“Sitting in darkness”: Santa Barbara-based nonprofit distributing humanitarian aid in Ukraine
A Santa Barbara-based nonprofit called ShelterBox is distributing humanitarian aid in Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian invasion.
ShelterBox specializes in emergency shelter equipment like tools and tents in a small, mobile package. This kind of aid can be crucial for people who have sub-par shelter during disaster and conflict.
The nonprofit has a representative in Kyiv, Ukraine coordinating aid as the Eastern European country heads into a harsh winter.
"We just wait for the air sirens": Life in Kyiv
Before Rachel Harvey started working for the nonprofit ShelterBox, she spent her career as an international correspondent. She reported for the BBC all over the world, mainly in countries across Africa and Asia.
Now, Harvey is in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
“There are rolling power cuts all the time — some scheduled, some are not. The other thing is the air raid sirens going off, because missile attacks are still going on from time to time, and you can't predict exactly when there's going to be one. We just wait for the air sirens and then get down into bomb shelters," Harvey said.
The chaotic situation in Kyiv has been going on since February, when the Russian-Ukrainian conflict escalated into a full-scale Russian invasion.
The war has created a humanitarian crisis in the country, with millions of Ukrainians now displaced and many more becoming casualties of war, hunger or the elements.
That last threat is one of Harvey’s main focuses — trying to keep people without shelter warm enough to get through the harsh Eastern European winter.
“You could live in a house with a hole in the roof and maybe a few windows blown out over the summer, but we're now going into winter and it's only going to get a whole lot colder," she said.
Harvey said their main task is importing and preparing these boxes in countries experiencing conflict or natural disasters, then working with local partners to find out where the aid should go.
"We never want to be a burden on the host country by hanging around longer than we need. We come in with the technical expertise, the supervisory capacity, then we'll head out and let them go on with it and just manage things remotely," she said.
"So that's the job at the moment, is to make sure everything's in place, the final aid is here, the plan is in place. We know who we're delivering that to, and then we'll leave and let them get on with the project.”
As a nonprofit, ShelterBox has limited resources to distribute their aid. Harvey said that means part of her job is to figure out how their work can be as useful as possible, despite their constraints.
“So we've decided that we will look at people with houses that are damaged [or] partially damaged, but still occupied. [With] completely destroyed houses, there’s very little you can do about that apart from completely rebuild. We're not at that stage yet, but we have seen a lot of people who have stayed within their houses throughout the conflict," Harvey said.
Harvey travels throughout the area and meets people in these desperate situations all the time.
"I was in a village yesterday that's had no power for months and no running water for months. They really need help urgently now ahead of the winter, so we're providing a mixture of lumber and heavy duty tarpaulins to patch up roofs, some clear plastic sheeting and ceiling foam for windows, a set of tools nails, that kind of thing," Harvey said.
"So that's to make the outside of the house sealed off against the winter weather, then we need to make that house warm inside."
"We never want to be a burden on the host country."Rachel Harvey
A humanitarian operation spread thin
Throughout its history, ShelterBox has mostly focused on delivering humanitarian aid to developing countries in the Global South, just as Harvey's career took her mainly to Africa and Asia.
Some areas in need are relatively predictable in how much aid they’ll need in any given year, like Syria, whose civil war has been ongoing since 2011. But most others, like Ukraine this year, come by surprise — meaning organizations like ShelterBox have to jump into action.
Kerri Murray is the president of ShelterBox USA. She said the organization already had a presence in Ukraine before the invasion, but has since scaled up their operation there significantly.
“What we've seen since the beginning of the crisis, which kicked off in late February, has just been really an evolution of the needs," she said.
Murray said the organization hadn’t budgeted for a conflict as massive as Ukraine turned out to be this year.
“It's turned out to be one of our largest responses of the year, helping tens of thousands of people," she said.
The Ukraine situation is on top of all the other disaster and conflict areas in the world that ShelterBox is responding to. That includes places like Syria, Ethiopia, Yemen, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
“There are so many other really monumental disaster and crisis situations that we're currently responding to [besides Ukraine] that don't garner the attention or the private charitable support — like what you're seeing in Pakistan, one of the worst monsoon flooding situations in history," Murray said.
All this need has strained the organization and its ability to respond fully to every area it’s working in. With that in mind, Murray is calling for more donations and volunteers as the nonprofit heads into another year of intense demand for humanitarian aid.
“This is really what helps provide that catalyst and that boost to be able to do so much work globally at any given time," she said.
"Sitting in darkness" as the conflict continues
Rachel Harvey’s work in Ukraine is part of the organization's global network of staff and volunteers coordinating humanitarian aid delivery. Working in this field is challenging — even for a veteran foreign correspondent.
Partway through a Zoom interview in December, Harvey was telling a story about two women who live in an apartment that’s been torn apart and exposed to the elements over the course of nearby fighting. Then, something happened in the background of her video.
"They were so grateful and so determined to stay…. whoops. That'll be the power cut. And you can probably see I'm now sitting in darkness."
The lights in her apartment had turned off, though somehow the internet had stayed intact.
"We'll see how long the internet lasts, but this is life in Ukraine — you can't always predict it," she said.
The lights turned back on just a few seconds after, and Harvey was unfazed. She returned to her story about the two women living in a shelled house that can’t offer them enough protection from the Ukrainian winter.
“Those women had no power at all. You know, I'm lucky to see the lights go off and on again like that. They had no power, no running water, but they were absolutely determined to stay there," she said.
"They said to me, 'We're no longer frightened of the war. We've got used to that. We've got used to the missiles, the air raid sirens.' What really, really frightens them now is the coming cold," she said.
Harvey and Shelterbox’s presence in Ukraine is costly, especially for a nonprofit — which is why she said donations are critical to their continued work.
"Unfortunately, we can't do anything without money. So we are very lucky to have very generous donors and supporters, and it's difficult economic times for everybody around the world right now, we understand that. But if anyone can give even a small amount, it all adds up and it can make a big difference," she said.
More information on ShelterBox is available here.