday, February 28. That first lorry contained the shoes, first aid kits, warm blankets and new women’s and children’s clothing.

Glasgow the Caring City also has an ongoing relationship with a soap manufacturer which has provided 47,000 hygiene packs while another company has supplied 30,000 flat pack self-heating meals. These goods along with 10,000 bottles of water were loaded on a second lorry which left for the Polish/Ukrainian border on Friday.

“We have also been asked for ibuprofen and paracetamol but we don’t have a licence to transport pharmaceutical products so we will procure them locally,” says Galbraith who is flying out on Sunday. “The same is true of USB mobile phone chargers.”

Having provided urgent aid, Glasgow the Caring City is now moving into phase two of its response which is to supply partners with what they need to establish and run ongoing services such as respite centres or vans which travel out to villages which have been cut off from the food supply chain.

The Ukrainian Red Cross is still operating inside the war-torn country, with volunteers distributing tens of thousands of food and hygiene parcels, and helping evacuate people with disabilities. They have also provided food, warm clothing and other aid to around 8,000 people sheltering in metro stations. Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is working to provide water and repair water infrastructure especially in areas in the east, where water supplies have been disrupted.

Galbraith says Glasgow the Caring City is acutely aware of the sensitivities around the provision of aid. “We are not led by what people donate to us, we are led by what is required on the ground,” he says. “We want to ensure we make the best of the money we raise and also that we don’t clog up the supply chain mechanism. It can become very burdensome if too many groups go out and suddenly you find yourself in a quagmire of hundreds of trucks and unorganised goods arriving at a checkpoint.”

He has been liaising with several smaller organisations which are looking to tap into the charity’s expertise. “They want to know how to prepare the aid, how to make an inventory, how to identify partners on the ground, what they need in terms of documentation for customs,” he says.

But he is concerned about the capacity of some pop-up groups to make an effective contribution. “Scottish people are philanthropic, which is a good thing,” he says. “But the question is: how do you make sure you are moving aid to the place it’s required? How do you ensure the partner organisations can distribute what you send? Volunteers travelling to crisis zones can place an additional pressure on local economies and local staff who have to provide them with accommodation and security. That’s why we stay in the background as much as possible and let local people tackle the issues themselves.”

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Many high-profile figures have been urging those who wish to help to donate money directly to the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal launched on Thursday.

“Sending food and meds across the EU is highly complex even for experts and nigh-on impossible for hugely mixed loads of generously donated items,” tweeted Dragons’ Den star Deborah Meaden. “I don’t want to say this as people are being wonderful and it’s lovely, but the DEC [organisations] buy in bulk and in local currency and so get more for their money and they support the local community who are supporting the refugees.”

The DEC was established 59 years ago when one of the founding members asked the BBC to broadcast an appeal. The BBC said it couldn’t single out one charity for airtime and suggested the major players come together to form a committee. Today, whenever a crisis occurs overseas, the chief executives of the 15 DEC members, including Oxfam, the Red Cross, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee, come together to decide if they should approach the BBC, ITV, Sky, C4 and C5.

For a DEC appeal to be launched, a crisis has to pass three hurdles: there must be an unmet humanitarian need, the majority of the 15 members must be in a position to respond effectively, and there must be enough media coverage to guarantee public awareness.

Once an appeal is launched, member organisations suspend their individual marketing in the affected region for two weeks of joint action. The money raised is divided up proportionally according to the size of the charity.

Huw Owen, external relations manager for the DEC in Scotland, says one of the great things about a DEC appeal is that the impact is immediate and visible. “At 6am this morning [Thurs] at the start of the Today programme we had one minute of free air time and we saw people donating in their thousands - that’s the power of broadcasting.”

Last week, Nicola Sturgeon said £2m of the £4m of Scottish Government money announced for Ukraine would go to the DEC appeal. She said donating to the appeal was the fastest and most efficient way to get money to charities that are helping.

The response so far has been phenomenal, with more than £55m raised in the first 24 hours (£20m of it match funding from the UK government). Ordinary people are once again getting actively involved. On Friday night, social media was awash with fund-raising events: cake and candy stalls, non-uniform days, charity T-shirts and posters, buskers, poetry readings, concerts. The UK government’s response to the continued bombardment of Ukraine may be lacklustre; but the desire of ordinary people to help those whose lives are torn apart by war appears irrepressible.

International aid charity Glasgow The Caring City has sent a second phase of requested aid to the Ukraine/Poland border. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Huw Owen Disasters Emergency Committee
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