Michigan man connects with volunteers to provide aid for Ukraine refugees
Boyd Byelich was watching the news from his home in Rogers City after Russia invaded Ukraine last February and knew he needed to help.
He began searching for an organization that provided humanitarian aid to Ukrainian refugees. In April, Byelich traveled to Krakow, a Polish city of about 700,000 people that took in more than 200,000 Ukrainian refugees after the war began. He volunteered at a clothing distribution center run by the Internationaler Bund, one of the largest providers of social and educational work in Europe as well as a World Central Kitchen site.
Byelich connected with a network of volunteers in Krakow and returned home to Rogers City with contacts he could trust to deliver donated goods to refugees. He started the One Box for Ukraine initiative and began to seek donations in Michigan.
Since then, he has traveled back to Poland and Ukraine twice to distribute 220 boxes filled with donated clothing and toys to refugees and displaced Ukrainians. He also used donated money to distribute candles, lighters and food in Ukraine.
"I know that 100% of the donations go right to the people who need them. ... There's a lot of people back home here who could probably donate a box of clothing and $50 to ship it," Byelich said.
People can donate clothing, toys, blankets and money to the initiative to be distributed to Ukrainian refugees in Poland as well as displaced people within Ukraine, Byelich said.
He traveled to Krakow again in August and on to refugee camps in Lviv, Ukraine.
"We took treats and potato chips and Coca-Cola to two refugee camps, and gave it out to about 200 kids," Byelich said. "(They were) very strong-willed, determined, proud, grateful, resilient, and that continues now even."
Byelich connected with Krakow city councilman Lukasz Wantuch. Wantuch takes regular trips to Ukraine with a local network of volunteers to distribute food, medical supplies and fuel. He has been on 32 trips since the war began last year, he said.
"At the beginning, it was food and nowadays we transport mostly power generators. We transport candles, matches — some things that we take for obvious but when you don't have electricity, you need candles and use matches," Wantuch said. "When Russia started to attack Ukrainian refineries, we transported over 10,000 liters" of diesel fuel.
Byelich traveled to Poland again in December and made three trips to Ukraine between Dec. 21 and Jan. 6. He worked with Oksana Kovtun, a Ukrainian refugee coordinator who is also an associate professor of English at Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University in Vinnytsia, to distribute donated items.
Some people within Ukraine have been staying in university residence halls, which is how Kovtun got involved in humanitarian work, she said.
“We are rather far away from the borders with Russia," Kovtun said.
Vinnytsia still faced missile strikes early in the war but Kovtun said trains from cities like Luhansk and Donetsk, which are closer to the Russian border, were packed with people who left everything, sometimes even their pets, behind.
“Some people started coming to our university … and they started asking us for help,” Kovtun said. “We were collecting some products and food, like diapers and everything like that for relocated people …”
“So I started communicating with people on Facebook, finding out some organizations and so on, making these connections because it's impossible to do everything yourself.”
Kovtun has coordinated aid for Ukrainians in Vinnytsia since then. She registers them with humanitarian organizations like Hope for Ukraine and Nova Poshta Humanitarian, which send aid to Ukrainian refugees and soldiers from all over the world.
Kovtun was introduced to Byelich by a mutual friend he had met in a Polish refugee center, she said.
“It was before Christmas, like December, and I was looking for some stuff to make presents for refugee children … I had already registered about 700 refugee children here,” Kovtun said. “I just started giving up a little bit because people stopped donating stuff.”
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Byelich offered to deliver some of the donations he had collected as well as toys for over 150 children that he bought in Poland with donated funds, Kovtun said.
“(I told him) bring winter coats, winter boots, hats, everything warm, that's what is necessary,” Kovtun said. “We have lots of blackouts" so Kovtun suggested lighters so students could do their homework, because "even during the war, our children attend schools and they study.”
Byelich said people he met in Ukraine, including the children, were optimistic and positive.
“To be able to do that after all the support here in collecting toys and shoe boxes of toys, to be able to be the guy that actually hands them out, was beyond special,” Byelich said. “They were so happy and so grateful.”
Kovtun said the war awakened a feeling of national pride, which is why she hasn’t left her country yet.
“I felt that I don’t want to leave my country. I want to stay here and we decided that I will leave the country if Russians pass Kyiv region and start coming to us. Thank god it didn’t happen,” she said. “I know that it (the war) is going to be over. I believe that it will be over and I believe that we will win.”
After Vinnytsia, Byelich continued to the cities of Kyiv, Ivano and Frankivsk and delivered things like blankets and gifts as well as candles to families. He also visited the cities of Bucha and Irpin, which underwent occupation by Russian forces and have since been recaptured.
“You can still smell the burning and death and destruction that had happened there. Yet the people are still continuing to live in spite of it,” Byelich said. “Children are out playing in their yards and right behind them are burned-out destroyed high rises.”
Byelich and Wantuch then traveled west to the cities of Odesa, Mykcolaiv and Kherson to stock up on food to deliver to smaller villages closer to the front lines along with clothes, candles and toys for children.
“One of the things I learned there is that any place that had been occupied by Russia, you never stepped off of sidewalks, or highways or where other people were walking because of landmines,” Byelich said. “To see so much destruction — every city you know had some evidence of it, a building here, building there hit with a rocket.”
The One Box for Ukraine initiative has shipped thousands of donated items to refugees and displaced people but more help is needed, Byelich said.
“I know there's lots and lots of humanitarian aid going into the country, but it's a big country with a lot of people and, you know, probably a lot of that goes to the bigger cities,” Byelich said.
Feb. 24 will mark one year since the war began and Wantuch said support from countries like the United States is crucial.
"Without the support from the Western world, that war would have ended months ago,” Wantuch said. "(Volunteers) don't fight with a gun with ammunition but all they have, they provide. They really save lives."
Byelich's initiative has a Facebook page that can be found here, and Hope for Ukraine, the organization that Kovtun works with directly, has a website that can be found here.
People can also donate to larger humanitarian organizations such as UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and Voices of Children that provide aid in Ukraine.