An excerpt from the journal of Halo friend Brian Mayer as he guides efforts to provide aid to victims of the conflict in Ukraine
From Lviv – 05/08/22
Sometime around 2:10am today, as air raid sirens were blaring in Lviv (along with almost every other region in Ukraine), I found I was asking myself the same question that Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher asked when she found herself watching Scottish festival games in The Crown: “What on earth am I doing here?”
The truth is, although part of my mission here is tactical—touring warehouses, meeting and breaking bread with partners on the ground who receive our humanitarian shipments and speed them on to Kharkiv and elsewhere—there is a deeper, more meaningful reason that I am writing to you from a coffee shop in central Lviv during a period of exceptionally high alert.
The reason is: I want to remember what we’re fighting for. Since my last visit to Ukraine in April, I have been on opposite sides of the world—and in opposite worlds. Only a week ago I was soaking up the sun in southern California, eating in fine restaurants and seeing old friends, blissfully detached from the daily pain and suffering of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. I had the luxury of removing myself from the heat and fear of conflict, a privilege that precious few Ukrainians have, even when they are thousands of miles away.
I had many sleepless and regret-filled nights during this time, feeling that I was not meeting my basic obligations to the Ukrainian cause. Even when I had a chance to order more supplies and raise money and arrange their shipment from abroad, I’m ashamed to say that I did not. Now I’m back, and the failures of those weeks haunt me. How many lives could have been saved if I had rallied my doctor friends to assemble the list of medical supplies sitting in my email drafts for over a week? How many more kilos of food could we have gotten to needy children trapped under the ground in bomb shelters?
Ship times of 2-3 weeks to Poland are common, and I remember a month ago thinking that it was too slow — that the war might even be over by then. But the truth is, I don’t see how this war ends any time soon, and I should have been thinking further ahead.
Today, Lviv is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city, and has one of the most beautiful city centers in the world. You walk down cobblestoned streets lined with outdoor cafés and Gothic revival architecture: churches, museums, theaters, grand hotels, and plazas with statues of old war heroes on horseback. Young people crowd the streets, laughing and dancing and playing live music, defying daily government warnings to stay inside (although I hear it’s much less crowded this weekend than it is on a typical weekend).
There are juice bars and electric scooters and all the cafés have paper straws. There’s a cyberpunk culture and a gay scene and yellow trams rumbling by every five minutes. Besides an air raid siren going off every six or eight hours and people meandering casually to the nearest shelter, you wouldn’t know there was a war on. Except, of course, for the soldiers everywhere, which lends the city an eerie dread that might have been familiar during the last major European war.
Although this city typically has around 700,000 residents, war and dislocation has swelled the population to over 1.5 million. Although most (non-fighting-age men) here are free to leave, many do not. Those that stay are living their normal lives, working their normal jobs against the backdrop of this horrible war. It has created a new normal with curfews and restrictions on many common goods. But life goes on.
Yesterday, a dentist friend of mine was in the middle of surgery when he was interrupted by an air raid siren. Like most residents of Lviv, ignoring the sirens has become a learned reflex, tuning it out as easily as Americans tune out the latest outrages on cable news. “If there are explosions, then I will go,” someone told another friend of mine in the refugee center. Speaking from experience, when it’s 2:00 in the morning, you don’t really want to get out of your warm bed just to get dressed and huddle in a freezing basement.
I experienced my first air raid within thirty seconds of being handed my hotel key. The receptionist made an announcement over the PA system and, before I had even checked in, she led me from the lobby to the bomb shelter across the street, where we joined fifty locals who had strolled in. As I found out from my Territorial Defense friends during the raid, sirens were going off everywhere in Ukraine due to a scramble of jets off the Black Sea. You never really know where the rockets will hit, or how bad it will be. Cruise missiles can even be redirected after launch. So, you wait, and you hope that this time it isn’t you. We waited in that shelter until my as-yet-uncharged phone battery reached 2% before were given the all-clear to go upstairs.
