‘You stay because you're needed.’ Foreigners volunteering in wartime Ukraine (Photos)

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Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, volunteers from around the world have come to Ukraine to support the country’s struggle. They have not only joined the foreign battalions to fight on the front line but have also helped various volunteer initiatives: from weaving camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military to rescuing animals from the most affected areas.

These volunteers have witnessed firsthand how Ukraine endures the invasion, and have shared the experiences of ordinary Ukrainians in their daily fight for freedom. In interviews with the Kyiv Independent, they spoke of their motivation to help Ukraine and their perspectives on the war.

‘It’s our war’

Florence Miedzyrzecki, a pharmacist from France, first came to Ukraine in November 2023 with the French association Les Convois Solidaires to deliver a generator, toys, and electronics to an orphanage for children with autism in the southern city of Odesa.

“I think it's our war,” Florence says of her motivation to volunteer in Ukraine.

“It’s very important to defend Ukraine because the war here is unjust, illegal. If we let (Russian President Vladimir) Putin do it, he will continue his war everywhere in the world. And I can’t support that.”

Florence Miedzyrzecki, a pharmacist from France volunteering in Ukraine, on March, 21, 2024, in central Kyiv, Ukraine. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Florence Miedzyrzecki, a pharmacist from France volunteering in Ukraine, on March, 21, 2024, in central Kyiv, Ukraine. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

“We ought to fight with you,” she says. “Even if my fight is in very little things, I need to do that. I think that you also have the feeling that we are with you, that we support you. And when people see me and other volunteers they think ‘okay, we are not alone.’”

This war is also personal for Florence. “My husband’s family is from Poland,” she says.

“Being Jews, they had to leave the country during World War II due to the Nazi occupation. I don’t want my children to have to do this.”

Florence believes Europe is not doing enough to help Ukraine, and should provide all possible support, not just weapons, referring to French President Emmanuel Macron's recent statements about sending Western troops to Ukraine.

Florence Miedzyrzecki (C), a pharmacist from France, puts together dry rations for the Ukrainian military alongside other volunteers on March, 22, 2024, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Florence Miedzyrzecki (C), a pharmacist from France, puts together dry rations for the Ukrainian military alongside other volunteers on March, 22, 2024, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Dry rations in the "Ants" Kitchen Hub volunteer community on March 22, 2024, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Dry rations in the "Ants" Kitchen Hub volunteer community on March 22, 2024, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

‘Russians will not stop. We must stop them’

Italian student Riccardo Rigliano is volunteering in Ukraine for the first time. Before arriving in March, he helped by sending humanitarian aid. However, Riccardo decided to come to Ukraine himself during his vacation. He didn't know anyone here, so he simply Googled “Volunteering Ukraine,” found an opportunity, bought a ticket and went.

Italian Riccardo Rigliano prepares military dry rations for the Ukrainian military in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 21, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Italian Riccardo Rigliano prepares military dry rations for the Ukrainian military in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 21, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

He volunteers in a kitchen preparing military dry rations. Unlike many other volunteers who stay in the city center, he chose to stay near the kitchen in a Soviet-era apartment on the outskirts of the city, to meet and talk to ordinary Ukrainians and see how they live.

Riccardo is concerned that many in Italy do not care about the war in Ukraine. He believes Italian politicians and media should talk more about it, as Russia’s invasion poses a threat not only to Ukraine.

“The best thing our politicians can do is to talk to people and explain to them why exactly we need to support Ukraine, why this is important,” he says.

“It’s important to constantly show what Russia is doing, so that people can understand why this will not stop. The Russians will not stop. We must stop them.”

‘We need money, we need weapons, we need diplomacy’

Eric Haar from Texas, who previously worked in banking, had visited Ukraine several times before Russia's full-scale invasion. Now, he has been in Ukraine for two months and has applied for a one-year visa to volunteer.

Eric believes in the importance of helping Ukraine to win the war: “I think Vladimir Putin is a madman and he’s determined to destroy not only Ukraine, but also the Baltic states, Poland, Moldova, and he needs to be stopped here and now.”

Eric Haar from Texas, who previously worked in banking and is now volunteering in Ukraine, in central Kyiv, on March 22, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Eric Haar from Texas, who previously worked in banking and is now volunteering in Ukraine, in central Kyiv, on March 22, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

In Ukraine, Eric weaves camouflage nets for the military with the volunteer organization Kitty Pechersk.

