Children on an evacuation train in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 11, 2022. (Photo/Fotoreserg via Depositphotos)
Children on an evacuation train in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 11, 2022. (Photo/Fotoreserg via Depositphotos)

Bay Area Ukrainians use their direct pipeline to aid home country

Over the past three weeks, the world has been watching the destruction and turmoil unfold in Ukraine. At the same time, a group of Bay Area Ukrainians has been quietly turning an existing nonprofit into a powerhouse of fundraising and a lifeline for those in need. The volunteers with Palo Alto-based Nova Ukraine (“New Ukraine”), both Jewish and non-Jewish, have raised over $8 million since the invasion began, using their own native knowledge of the country and extensive network of connections to direct aid where it’s most needed.

“We know where the need is huge,” said Jewish board member Yana Rathman, who was born in Kyiv. “We have people we trust.”

And they’re motivated, she said, because it’s personal.

“In the morning I don’t go to CNN to get my info,” Rathman said. “I go to my connections and ask, ‘Are you alive?’”

Nova Ukraine was founded in 2014 by Ukrainians who had immigrated to California and wanted to help their native country. It had been a tumultuous year — the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv in  2013 against corruption sparked first a crackdown in 2014 and then a movement that led to democratic reform in the country. That same year also saw Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the start of the pro-Russian, separatist conflict in the east of the country.

Nova Ukraine had a simple mission — to send modest amounts of humanitarian aid — and was run by a small group of local volunteers, including board member Michael Simbirsky.

Simbirsky, 56, grew up in Kharkiv before immigrating first to Israel and then the Bay Area (he studied math at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science and now works at Google). He joined Nova Ukraine to support the burgeoning democratic movement inside his native country, which he saw as a continuation of the student movement he’d been part of after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“We didn’t finish our job back then,” he said.

At that time Nova Ukraine was made up mostly of Silicon Valley tech workers, who sent supplies like clothes, bedding and hygiene items to hospitals and orphanages. During the pandemic, they sent money to buy PPE and oxygen equipment. They also promoted Ukrainian literature and film, and even raised funds for a summer camp for the children of veterans.

The impact may have been small, but because these volunteers had knowledge, contacts and established connections within the country, it has now made the group a go-to for Americans who want to help immediately.

“We have a vast network of volunteers in Ukraine because these are people we worked with for eight years,” Rathman said.

Since the invasion began, they’ve begun funding on-the-ground needs, mostly medicine and medical equipment. Getting it from the Bay Area to Ukraine is too hard, so they’re focused on sending money directly to people they’ve worked with already in 15 of the country’s provinces.

“It just so happened they were in the heavily affected areas, like Kharkiv,” Rathman said.

Besides working through existing NGOs, Nova Ukraine also provides microgrants so informal groups in Ukraine can get money for supplies.

“We try to vet them as much as we can through our trusted volunteers,” Simbirsky said.

The group had to pivot quickly once Russia invaded.

“We didn’t really honestly believe the scale would be what it was today,” Rathman admitted, describing her feelings as “shock and grief” at watching friends and family suffer through the perils of war.

“Some of us have elderly parents who survived World War II in the very same buildings that are being bombed again,” she said.

Rathman, 53, joined Nova Ukraine in 2015 as part of her work to build a bridge between the older generation of Soviet-raised Jews from Ukraine and a new generation of Ukrainians, who look more to the West. The San Francisco resident, who moved to the U.S. when she was 21, understands the way both generations think. Under Soviet rule, Jews didn’t usually consider themselves Ukrainian — it was part of Soviet policy to label everyone by ethnicity, so one was either “Jewish” or “Ukrainian,” never both.

“Jews in Ukraine did not associate themselves, for the most part, with the Ukrainian identity or cause,” she said.

But post-independence, and especially after the Russian annexation of Crimea, she was struck by how Jews still in Ukraine began embracing a Ukrainian identity.

“I could not believe this generation could be so different,” she said. “These are people who grew up in a free and independent Ukraine.”

For Rathman, whose father is a Holocaust survivor, the attempt by Russia to brand the Ukrainian government and its Jewish president as fascists is even more disturbing because of the way it sows division between Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainians, “to spread this hate using the Jewish cause,” she said.

Simbirsky said he is already thinking about what will happen after the war ends. The focus will be on rebuilding the damaged roads, bridges, hospitals and schools of the country, he said, and  Nova Ukraine will be there to help.

“I’m still optimistic,” Simbirsky said. “And I’m completely sure the Ukrainian forces will repel this aggression.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.