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Ukrainians in the U.S. support their country. But getting aid there is difficult

Ianina and Sergiy Piontkovskyi, at their home in a suburb of Washington, D.C. on March 4.
Greg Kahn for NPR
Ianina and Sergiy Piontkovskyi, at their home in a suburb of Washington, D.C. on March 4.

Updated March 9, 2022 at 3:19 PM ET

Ianina Piontkovska, like many Ukrainians living in the U.S., is following the news of the Russian invasion of her country in shock and anguish. "I never could have foreseen this massacre," she says.

"It's difficult to see the images of destroyed buildings in Kyiv,"Piontkovska says, with tears welling up in her eyes. "I used to walk those streets and I cannot accept the reality."

Her 80-year-old Russian-born mother, a brother and his family, her father-in-law, many friends and her husband, Sergiy Piontkovskyi, live in Ukraine. Her husband travels back and forth between Kyiv and the U.S. – and luckily, she says, he was in the U.S. when the invasion began.

"I'm very afraid," says the 55-year old mother of three sitting in her living room in a Washington, D.C., suburb one recent morning. She says Putin won't back down, referring to Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Piontkovska speaks with her mother and friends throughout the day, several times a day, she says. "I need to hear their voices." But she says she struggles with her emotions, "I have to be brave and optimistic to keep them calm and give them hope." She says it's agonizing to hear the bombings through the line.

On the weekend of Feb. 26, a pediatrician friend in Kyiv told her of the urgent medical needs in hospitals and clinics, she says. "I knew then that I needed to organize medical supply donations in the U.S." She contacted the Ohmatdyt Central Children's Hospital in Kyiv and got a list of what's urgently needed – things like blood-stanching medication, analgesics, tourniquets and antibiotics, she says.

Getting donations was easy but the logistics of shipping to Kyiv are proving to be difficult

"I sent out an email to everyone I know in the U.S. asking for those items," she says. "I never thought I would be doing anything like this because I didn't think Russia would invade."

Piontkovska says asking for donations was the easy part, but it's the logistics of shipping to a country in the midst of an attack, and straight to the Children's Hospital in Kyiv that's proving difficult.

She contacted her local Red Cross to no avail. She also called the national and international Red Cross and Razom for Ukraine – no luck there either.

Razom for Ukraine or Together for Ukraine is an American nonprofit created to help Ukrainians after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. Maria Genkin, a board member, says her group has gotten overwhelming support since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Genkin says that traditional delivery and shipping methods in Ukraine have been affected because bridges and roads have been destroyed or made extremely dangerous by the invasion. But she says Razom is currently shipping aid directly to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine about 50 miles from the border with Poland that has been spared direct attacks.

"Razom has an organized network of volunteers on the ground in Ukraine who are delivering donations, it's a crowdsourcing delivery system," she says, adding that many people in Ukraine are involved in the effort.

For the past two weeks, Genkin says, "Razom's top priority has been to ship First Aid medical kits to treat excessive bleeding." She says these kits are going to civilians fighting on the ground, and it includes tourniquets, wound packing gauze and emergency trauma dressing, among other related necessities.

"If Razom gets donations delivered to its warehouse in New Jersey, we would ship it, but getting it delivered to a specific hospital it's not realistic," Genkin says. It's a financial responsibility for Razom to ship the aid from the West Coast to their warehouse. "That's why we couldn't work with Ianina Piontkovska's donations," Genkins says.

The American Red Cross is not assisting with these types of humanitarian efforts

The American Red Cross, through a spokesperson, tells NPR, that the organization is working on the ground in Ukraine and though the humanitarian needs are incredibly high, the organization can't take on efforts like Piontkovska's. The spokesperson says – even though they are well intentioned:

"The American Red Cross is not accepting those donations, which take time, money and resources to sort and distribute. The best way to help, at this time, is through a designated financial gift to your local Red Cross."

Piontkovska hasn't given up. She's leaning more on her own circle of friends and family in the U.S. Her daughter's sister-in-law, Neeka Delaney, is in charge of sales and purchasing at Allied Medical Products, Inc., it's Delaney's family-owned medical supply business in Orange County, Calif., and it's donating syringes, needles, tourniquet kits, gloves, diapers and baby formula.

"Some of our clients have reached out wanting to help too," Delaney says. "We are getting several pallets ready to ship," and Delta Logistics, Inc., a company headquartered in Iowa, with a warehouse in Oregon, has agreed to ship it.

And though Allied has provided humanitarian financial aid to other countries, including Armenia and Lebanon, Delaney says, "This feels more daunting."

"The invasion has disrupted shipping logistics," she says, "and we want to make sure that what we are sending is going to go to where it needs to go."

Ihor Levkiv is also organizing medical aid to beleaguered Ukrainians since the invasion began. He and his family came to the U.S. 27 years ago. He's the president of the Ukrainian-American Cultural Association of Oregon and Southwest Washington.

"The eagerness to help has been unbelievable," Levkiv says. He's also organizing aid donations and shipments to Ukraine. "We have about 57 pallets of medical supplies in Portland ready to be shipped and about 30 pallets in Seattle already," he says. These were donated by local individuals, schools, churches.

Ianina, Sergiy, and daughters Sonia and Mariana Piontkovskyi, at their home. Helping Ukraine is a family effort. Sergiv created an online petition to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine and Sonia and Mariana are organizing fundraisings at their schools
/ Greg Kahn for NPR
/
Greg Kahn for NPR
Ianina, Sergiy, and daughters Sonia and Mariana Piontkovskyi, at their home. Helping Ukraine is a family effort. Sergiv created an online petition to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine and Sonia and Mariana are organizing fundraisings at their schools

"It's even hard to describe, but I'm running into huge hurdles"

And just like Piontkovska, Levkiv's biggest challenge has been getting the aid delivered to Ukraine, he says.

"It's even hard to describe, but I'm running into huge hurdles," he says. He's in contact with officials in Washington, D.C., as well as with the Ukrainian embassy in San Francisco, "but still no solution," he says. He's also approaching DHL, the international shipping company, in hopes that the pallets can be flown from Portland, Oregon to Poland.

"Scenes of Putin's attacks are unconscionable and appalling," Levkiv says. He has been following the news of Russian's invasion of Ukraine with anxiety and anger. He says that if the world doesn't stop Putin now, "He will not stop after destroying Ukraine. Who will Putin invade next?"

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine escalates, almost two weeks after it began, both Piontkovska and Levkiv say they feel they are running against the clock to deliver the much-needed medical supplies. But this week, the first shipment starts its journey from Allied Medical Products' warehouse in California to Delta Logistics' in Oregon and then onto Ukraine, confirms Allied's Neeka Delaney.

It's taken many sleepless nights, phone calls, emails, but Piontkovska and Levkiv say that their determination to help their country remains unfettered.

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