The people of Bilohorivka weren’t so lucky.
The Ukrainians I have befriended here have universally adopted a characteristically callous humor about the daily dread hanging over them. “If it’s a nuke, we’ll be dead anyway,” said one. “This could be psychological warfare… or not ;)” texted another. And if my last twenty-four hours are any indication, the “new normal” here involves gritting through routines with a cloud of anxiety hanging over everything, though even for me this has faded into the background. My new friends and I were able to enjoy ribs last night over beer and intellectual table talk. Living here is tolerable for the millions of locals, refugees, and expats volunteering in hundreds of makeshift refugee shelters and help sites. For many other parts of Ukraine, the shelling is constant, and the daily threat unbearable.
For those people, especially those in Kharkiv, Sumy, the Donbas, and elsewhere in the country’s east, we can’t do anything about the artillery raining down on them. But we can help provide humanitarian aid where it’s needed. With that in mind, let’s talk about the progress of our relief efforts.
I had an opportunity to tour our Lviv warehouse today and survey the successful delivery of our last shipment, along with the foodstuffs available for purchase from commercial importers. As a reminder, we make every effort to purchase food aid from legitimate commercial wholesalers in Ukraine to keep the money and jobs in Ukraine’s economy. It doesn’t hurt that locally grown food is cheaper, though this is now changing due in part to massive fuel shortages.
There’s another element that is shaking up commercial shipping: a new benefit the Ukrainian government just imposed that allows for the tax-free importation of vehicles from abroad. The natural consequence of this policy change has been miles-long lines of vehicles waiting to cross the border into Ukraine from Poland, which I’ve seen in the last couple days. These imports are clogging up the customs lanes, with the unintended consequence of delaying normal commercial trucks for days on end. Combining this with the near-universal unavailability of gasoline, as well as long fueling lines at the few stations with supplies, prices are spiking everywhere and shortages are common.
This makes the work we do delivering food and medicine from Poland even more important, especially when the urgency of the crisis in Ukraine has taken a backseat to Roe v. Wade and other pressing global issues.
By next Tuesday, forty-thousand people will be completely out of food. My partners here tell me that 400 metric tons of food were donated in the first weeks of the war, and thousands of families plunged into poverty by the war have come to depend upon their food distribution center in Kharkiv every single day. Now, donations have dried up—both aid and cash. In fact, the only major supply of food coming in right now is from our imports.
Donations have stopped. Supplies have dried up. People will start starving if we don’t help soon. That’s why what we’re doing is so urgent, and why I’m asking you to give again, even if you have already. Lives depend on it.
About Brian Mayer
Brian is a friend of Halo, and a New York City-based tech executive who first went to the Poland/Ukraine border in April to coordinate refugee assistance, supply and transport on both sides of the border. Since then, he has facilitated the shipment of thousands of kilos of food, medicine, medical supplies, and humanitarian aid into Ukraine, mostly to the war-torn regions of Kharkiv, Sumy and Donbas, and helped transport and resettle refugees in Europe and beyond. When he’s not working with the Halo Foundation to support Ukrainian humanitarian efforts, he leads a data and analytics team at a fintech startup in New York City.
Halo Investing is an award-winning technology platform for protective investment solutions. Headquartered in Chicago, with offices in Abu Dhabi, Zurich, Dubai, and Singapore, Halo was co-founded by Biju Kulathakal and Jason Barsema in 2015 with a mission that focuses on putting “impact before profits,” providing access to impactful investment opportunities previously unavailable to most investors. Through the Halo platform, financial advisors and investors can easily access structured notes, market-linked CDs, buffered ETFs, and annuities, as well as a suite of tools to educate, analyze, customize, execute, and manage the most suitable protective investment product for their portfolios. Halo has received a growing number of honors and was recently named one of Fast Company’s Ten Most Innovative Companies of 2021. For more information, please visit: http://www.haloinvesting.com
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