Place, I imagine, is something you think about a lot — particularly this year after Russia invaded your home country. What does place mean to you?
On the 4th of July last year, we took our three kids to celebrate where we live in Southeastern Idaho. As colorful explosions filled the sky, out of the corner of my eye I noticed my cell phone buzzing. It was a missile warning for many regions of Ukraine where I have friends, family, and people I love. The phone kept buzzing. I closed my eyes to say a prayer. But the explosions in the sky above me made it difficult to gather my thoughts, to pray for the safety of the people I love.
I felt exhausted. Some 20 years ago, by landing in the U.S. for the very first time at the age of 17 to attend college, little did I know that I was filing for a life-long residence of the place called “in-between.” However, “in-between” is the place that uniquely positioned me to know the exact needs of the people in Ukraine and be able to pass on the message to communities in the U.S.
Have you seen any shifts in the sacred use of space?
On one trip to Ukraine, we stopped by a meeting house for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had been there before the war. It was difficult to recognize now. It was a shelter for displaced people, open to anyone in need of refuge. Many had to flee from their homes in parts of Ukraine that were being heavily bombed. Classrooms were filled with mattresses. Other rooms were filled with boxes of humanitarian aid. The baptistry and shower area were used for people to bathe. Meals were prepared in the kitchen daily for the entire group.
One evening, some friends and I brought pizza and dessert for everyone in the center. We blessed the food and people couldn’t hide their excitement about the different type of meal they were getting. As everyone lined up at the serving table, a loud air raid siren went off. Younger kids clung to their mothers, but everyone knew exactly what to do. They kept their plates with food, but quickly proceeded to the ground floor and sat along the walls of the hallway. Everyone was quiet. I watched them eat their meal in silence as we listened to the sirens warning us of rockets flying in our direction. I closed my eyes and said a prayer that the rocket coming our way would drop away from people, that it would not wound anyone, that it would not destroy a residential home. And then, as always, I prayed that I would see my own three children again.
Tell us a little about To Ukraine With Love, this charity that you founded at the outbreak of the war.
The mission of To Ukraine With Love is to “Help the people on the ground in Ukraine outlast their invaders.” Hope is something people in Ukraine cannot afford to lose. They have lost their homes, their loved ones, their cities. But as long as they have hope, they can continue to fight.
You have dedicated your life to this effort in ways that are so inspiring (the sheer hours and travel you do are astonishing). Can you share the story about the conversation that made you realize that you were called to this work?
With the start of the war, I found myself enraged by the injustice happening to my people. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I was constantly checking the news. But after I filled the first cargo plane with aid with the help of so many amazing friends and neighbors — which laid the start of this charity — I was able to sleep for the first time in peace. Peace came only after I finally had a plan of action in place, a plan of how I was going to aid the people in Ukraine and what I would be doing to help. This plan entailed months and months of work, of 8-16 hours a day, often 7 days a week. As a mom of three kids and a husband who works long hours, it would seem that this new schedule would rob me of any kind of peace in my life. To my great surprise, I experienced the opposite! This is when I knew I was called to this work.
What is your personal sacred space, right now, particularly as you sustain yourself in this effort?
A couple of weeks ago, I planned a trip to the temple. My three kids had left for school and I was getting ready to leave when I noticed the Ukrainian news announcement that 90 rockets had just been launched on every major city in Ukraine. That it was the biggest missile attack since the beginning of the war. My first thought was, maybe I could push the temple trip to later that day or to another day. I just wanted to connect with the people I care about and make sure everyone was doing okay.
But I knew I needed to draw on the power that no other place on this earth could offer me. So I went to the temple. I tried to focus on the session. I thought about the creation of the world. About the fall. In the back of my mind, I thought about Ukraine and the terrible attack. As I was sitting in the terrestrial room, looking at the beautiful wall murals, I noticed two birds painted in a blue and yellow color. I had been in that room so many times and never noticed the beautiful blue and yellow birds. All of a sudden, I knew without a doubt that God was watching over the people of Ukraine — that He knew what they were going through and what I was feeling and going through as well. A sacred place for me has been a place where I can talk to God, where I can turn to Him in anger and disbelief of what is happening in Ukraine and find peace. He is truly the ultimate source of peace and wisdom.
What stories have stayed with you as you do your work?
I met a man in his 70’s from Sugar City, Idaho, who has no connection to Ukraine. He told me he had been heartbroken over the news he was watching about Ukraine and what was happening to our people. He hopped on a plane, came to Poland, and then went into Ukraine to volunteer at the International Battalion. They did not accept him due to his age. So he teamed up with humanitarian drivers in Ukraine and drove to some of the most dangerous parts of the country delivering vital aid to hospitals, women, children, civilian defenders. When I met him on the Polish border, I was blown away by his determination to help Ukrainian people. “Why are you doing this for our people?” I asked him. “How do your wife and children feel about you putting yourself in harm’s way?”
His reply was that he just couldn’t keep watching the news and do nothing about what was happening to the people in Ukraine.
I have been astounded at people’s kindness and desire to help the people of Ukraine. I expected prayers, sympathy, and a certain level of support, but I never expected help of this magnitude. My job is to direct people in the U.S. to the very specific needs on the ground in Ukraine — to introduce the donors virtually and through photos and videos and show them the faces of the people they helped. This has proven very successful. When people see what their funds are spent on, they are willing to spread the word and donate more. We have directly helped 20,000-22,000 people. When people have hope there is always going to be a fight left in them. They will win this fight. I know this without a doubt. It is my job to help them last just a little longer.
How can people support you, donate, or get involved?
We can purchase everything people need in Ukraine in Poland or on the ground in Ukraine. We just need the means to purchase what people cannot afford to buy for themselves. For example:
$500 can help us purchase 10 high-quality sleeping bags which will keep 10 people warm in -30 degree weather.
$6,500 can help us purchase 10 gas generators. This will help 600 Ukrainians living in tall condo buildings have the ability to warm up herbal tea, soup and keep drinking warm liquids during blackouts. 600 will be able to charge their devices during long-term black-outs and stay connected to their loved ones and let them know they are safe and alive.
$1,000 can provide 3,000 meals for people in the most destroyed part of Ukraine – women and children who line up to get a freshly-cooked hot meal, for many it is their only meal of the day.
$2,000 can help 10 households with fire-burning stoves to keep their children warm this winter.
$200 can still save one family from freezing this winter by giving them firewood. If you can afford to keep more than one family warm – I ask you to consider doing it. We have no overhead, every donated dollar goes directly to Ukraine. Peace will come to us not just from standing on the right side of history but fighting on the right side — fighting where we stand. ⋑
DONATE TO SVITLANA’S EFFORTS:
- Venmo: @AidForUkraine