Alex Furman (right) with other Cash for Refugees volunteers on the ground in Romania.
Alex Furman (right) with other Cash for Refugees volunteers on the ground in Romania.

‘Cash for Refugees’: S.F. tech entrepreneur flies to Romania with $200K for Ukrainian refugees

UPDATED March 14, 2022 at 10:50 a.m.

It’s dark, close to 10 p.m. at the border. It’s bitter cold, and mud is everywhere. Ukrainian families cross into Romania just before the border closes for the night. Some have waited 10 hours just to take those few steps. They’ve come with young children, elderly grandparents and often with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Hungry and exhausted, they pause for a moment as a volunteer hands them something unexpected: the equivalent of nearly $100 U.S. dollars in the local currency, Romanian leu.

“A relatively small amount of cash gives people a tremendous amount of freedom that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” said Alex Furman, a San Francisco resident who is volunteering with a team from Cash for Refugees, a small and newly launched organization.

Furman, 42, remembers his Jewish family fleeing their home in Moscow in 1991, just before the fall of the Soviet Union.

“I wasn’t shot at. My life wasn’t in danger,” he told J. from his hotel room in Romania. “But nonetheless… it’s very personal.”

Since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, more than 450,000 Ukrainian refugees had crossed into Romania as of March 14, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported.

Though the number of crossings isn’t as high as it has been at the borders with Poland, Hungary or Slovakia, Romania is a major transit point to other parts of Europe — which is why five Cash for Refugees volunteers are there handing out money that can help pay for fresh clothes, internet access and, perhaps most critically, train tickets.

Furman recalled that his “blood boiled” as he watched the news coverage of the invasion, and he searched for a way to help.

Cash for Refugees was the answer. The organization launched last month when Semyon Dukach and his Ukrainian-born wife, Natasha, flew from their home in Boston to the Ukraine-Romania border and began handing out $7,000 of their own money to refugees who had crossed the border.

Furman, one of several co-founders of an S.F.-based biotech company, had come to know about Semyon through connections in the tech world. On March 4, he jumped on a plane leaving SFO to meet up with Natasha and three other volunteers. (Semyon and Natasha are trading off, with one always remaining in Boston to take care of their kids.).

Before leaving, Furman and his wife, Marina Eybelman, sought donations from friends and family to add to their personal contributions. Their fundraising efforts took off beyond their expectations after they posted to Facebook, and by the time Furman landed in Romania, he had $200,000 worth of donations.

He and the current team of volunteers, four from the United States and one from Austria, have been waking up just before 8 a.m. each morning, and one of them heads to a local bank to withdraw the day’s cash. They distribute the equivalent of $100 to each family of refugees, prioritizing mothers with young children, the elderly and disabled, Furman said, noting that the able-bodied men of most families are staying to fight in Ukraine’s army reserves.

They often appear “shellshocked,” when they arrive in Romania, Furman said. “Our volunteers only have anywhere between 30 to 45 seconds … to basically convince them that we’re here to help them.”

After handing incoming refugees some money, he directs them to the nearest on-the-ground nonprofit, which will provide meals, toys and buses to nearby hotels.

One day this week, however, their daily routine was stalled for several hours. The day’s funds, sent via wire transfer, weren’t available that morning.

“We had to really improvise and reach out to our networks” to get at least some money, Furman said, but what they ended up getting didn’t last them all day.

“We missed some of the late arrivals. It was heartbreaking,” he said.

In a Facebook post, he wrote, “Some of the people we missed are the most cold, the last to make it across. I cry. I cry a lot today.”

“We’ll do better,” he vowed.

Cash for Refugees is looking for new recruits to volunteer at the border, especially those who speak Ukrainian, Russian or Romanian. The organization is also continuing to raise money as the war rages on.

“This is ongoing. It’s not going to end anytime soon,” Furman said. “It’s a marathon.”

Furman said he’s been reflecting on the mitzvah of tikkun olam (repairing the world), and considers it his, and everyone’s, duty to help in some way.

“What we’re doing here is tiny. It’s a drop in the sea, not even a drop in the bucket,” he said. “But all of us… that are here [are] trying to make a terrible situation slightly better.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.