The Ukrainian Student Association at Stanford, in collaboration with the Palo Alto-based non-profit Nova Ukraine, sent a plane with over $120,000 worth of medical and humanitarian relief supplies to Ukrainian refugees in Poland last week.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 3 million refugees have attempted to flee Ukraine since Feb. 24, when Russia began its military invasion of Ukraine. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported over 1,300 civilian casualties in the country, including more than 500 killed and 900 wounded during the ongoing war.
During the weekend of March 12, over 55 volunteers associated with the project came together at a warehouse in Washington, D.C. to organize, pack and take inventory of key medical supplies to send in the relief plane, which carried 130 tons of supplies. While hospitals and hospital suppliers donated medical supplies, volunteers were needed to inventory the large volume of donations, ensure that medications were not expired, record individual unit costs and identify the most cost-effective means of employing donations.
Kate Sliunkova MBA ’22 and a group of about 20 fellow Ukrainians and allies started a “grassroots initiative” to acquire the medical supplies, Sliunkova said. While some donors were introduced to the group through Stanford professors, Sliunkova said that she and her fellow volunteers initiated most contact on their own.
“So we had a Stanford domain on our emails, and that’s about it,” Sliunkova said. “Some people were introduced by professors at Stanford, but primarily it’s just the relentless work of our team and other volunteers reaching out to multiple stakeholders.”
The mission to deliver medical supplies was piloted by Josh Pickering M.D. ’22, a Navy veteran, who joined the effort after receiving an email sent to students by fellow medical student Sol Savchuk M.D. ’24. Prior to the flight, Pickering and the organizers met and collaborated to promote relief efforts, organize volunteers and take inventory of donations. The group created a “Coordination Hub” at Escondido Village Graduate Residences, where a whiteboard is filled with potential ideas for helping refugees and a Ukrainian flag with the country’s coat of arms hangs on the wall.
“When we’re not in the room, work is still happening, we’re jumping on calls on very short notice,” Sliunkova said.
Kateryna Pistunova, a fourth-year physics Ph.D. student, said that despite her intense lab research, she is committed to helping her home country in any way she can for the duration of Putin’s war and in its aftermath. Her home city of Kharkiv — Ukraine’s second largest city located 25 miles from the Ukraine-Russia border — ranks among the locations most fiercely attacked and devastated by Putin’s forces. Pistunova explained that her father is fighting as a trained civilian volunteer in the Ukrainian defense. Although she and her family have managed to remain in contact with him, they have lost contact with their neighbors.
“They tried to escape, but they were turned away by Russian soldiers and they could only go to Russia,” Pistunova said of her neighbors. “We haven’t heard from them. We don’t know if they made it to Russia.”
Pistunova said that although she initially felt helpless, coordinating with other people who are invested in providing aid and taking action during the war has been inspiring.
“Being around other people who have the same desire propels you forward,” Pistunova said. “And altogether, humanitarian initiatives like this come out of it.”
Pickering echoed these sentiments.
“We all sleep from about 5 a.m. to about 9 a.m. every single day,” Pickering said. “How do you not give 20 hours a day, not give everything you have, to assist these people that are willing to do whatever they can for not only their country, but to refute evil?”
Pickering has been involved in a number of previous humanitarian relief efforts, such as responding to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the refugee crisis along the Tijuana border.
Though he is not Ukrainian, he described his “profound appreciation” for the Ukrainian people and country. He emphasized that the flight was the result of a collaborative effort and said it was an honor to work with the individuals organizing the project.
“It’s not about us,” he said, referring to himself and the other volunteers working on the project at Stanford. “The reason that we’re doing this is for those individuals on the ground that had their lives uprooted.”
An individual who will benefit from the supplies and humanitarian relief, and whose identity is being withheld due to safety concerns, reached out to Pickering via a digital messaging platform when he heard of the group’s efforts.
“This is the second time during these nine days tears have gone from me. First was when people I hardly knew gave shelter to my wife and daughter in Poland,” the individual wrote.
As millions of refugees flee Ukraine to escape the bloodshed and conflict, many residents have stayed behind, forming militias to defend their country against Russia’s invasion and the oppression of their fellow citizens.
For Pickering, the definition of success for the project is clear: “Most number of Ukrainians saved.”
Pistunova expressed hope that the plane of medical relief will be the first of a regular series of planes sent every few weeks. Sliunkova echoed this desire. She noted that the organizers’ medical initiative has been gaining traction, and the number of people who are willing to help coordinate and donate medical supplies is increasing.
“However, it’s not that easy to secure a plane,” Sliunkova said. The group acquired the plane with the help of Nova Ukraine.
Moving forward, Sliunkova hopes to create a telehealth program that will virtually connect United States doctors with Ukrainian refugee patients along with translators to facilitate communication between the parties. She also wishes to collaborate with Stanford experts to research what further economic restrictions can be levied against Putin and Russia’s oligarchs.
“More things are coming and it feels like the work is just starting,” Sliunkova said. “First, we need the war to end, for Ukraine to be free and sovereign. Then, there will be a robust process of rebuilding, reskilling, working with victims, working with refugees. And we need to get ready for it.”
She added that throughout, she hopes student organizers will be able to continuously keep people informed about and attentive to the war.
“We know that attention span is very short,” Sliunkova said. “But the war and humanitarian crisis is happening as we speak. For example, my colleague volunteer just left and the video that we were watching together before he left was footage from Kyiv, where some residential buildings were on fire. Every day is a tragic day for the history of Ukraine and humanity. We cannot let the global community and our classmates develop a tolerance for it.”
The Ukrainian student association has made a number of resources accessible for individuals interested in contributing to their relief efforts on their website. From raising donations to providing technical or translation-related knowledge, there are a number of avenues for those interested in getting involved in their work.