Cash for Refugees Program Expands in Ukraine.
‘Nobody Knows What Happened to These Parents’
Natasha Dukach (SPH’22) of humanitarian aid group Cash for Refugees discusses the challenges of helping families and the elderly in war-torn Ukraine.
A year into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a volunteer-run program to deliver micro-grants to Ukrainian refugees has evolved into a lean non-governmental organization that has distributed nearly $2 million in aid.
Cash for Refugees started as an effort to help the initial flood of Ukrainian refugees, mostly mothers with young children and the elderly, who fled west to neighboring countries after the February 2022 invasion. Natasha Dukach (SPH’22), along with her husband and a small team of volunteers, began handing out $100 in local currency to people escaping to Romania and Poland. That mission changed in April and May of 2022 as the flow of refugees subsided and other humanitarian aid programs along the borders started to wind down operations.
The group switched its approach and moved inside Ukraine to distribute cash to internally displaced persons (IDPs), many of whom had escaped the devastating bombing in Russian occupation zones in eastern regions of Ukraine. Dukach says, “We actually raised the sum to $150—our baseline—and we created a mobile app and database where we can enter a credit card number of the person who applies for help, and then we check information, check that we don’t have duplicates, check their first and last name, and we see all of their documents, original documents, that they are indeed IDPs and not local to the area.“
Direct transfers into credit and debit card accounts eliminated any intermediaries between Cash for Refugees donations and recipients, Dukach said, enabling the group to distribute over $1.8 million in small amounts, while recording demographic trends.
When they shifted the focus to helping IDPs, Dukach and the team quickly noticed how many women they were seeing with multiple children. “Ukraine has one of the lowest total fertility rates in the world so their population is shrinking and we were puzzled,” Dukach said. “Here’s a mom, she’s an IDP from a bombed area and she has 3, 7, 8 kids. What’s going on?”
What happened, Dukach says, was chilling even to those who had heard many harrowing stories of survival over the past year. Many women evacuating from bombed areas were adopting the unaccompanied children they came across on their journey.
“They’re just seeing children walking along. Parents are missing. Nobody knows whether they’re alive, whether they’re sent to Russia, or even were re-enrolled into Russian Army to fight fellow Ukrainians. Nobody knows what happened to these parents,” Dukach says.
In many cases, it is likely that the women were hoping to prevent the children from being sent away to Russian-held territory where the children would face an uncertain fate. A new report alleges Russia relocated at least 6,000 children from Ukraine to a network of re-education and adoption facilities, many in occupied Crimea and mainland Russia. According to Conflict Observatory, a clearinghouse for the analysis and dissemination of evidence of Russian war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine, the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab identified 43 facilities involved in holding children from Ukraine. The majority are recreational camps while others are facilities used to house children put up for foster care or adoption in Russia, the report states. Conflict Observatory researchers have determined most camps have engaged in pro-Russia re-education efforts and some have provided military training to children—or suspended the children’s return to their parents in Ukraine.
“So moms were kind of picking up those kids, getting them to safe cities in the western part of Ukraine where we were distributing aid to internally displaced people, and they were going to local administration, city administration, just adopting those kids,” Dukach says.
The past year has also been an opportunity for Dukach to turn some of what she learned at SPH into actual ground-level action. “Because of the School of Public Health, I praise all my teachers, especially those who taught me data collection methods and how to watch for selection bias.” The team also collects written or video consent from people who apply for help and conducts household visits where possible to verify living conditions and demographic data.
Based on her studies, Dukach says she can approach the work of Cash for Refugees with a better sense of what a small volunteer group is able to accomplish on the fringes of conflict zones. “We’re a small group so we decided we will focus on small villages, small distant villages where humanitarian aid from large organizations usually is absent because for the large organization it makes no sense to travel, God knows where, to cover 12 families,” Dukach says.
Cash for Refugees volunteers travel to formerly occupied villages in the bombed regions and spread the word that women with young children or adults age 65 and over are eligible for help. “Our focus is on people who cannot work. We sit in a village for a week and whoever comes in person to see us gets interviewed and we put them into our database,” Dukach says. “If they qualify for the criteria that we have established at the beginning of the war for our fund, they’ll get covered.”
Ultimately, says Dukach, Cash for Refugees is demonstrating the positive effect of direct cash transfers on people’s lives. “In a situation when there is war and conflict, death and torture, they have this chance to choose what they need. Maybe that will be their last chance to choose what they need. But they have it, and they have this hope and agency clenched in their fist, in the form of $100. And really, I would love to expand this program to the other areas of the world where active wars are happening right now, just to support the victims of war.”
On Feb 22, Cash for Refugees will convene a talk with keynote speaker Dr. Steven Pinker—“Why Ukraine Matters”— that will discuss the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the potential implications for world peace. The event will also feature observations from Sabastian Mandell, a Harvard student and former US Army Green Beret who provided medical support and training at the start of the war and remained in Ukraine for six months.
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