This Is Life On The Ground With A Ukrainian Donations Bank

Bread, nappies, period pads, pet food – the shopping list of essentials Ukrainian refugees need right now.
Valentina Osborn (right) and her RefugEase colleague Hannah in Hungary.
Valentina Osborn
Valentina Osborn (right) and her RefugEase colleague Hannah in Hungary.

The world continues to watch as the people of Ukraine flee to safety. Imagery of refugees travelling all over Europe are at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

An estimated 2.2 million people have already left Ukraine, a figure that could rise to four million in the days and weeks ahead, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

People are trying to support and donate where they can (here are some of the ways you can help from the UK) but what does it feel like to be working with relief efforts on the ground right now?

We spoke to Valentina Osborn, the managing director of RefugEase, a “small but mighty” UK-based charity, which is currently providing aid to Ukrainian refugees on the Hungarian border.

The charity’s team of three flew in at the start of the week, where they got straight work buying supplies on the ground with UK funds, distributing donations from a van, as well as offering more practical support to arrivals.

“We’ve been doing lifts from the border to Budapest to help refugees with their onward journey, We’re also distributing hygiene packs, basic medical supplies, and food,” Osborn tells HuffPost UK. “We’re basically just helping them in transit.”

The refugees she is seeing have mainly been women and also a large number of small children, says Osborn. There have also been a few elderly people. Men who are of conscription age (18 to 60) were banned from leaving Ukraine after the Russian invasion on February 24, though many men with Ukrainian citizenship have still been trying to cross into Hungary, Romania and Poland.

“There are varying degrees of emotional states,” she says. “Generally people just look bewildered and tired, Lots of younger kids look quite confused and a lot of them are staring into space, but it’s not utter chaos like we’re used to.”

Ukrainian refugees waiting for tickets in Budapest station
Valentina Osborn
Ukrainian refugees waiting for tickets in Budapest station

Osborn founded RefugEase after the shocking photo of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach moved her to set up a local music fundraiser, which took on a life of its own. Thousands donated items to a ‘needs’ list – enough to fill four double-decker buses in just two days.

While the relief work in Hungary is tiring, Osborn says it’s less stressful than aid efforts during the Syrian refugee crisis.

“Ukraine has received an overwhelming amount of support in the West, which has been way easier in comparison to the refugee crisis back in 2015,” she says, highlighting a double standard in our approach to different refugees.

“When we’ve received support before, it’s always been a bit of a contentious topic, because it was regarding refugees in the Middle East, whereas now we’re receiving support from companies that really want to shout about it and work with us and give us ongoing support.”

The charity collects its donations through an online Aid Shop, which was established after Brexit and the Covid crisis made traditional aid from the UK much more expensive to move around, even as the need increased.

As the website explains: “After a successful online campaign to get aid to Moria Camp in Greece, after a devastating fire, we decided to set up an online aid shop to allow people to buy aid for those who need it most, directly.”

Here’s how donating works: people can choose – and pay for – donations from a “shopping list” on site and RefugEase will work with charity partners in the country to fund the wages of local people who buy and distribute that aid.

“You can essentially online shop and add things to your basket,” Osborn says. “We put those prices together according to the local retailers in Hungary. So people [at home] buy an item or two and their funds are ring-fenced for that item. Then we complete the transaction on the ground.”

In terms of what Ukrainian refugees need, it’s the essentials. “There are a lot of refugees on the go, so they need survival items that are basically on the go. So anything from food, hygiene packs, baby items, pet food,” Osborn says. “We need loads of pet food as a lot of people have bought cats and dogs.”

In a recent Instagram post, the team have expressed gratitude to supporters.

“We’ve got ourselves a van and filled it to the brim with the food, hygiene and medical packs you’ve purchased in our online shop,” the caption reads.

“In our van we’ve got 150 packs of nappies, 480 period pads, 50 loaves of bread, 200 litres of bottled water and much MUCH more. And this is only a fraction of the items you’ve donated online, in the coming days, we’ll be able to deliver this amount 10x over!”

Asked how she and her team are taking care of themselves, Osborn says they are taking walks, trying to eat properly and making sure they drink a lot of water.

Morale is high even if the situation is so changeable. The team expect to stay in Hungary for a while, but are preparing for a possible shift to Moldova, where tensions are reported to be increasing.

In recent footage shared widely on Twitter, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Putin, was seen pointing to a map highlighting Russian movements. The map divides Ukraine into four parts and shows Russian soldiers crossing the border into Moldova from the Ukrainian port of Odessa. This has caused concerns that Moldova could be Russia’s next target.

“People in Moldova seem to be quite frightened,” says Osborn of reports they are following closely. “And it seems to be that the chaos is still continuing.”

You can donate to RefugEase here.