An aid group with roots in Alaska has been working to get much-needed supplies to Ukraine, as that war-torn country continues to battle Russian invaders.
At the end of what is now an international chain of volunteers and donors is a Ukrainian woman delivering the supplies, everything from medical kits and underwear to electrical generators and drones.
Her name is Olga Shpak, and she was in Alaska last week to talk to fellow members of the Assist Ukraine group about where the supplies are going and to tell Alaskans about what she’s seen as the war in Ukraine has progressed over more than a year.
Before the war, Shpak worked as a whale biologist, but she was born and raised in Kharkiv, a city hit hard by Russian forces. Shpak knew from the beginning she had to get home to help.
Olga Shpak: Well, Kharkiv is less than 40 kilometers from the Russian border. So on the first day of war, Russian tanks were on the belt road in Kharkiv. A couple of days later, Russian tanks would be in the city. Kharkiv was never taken, but there were battles in the city. The planes bombed Kharkiv from the first day of war. The shelling, the shelling was pretty, pretty hard for many months.
Casey Grove: Forgive me for asking this, but have people that that you know been hurt? Or have you lost anyone in the war?
OS: Unfortunately, many. I have lost relatives. I’ve lost a really, really close friend of mine. And then, because I started to volunteer from the beginning of the war, I developed close relationships with many soldiers. And unfortunately, I can say that a lot of phone numbers in my phone will never be active again. I’ve lost a lot of people.
CG: I’m sorry for that and just what you’ve had to go through with that. When you say when you started volunteering, what kind of things were you doing to assist there?
OS: So the first day I started to volunteer, there is a tent on the central square of Kharkiv, right in front of the regional administration building. So people in the city, they knew about this place, civilians and soldiers. And then, again, a lot of people who were civilians yesterday became soldiers, right on Feb. 24 (2022). So when the war started, I mean, of course, there was a lot of panic, nothing was organized. But everyone knew that there is a place to go to. So civilians would start bringing medical supplies, clothes, food to this place, fuel, and the soldiers that are passing by, they will quickly stop, take what they needed, and go where they had to go.
CG: Gotcha. Yeah, it sounds like it was, in the beginning, just kind of born out of necessity but that as this conflict has gone on, it had to get more organized. So how did you hear about Assist Ukraine? When did that come up? And how did you get attached with that group?
OS: It’s one of those mysteries of how the networks work. And so it was through someone through someone, she was a friend of my friend who put me in touch with this girl in Alaska. And then that person said, “Can I can I bring someone else?” And that was Art (Davidson). And this is how we met.
CG: So tell me more about Assist Ukraine. I understand it kind of started here in Anchorage, is that right?
OS: Yes. Art Davidson with his friends founded this foundation. And also Anne Garrels, who used to be an NPR correspondent for many years and worked in Russia. And then more people joined the group. And it became, it has become, international. I work on the ground in Ukraine. Now it’s wide, geographically.
CG: Yeah, that’s super interesting that it’s so big now. And it makes me wonder about more of the things that you’re trying to collect to get to Ukraine. It sounds like it’s just kind of like anything, I mean, generators, medical supplies, uniforms. What else? I mean, what kind of things are you trying to get there? Does it just kind of depend on the day?
OS: When I try to explain what I do, I’m saying, “Imagine Amazon.” It can be underwear and socks. And those may be urgently needed, if people if people sit in the cellars in Bakhmut and can’t change, and they don’t have access to water. So to have clothes to change for dry ones could be crucial for them. And then it could be pickup trucks, could be Starlinks, could be drones, and anything in between. Literally, anything. And usually it’s needed yesterday. Every time I got the phone call, it’s like, “We need it now.”
CG: It sounds like it can be kind of dangerous just to transport things in a car. It could get shelled or something like that. I mean, that seems terrifying to think about, to me. Are you worried when you go in that you might get hit or killed or something?
OS: The war is terrifying. This is the war the way you see it in the movies, all wars. I don’t go often to the frontline, so I can’t say that I’m permanently in danger. But from time to time, we do go, we need to deliver help, when the frontline was closer to Kharkiv, because huge part of the Kharkiv region was occupied. Well, I’m glad the logistics is more difficult now, because it means that the frontline is further from Kharkiv!
CG: What do you want Alaskans to know about either this war or the work that you’re doing? As you look for more help in this project, what are you telling folks?
OS: I’m meeting a lot of people here who say, when they meet me and we talk, and they find out more, they ask, “We want to help, but we don’t know how to help.” And a lot of people are reluctant just to send money to, let’s say, Ukraine. You never know where this money would go to. You don’t get the feedback. And it’s always more satisfying to know with whom you’re working. And I’m here, not so much to ask for more help, but to say thank you and kind of report to them and tell them what’s going on how we used their money, whom we helped, which lives we saved.