“Kitty Pechersk has become like a family to me,” he says. “I’ve gotten to know Petro, Svitlana, and others who are the leaders. And then I see a lot of familiar faces there and it’s just a good feeling.”

His time in Ukraine has changed his perspectives. “I grew up in the 1980s and the 90s when the U.S. and the USSR were still fighting,” he says.

“I thought that Ukraine was just very similar to what Soviet Russia had been, but coming here you realize that people are normal, just like everyone else … People are very nice and friendly to me, though they see I’m a foreigner.”

Eric also stresses the need for more support from the West: “Europe and America have done a lot, but they need to do much more when it comes to money, arms, and, of course, persuading the global community to change, countries like China, India, and Brazil. So we need money, we need weapons, and we need some sort of diplomacy around the globe.”

‘Life will prevail’

Donna Frose, a retired history teacher from Canada, is visiting Ukraine for the third time.

When she first came, in 2012, she visited both Ukraine and Russia. She noticed a stark difference: “Russia seemed old and dreary,” she says.

“In Saint Petersburg, people longed for the Soviet system. In Ivano-Frankivsk and in Kyiv, people talk about the bright future and possibilities. One was looking to the past, and one was looking to the future.”

Donna Frose, a retired history teacher from Canada who now volunteers in Ukraine, in Kyiv on March 23, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Donna Frose, a retired history teacher from Canada who now volunteers in Ukraine, in Kyiv on March 23, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

During the full-scale invasion, Donna returned to Ukraine in August 2023. She volunteered in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia with the Magic Food Army, preparing meals for the military. She plans to return there, but while in Kyiv she has joined the "Ants" Kitchen Hub local volunteer community, also preparing meals for the military. Despite Zaporizhzhia being more dangerous, she says she’s used to it from living in Kuwait during the Gulf War.

“My contribution, slicing and dicing tomatoes or meat or packaging soups, is minuscule in the overall effort,” she says. “But it speaks volumes to the people who see that people outside the country care.”

Donna's favorite phrase, which has become a motto for Ukrainians during the war, is “Zhyttia peremozhe (life will prevail).”

Donna Frose, a retired history teacher from Canada, during her volunteering in the "Ants" Kitchen Hub volunteer community on March 22, 2024, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Donna Frose, a retired history teacher from Canada, during her volunteering in the "Ants" Kitchen Hub volunteer community on March 22, 2024, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

“I believe good will triumph over evil,” Donna says. “Russia is evil and focused on domination. Good will triumph, but it needs the help of the West with weapons and money. If Ukraine doesn’t get the help it needs, the Western world will pay the price later with Putin’s future wars.”

‘The world is not doing enough’

Brian Moore, a chartered quantity surveyor from Scotland, runs a small building business. This year, he decided to volunteer in Ukraine for the first time.

“For Russia to attack Ukraine is totally wrong,” he says.

“All leaders should do more to stop the war. It has been going on for two years, and it will keep going because the world is not doing enough.”

Brian Moore, a small business owner from Scotland who now volunteers in Ukraine, in Kyiv, on March 25, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Brian Moore, a small business owner from Scotland who now volunteers in Ukraine, in Kyiv, on March 25, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

In Ukraine for two months, Brian joined volunteer organizations involved in reconstructing areas affected by military operations and shelling. Now home, Brian plans to return to Ukraine, seeing there is much work he can do with his own hands: “There’s a lot to do and there are so many people who could do it,” he says. “Britain is helping with arms and money but it's not enough – they could help a lot more.”

In Ukraine, Brian was most impressed by Ukrainians’ desire to return to normal life under any circumstances: “Last week, after bomb damage, people were cleaning up, and rebuilding,” he says. “The main focus was to get back to normal life. I like the fact that people try to live normal lives amidst the war. This morning I was having a coffee and there was an air raid and bangs, but people just went on walking.”

‘There is only one leader of the free world now’

Mikael Colville-Andersen, an urban planner from Copenhagen, has been living in Kyiv for 18 months, running volunteer projects. One is Bikes4Ukraine, which brings used bicycles to Ukraine from all over Europe to people in liberated territories. Another is the Nordic therapy gardens he plans to build in Kyiv and Lviv, designed to heal people from mental trauma and PTSD.

