In late February, as war broke out in Ukraine, Dmitry Zakharov, the owner of a local barbecue restaurant and a car wash in the city of Kharkiv, started wondering what he could do to help his community. “After I heard the first explosions, I went to the grocery store to get food for my family,” he said. “I saw a long line of people waiting to buy drinking water, but there wasn’t enough available.”
When Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) began assessing the humanitarian needs in Ukraine, the number of Ukrainian volunteer networks, non-profit organizations, and civil society groups that had swiftly mobilized was striking.
Zakharov’s restaurant had its own potable water supply, so he started giving it away for free. When a local meat factory was damaged in the fighting and had to shut down, he gathered up the meat and distributed it to the community before it spoiled.
Soon, his humanitarian efforts took over his businesses. The restaurant’s dining rooms were cleared to provide space for free medical care. And under a large bright sign advertising Zakharov’s car wash, volunteers now serve nutritious free lunches daily to the community. When the situation in the neighborhood is stable enough, an MSF doctor and psychologist provide care in the front of Zakharov’s restaurant alongside volunteer nurses from the community who administer treatment to cancer patients in the next room and community volunteers who cook meals for around 1,200 people each day.
MSF teams throughout Ukraine are working with dozens of local groups, including volunteers who deliver thousands of food boxes to remote villages, railway authorities who provide trains for MSF's medical evacuation services, and volunteer drivers who deliver medications to patients’ homes. These groups are run by people who are directly affected by the war.
“MSF wanted to help strengthen what they’d already built,” said Barbara Hessel, MSF’s project coordinator in Kharkiv. “These local groups have provided the vast majority of humanitarian aid in Ukraine. These are the right people to deliver aid to their communities. They’ve been here and will continue to be here after we are gone, but they do need support.”
Reaching those cut off from aid
Yana Biletskaya started organizing humanitarian outreach with some friends as soon as the war began. Their goal was to reach residents of the many villages located far from Kharkiv city who were completely cut off from other sources of aid. A massive warehouse is filled with donations from various organizations: canned food sent from a small school in England sits next to a wall of large boxes from an international nongovernmental organization. The group loads donations directly onto trains that will deliver them to around 100 different community groups in the countryside who will then distribute the items to residents, many of whom are elderly.
“We started off with 50 people here,” said Biletskaya, “And now we are 20. But we are also much more efficient than we were at first. We went from working 24 hours every day to putting in fewer hours but better organizing our time. Our problem now is fuel, it’s very difficult for our volunteers to get fuel for distributions.”
MSF has provided thousands of food boxes (one box of non-perishable items feeds a family of three to four for a week) and hygiene kits containing toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, and other essentials to people throughout Kharkiv city and oblast in partnership with volunteer networks like Biletskaya’s.
Partnering with groups and individuals like this allows the MSF to reach far more people. “Together we can do so much more,” said Hessel. “They have the capacity to deliver 3,000 meals in one day—their networks are so well-organized.” The volunteer center is working with more than 50 volunteer groups in 21 districts of Kharkiv region. The groups are in contact with each other and can tell MSF and other NGOs where there are additional needs.
Finding a purpose in helping
Daria Samoilova, MSF’s volunteer liaison officer in Kharkiv, was on a very different track before the war upended her life—like many of the volunteers she works with and her Ukrainian colleagues. “I was a lawyer. I had a good life. I’d traveled to 38 countries,” said Samoilova. “[When the war started] I knew everything was changing and it was possible that my life could be destroyed—that I could die.”
Seven days into the war, a large building by her mother’s home was destroyed by an explosion. They packed and left for a different part of the country. But Samoilova wanted to come home.
“I needed to start a new life,” she said. Samoilova started working with MSF, first as a translator and then in her current role connecting with and overseeing partnerships between local groups and MSF. After just a few days into her role, Samoilova realized something. “I felt happy,” she said. “I was doing something good and kind, and everyone I was working with had the same idea: to help.”
Even as the war enters its sixth month, causing ever more death, displacement, psychological distress, and economic instability, local volunteers and organizations show no sign of scaling down their work. Zakharov, Biletskaya, and others say they want to do more, not less.
With this in mind, MSF has started helping volunteers and community leaders develop self-care and stress management strategies. “They deserve recognition for the work they are doing,” says Camilo Garcia, an MSF psychologist. “More than anything, though, we want to provide them with continuous support so they can keep helping their peers in need.”