Russia-Ukraine war: Grassroots humanitarian action in 21st century Britain

By Alexandra Anderson

WHEN details of what was happening in Ukraine began to filter onto social media feeds around the world, unfiltered stories of bravery and resilience were shared.

This included art students who took up arms, grandmothers making petrol bombs, and teachers becoming front-line medics – the world watched, and, inspired by these ordinary people responding to an extraordinary situation, sprang into action.

Among the usual well-wishers, hashtaggers, and flag-wavers, something else happened.

Overnight, grassroots initiatives sprung up in unexpected places, led by the most unlikely of people; the general consensus was that governments simply were not doing enough, and so people took matters into their own hands. It was no longer just about looking like we were helping out and speaking up. It became about actually doing something.

Less than 24 hours after the invasion, a link to an online document began circulating social media; a master collection of resources for foreigners wanting to help Ukraine.

It’s a  comprehensive list of charities and small grassroots organisations that seem to have magically appeared, quickly mobilised, or repurposed themselves from whatever their original function was: restaurants, cleaning companies, import and export businesses, all now turning their focus and to the task at hand.

Localised sections provide country-specific tips in different languages – thirty-three countries in total, and counting. There are the ones you might expect: Poland, Romania, Hungary, Germany. And then there are the ones you probably wouldn’t: Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Cyprus.

There are donation links, PayPal, bank and cryptocurrency account details for small organisations and individuals who can use donations to buy specific items on your behalf, providing receipts and photos as proof of purchase.

Colour-coded spreadsheets that are updated every few hours indicate the most urgently needed supplies using a traffic light system, with separate tabs for medicines, equipment, consumables and specialist medical supplies. The function of these items – portable breathing apparatus for children, surgical instruments, catheters, tracheostomy kits, combat application tourniquets – and the horrors that result in their necessity, stare at us from our screens in real time.

New items are added to the list, amber-code medicines change to red as pharmacies run out and supply chains are interrupted. Priorities can be seen shifting, a grim window into war. Combat application tourniquets, or CATs, which are used to control severe, life-threatening extremity bleeding, are one of the most in-demand items.

Collection points are dotted around the country, ranging from offices and churches to social clubs, pubs and homes. A group chat on the instant messaging app Telegram can be joined via a link and has 883 members and counting.

It describes itself as ‘a group of volunteers that plan to collect humanitarian aid in London and drive it in vans to the Polish-Ukrainian border.’

Among the requests for military supplies, winter jackets, medicines and walkie talkies that are occasionally interrupted with urgent appeals by Ukrainians trying to get their elderly relatives to safety, one of the admins has posted a message to the group: “Dear people, if you work full time and you want to help online – please volunteer with the below” accompanied by a link. It opens a post by what appears to be a small storage and removals business based in East London.

The account has just shy of 550 followers.

The post, in stark contrast to their previous photos of employees in branded t-shirts smiling next to cardboard boxes, reads: “We need help from volunteers in the UK to organise humanitarian aid for refugees. Mostly online work. We are helping volunteers, people and organisations to unite.

“We will collect information, filter it and help to spread it to make sure we send items where they are needed the most. No one was prepared for a situation of this scale.

“Organisations are overwhelmed by the amount of incoming support and are trying their best to keep up with the incoming updates… We need to create a network together to make it as effective as possible.”

There is a form on the company’s website that asks for basic information: name, contact details, location, availability and suggestions for ways to help. It is minimal, efficient.

There is no explanation for how or why a removals start-up is managing a grassroots humanitarian task force, but it doesn’t need one. There is a sense of understanding, of goodwill and willingness to do what needs to be done now, and ask questions later.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that this is not just a ‘Ukraine’ problem, and the grassroots response in the UK, and around the world, reflects this.

It’s an acknowledgement made through the actions of ordinary civilians of the gravity of the situation, and a demonstration of willingness to act when things that we value are threatened.

The leader of what is, geographically, the largest country in the world – a leader who sits in meeting rooms and conference halls with our leaders and those of our allies –  has invaded another country unprovoked, resulting in civilisation casualties and what amounts to alleged war crimes, whilst making threats of nuclear repercussions to anyone who interferes. Ukraine, a democratic country on the brink of EU membership, is now a warzone, and this feels too close to home for all of us.

Our perceived proximity – both geographically and culturally – to those suffering, is emphasised by the minute-by-minute updates posted on social media by those on the ground. Our information isn’t just coming from the mainstream media, which is often viewed with mistrust, especially by younger generations. What we read about in the news and watch on television is being backed-up by personal accounts, unfiltered and shared directly, and all the more affecting as a result.

The humanitarian response is mirroring this. Many people are donating to traditional aid providers, but for some it feels impersonal and disconnected from what we are witnessing. Make a donation to a charity like Oxfam and your money disappears into the ether. Exactly who it benefits, where, when and how is not information you are privy to.

In contrast, the group chats and shared online documents are updated multiple times a day, with photos of vans loaded full to the brim of donated supplies setting off from London, arriving at the border and being received by people whose names and stories we know, despite having never met.

These technology-enabled grassroots organisations are representative of our connected world. Throwing a few coins in the collection bucket and then carrying on with our daily lives is no longer an option. In all the madness we need a method of helping.

A purpose. A sense of community and solidarity beyond hashtags and flag filters on our profiles.

Alexandra Anderson is a freelance writer and producer. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexmaianderson.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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