“There’s only one leader of the free world now – that’s Ukraine,” he says. “You’re on the front line between good and evil, dying every day because of that. But you’re also protecting Europe. It’s just incredibly natural for me to come and help.”

Mikael decided to come to Ukraine after receiving an email in April 2022 from two urban planners in Lviv and Kyiv, asking for help with mobility in Lviv, which was paralyzed by an influx of people. His answer was bikes.

Mikael Colville-Andersen, an urban planner from Copenhagen who now volunteers in Ukraine, in Kyiv on March 29, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Mikael Colville-Andersen, an urban planner from Copenhagen who now volunteers in Ukraine, in Kyiv on March 29, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

In April 2022, Mikael started crowdfunding and collecting bike donations. He brought the first bikes to Lviv in July 2022, giving them to refugee camps. Soon, people in liberated areas started requesting bikes for delivering food and humanitarian aid, as the roads were bombed. Despite financial challenges, Mikael managed to deliver 1,000 bicycles to Ukraine by January, but his goal remains 2,000.

“Most of the bikes go to de-occupied areas, where NGOs, volunteers, and social workers use them to deliver humanitarian aid to people’s houses,” he says. “One bike can help 5,000 people in one year, carry 12,000 kilograms of supplies, and travel 18,000 kilometers. Just one used bike. Imagine 1,000 or 50,000 bikes – that’s life-changing.”

While in Ukraine, Mikael noticed another huge problem: mental health. “Therapy, mental trauma, and stress, and PTSD – it’s still taboo everywhere,” he says. “In Ukraine, you simply don’t talk about it.”

This realization inspired him to create therapeutic gardens.

“I can create gardens that heal people with mental trauma, veterans or just regular people, but then, when it comes down to it – just talk about it. You can’t endure invasion for two years just saying ‘Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes!’ every day. People are hurting, they need to talk about it.”

‘You stay because you’re needed’

Angela Stoop from the Netherlands has been volunteering in Ukraine since June 2022. She is a veterinary technician running her own organization Mobile Animal Rescue Services, focused on rescuing animals from front-line areas, sterilizing, vaccinating, performing surgery, delivering food and medicine for animals, and facilitating adoptions.

Angela Stoop, a veterinary technician from the Netherlands running her own organization, Mobile Animal Rescue Services, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 4, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Angela Stoop, a veterinary technician from the Netherlands running her own organization, Mobile Animal Rescue Services, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 4, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

Angela’s first mission was in Vorzel in Kyiv Oblast, right after the nearby suburban towns of Bucha and Irpin were liberated in the spring of 2022. Her team caught, sterilized, and cared for abandoned animals from the area. Her second mission was in Kharkiv Oblast, right as Izium was liberated. Angela and local volunteers were the first veterinary team allowed into Izium. There, she saw firsthand the horrors of Russian occupation.

“In Izium, a commander showed me mass graves of Ukrainians killed by the Russian military,” she says. “…now I understand for the first time how you can hate an entire country and everybody in it.”

Angela then worked with the Affordable Sterilization organization, visiting liberated towns and villages in the east and south. After Russian forces blew up the dam in Nova Kakhovka, she stayed in the southern city of Kherson to address the catastrophic situation for animals. She now lives and works in Kherson, which continues to come under Russian attacks on a regular basis.

Cats rescued in the animal shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 4, 2024. Angela Stoop, a veterinary technician from the Netherlands who runs the Mobile Animal Rescue Services, visited the shelter to sterilize cats. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Cats rescued in the animal shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 4, 2024. Angela Stoop, a veterinary technician from the Netherlands who runs the Mobile Animal Rescue Services, visited the shelter to sterilize cats. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Angela Stoop, a veterinary technician from the Netherlands running her own organization, Mobile Animal Rescue Services, pets a rescue cat in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 4, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Angela Stoop, a veterinary technician from the Netherlands running her own organization, Mobile Animal Rescue Services, pets a rescue cat in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 4, 2024. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

“There are only two people in Kherson who can catch dogs with blow darts,” she says. “One is the veterinarian, and the other is me. When the veterinarian is busy, it’s just me… People ask me all the time, why do you stay? You stay because you're needed.”

“I'm very, very proud of this country and to be part of this effort. (Ukraine is) the bravest country on earth… you're just not giving up. I think Putin could not have chosen a worse country to start a war against. Ukrainians are strong and will die before they give up. You’ll have to kill every single Ukrainian before you can take Ukraine.”


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