The Boston Globe spent eight days in western Ukraine speaking with people about how they’re coping amid the ongoing war and what’s next. This is the third and final story in a series of dispatches from a nation under siege.
CHERNIVTSI, Ukraine — Six hundred refugees began lining up at 6:30 a.m. outside an elementary school in this western Ukraine city. Many of them were mothers with young children and old women leaning on canes, sweltering under a cloudless sky as temperatures climbed to the mid-90s.
They stood without complaint recently, patiently waiting their turn through a long, uncomfortable day because they had heard that a Boston-based volunteer group would provide money to war-scattered families like themselves.
The group is called Cash for Refugees, and cofounders Natasha and Semyon Dukach of the Back Bay have made it their mission to connect displaced Ukrainians with small amounts of cash, much of which goes toward day-to-day needs: phone cards, children’s clothing, soap and toothpaste, laptop chargers.
It’s assistance that can be overlooked as Western nations and larger nonprofit groups rush massive amounts of humanitarian aid to Ukraine — food, medical supplies, military equipment — while the fight against Russia drags on into its sixth month.
“I have no choice but to do this. This is a war,” said Natasha Dukach, 42, an epidemiologist and biostatistician who recently received a master’s degree in public health from Boston University.
Natasha Dukach, born close to Ukraine in the former Soviet Union, has repeated the journey eight times since the war began. Aided by 40 volunteers, the group has created a grass-roots way to meet Ukrainian refugees on the ground, in small groups, without red tape or fanfare.
Semyon Dukach, who left Moscow with his parents in 1979, invests in tech companies founded by immigrants. He also was one of the MIT students whose math genius made them millions from blackjack at casinos all over the world, a feat chronicled in the best-selling book “Busting Vegas.”
So far, Cash for Refugees has distributed more than $1.2 million in donations, Natasha Dukach said. From late February until April, the group put cash in the hands of refugees at the Ukrainian borders with Romania, Poland, and Slovakia.
Since then, its operations have moved inside Ukraine, and money now is channeled directly to the refugees’ bank accounts so they can easily access it in their country.
International sanctions against the Kremlin have complicated transfers to some refugees from the Russian-occupied sections of eastern Ukraine, Natasha Dukach said, but the group is working to ensure that everyone eligible for aid can receive it.
The money is sent “with no strings attached, and our recipients decide for themselves what they need most,” she said.
Approximately 12,000 Ukrainian families have been helped, according to the organization, which accepts donations at www.cashforrefugees.org. The plan is to return to Ukraine indefinitely and connect with about 1,000 families per visit.
The physical and emotional drain on Natasha Dukach and her volunteers, who work nonstop with refugees for eight or more hours per shift, is evident.
“I can’t assess the toll,” she said after one intensely busy day. “And to be honest, I’m avoiding the assessment. But there is a cost to it.”
Although Chernivtsi is far from the front, she hears refugees’ horrific tales of bombed-out cities, and the signs of hardship are obvious. Older refugees, some hobbling on bandaged legs, are helped to a classroom by younger ones, one halting step at a time along a short, concrete walkway.
Mothers cradle babies in their arms, shielding them from the sun as they wait hour after hour.
“This is what we came here for,” said Natasha Dukach, who had entered Ukraine from Romania. “But sometimes, it gets you.”
Distributions start at $72 for people 65 and older and families with one or two children. The amount increases for families with more children and refugees with disabilities or other special needs.
On this recent day in Chernivtsi, a few refugees at a time are waved through a gate toward the classroom, which has been converted into a bomb shelter. Posters on the walls illustrate and identify Russian rifles, missiles, and tanks for Ukrainian citizens at war; the room is reinforced with plywood; and Natasha Dukach sits with a laptop on a simple, bare table.
There, she catalogs information provided by each refugee, nearly all of whom sit in silence, their heads tilted expectantly toward this stranger from the United States.
Natasha Dukach logs passport data, birth certificates, addresses, and bank accounts, among other documents, and insists on original or notarized copies to verify identities to thwart would-be scammers.
The work, so calm and deliberative, gives no hint of the chaos of war on the front lines, a few hundred miles to the east, that has driven the refugees to this city of 260,000 people. There is no pushing, no panic, but also few smiles. Many of the applicants had heard about the cash program through a radio ad.
Across the street, a large Ukrainian flag stretches in the breeze, not far from a beautiful, blue-domed Orthodox church.
One of the applicants, Olena Stanikova, 47, fled the hard-hit city of Mikolaiv, near the Black Sea, four months ago with two children and two grandchildren. They first crossed into Moldova, then Romania, but returned to western Ukraine, where at least they knew the language.
“I want to go to my home, but I have no choice because of the missiles and the bombs,” Stanikova said through a translator after meeting with Tanya Kleyman, a Ukrainian-born lawyer who works in New York and volunteers with Cash for Refugees.
“Still, hope dies last,” Stanikova said.
Later that day, Mikhail and Vera Pidsadny applied for aid on their 45th wedding anniversary. Their home in Mariupol, the site of some of the war’s worst shelling, had been bombed.
“We’re religious people,” said Mikhail Pidsadny, part of a Baptist congregation in that southern city. “God sends challenges to people. The same way as he tested Jesus, this is the way he has tested us.”
The Pidsadnys do not expect to return home.
“We had our roses and gardens still, but you can’t go back. There were dead bodies all over the street,” Vera Pidsadny said.
Mikhail Pidsadny, placing his hand over his heart, added: “I am not going home. But at 69 years old, I am not leaving my country.”
Immediately after the war began, Natasha Dukach felt compelled to return to Ukraine, where she had studied in Kharkiv to be a professional violinist. She met Semyon on an overnight train to Kyiv from Odesa, where she had played in a flamenco concert, and immigrated to the United States in 2009.
“I was crying so much,” she said of her reaction to the Feb. 24 invasion. “I didn’t think I had so much water in my body. I was in this catatonic state.”
Within two days, she and Semyon were standing on the border between Romania and Ukraine, doling out small amounts of cash to arriving refugees. In the process, the Dukaches maxed out their withdrawal limits on ATMs.
Structure and efficiencies obviously were needed, and Cash for Refugees was registered soon afterward as a nonprofit group. Now, with minimal overhead, the organization is able to channel 96 percent of its donations to Ukrainian refugees, according to its website.
Stanislav Shupletsov, an unpaid volunteer from Kharkiv, is one of the reasons the group says it can deliver nearly all donations to those in need. At the Chernivtsi site, Shupletsov helped with interpreting, delivered updates to the hundreds of people in line, and answered questions from the puzzled and the desperate.
After finishing for the day, he returned to his home and worked eight hours for an American IT company until well after midnight. His girlfriend and parents are in Germany, displaced by the war while Shupletsov, 42 and able-bodied, is required to remain in Ukraine in case he is needed for military service.
“What will happen in five minutes? We don’t know. It’s unsafe to be anywhere in Ukraine,” Shupletsov said, looking at the large, tired crowd. “But I want to help my country and help these people. I can’t stand by and not do anything right now.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.