Want to help Ukraine? Bring a needed skill or stay home and send money

Two days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, the World Health Organization issued a global request: the war-torn country needed doctors, nurses and paramedics experienced in emergency situations. complex emergencies.

Within days, a group of 22 people from Team Rubicon, an international non-profit disaster response organization based near Los Angeles International Airport, flew to Krakow, Poland.

For memory :

6:25 p.m. May 10, 2022An earlier version of this story stated that volunteer Lars Whelan was a coast guard. He is a member of the United States Merchant Navy.

The team of doctors, nurses and other trained professionals drove rental cars approximately 160 miles from the border. They crossed on foot into Ukraine, where a fleet of vehicles was waiting for them. Dividing into smaller groups, they dispersed across the west of the country, visiting hospitals and field clinics.

The Rubicon team have since sent three waves of substitutes to Ukraine. Each team has been carefully selected, a key step in the relief effort. Thousands of people around the world want to help Ukraine, but they don’t have the skills, experience or credentials to work with an international aid organization.

As it has done in communities in need from Mississippi to Mozambique since its founding 12 years ago, Team Rubicon plans to continue to power the response effort in Ukraine for as long as its teams are welcome and can be useful.

Which could be long.

From a windowless underground bunker in western Ukraine in late March, Dr Erica Nelson and Dan Freiberg, their faces lit only by the light of a laptop screen, gave a live update on their activities as air raid sirens sounded overhead.

As deputy medical director and team leader of Team Rubicon, respectively, they were part of the organization’s first medical response team sent to Ukraine for three weeks from early March.

Ukrainian soldiers on a street in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

“When you have five air raids you are pretty limited on what you can do, but in the last 24 [hours] I think those guys saw 27 patients,” Freiberg said, referring to a small subunit of the team. He had suspended his job as a fire department captain in Goodyear, Arizona, for the better part of a month to help.

“We’re all trying to use every connection or resource we have to really find the places where we can be most effective,” he said. “We are pretty well prepared and prepared for tomorrow. Now we spend the night at the refuge.

Moments earlier, Brian McAchran had been reporting from his post near the Ukrainian border in northeastern Hungary, where his team was treating refugees and training local medical staff in trauma care. At the start of the conflict, Team Rubicon had sent small groups to neighboring countries in Eastern Europe, but they no longer have teams in Hungary, Poland or Moldova.

“Today was a huge success,” said McAchran, Rubicon’s team coordinator. “Our doctor Vitaliy [Belyshev] has been in the clinic for two days now… And we have identified some issues that we could train them on, things that our medical staff are expert in, like stopping the bleeding. They prepared for this training.

Every weekday, scenes like these are streamed in real time from bunkers, hotels and medical facilities across Eastern Europe onto an oversized video screen in a sleek conference room at the headquarters of the association.

People using laptops at a table during a video conference

Staff members gather at Team Rubicon headquarters in Los Angeles to receive live updates on the nonprofit’s efforts to help respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Nelson was on leave from work as an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. As she spoke from the bunker in western Ukraine, her voice rose above the din of others taking cover from shelling by Russian forces.

“I think even though…we haven’t seen hundreds and hundreds of patients,” said Nelson, who has provided aid in places like the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Jamaica, “we hear say it’s important that we were here to support them. »

Most of the patients she and her colleagues have helped did not have the bullet and shrapnel wounds one would expect. The majority were women and children in need of medical attention for existing conditions such as asthma and diabetes after fleeing their homes elsewhere in the country.

Team Rubicon’s operations in Ukraine are guided by a set of principles aimed at “adding value instead of creating cost,” said Art delaCruz, the organization’s chief executive.

The goal is to find and deploy highly skilled and experienced professionals to have the greatest impact without being a burden or draining local resources.

“Anybody can get off a couch and say, ‘I can do this.’ But the reality is maybe they can’t,” said delaCruz, a retired naval officer. “If we respond to a tornado where a group of trees is knocked down, don’t send someone who doesn’t know how to use a chainsaw when you can send someone who can.”

“When you have five air raids you are pretty limited on what you can do, but in the last 24 [hours] I think these guys saw 27 patients.

—Dan Freiberg, Team Rubicon

David Malet, a professor at American University who has published two books on foreign fighters and noncombatants traveling to war zones, agrees.

“Many organizations prefer to receive money and resources rather than outsiders who are either inexperienced and may become passive or try to sideline local leaders,” he said in an email.

Many of those without the necessary skills give up and find different ways to help the relief effort in Ukraine. Others travel to Eastern Europe on their own, hoping to find a way to lend a helping hand once on the ground.

“Some people really feel a personal responsibility,” said Ken Keen, a retired US Army lieutenant general and associate dean for leadership at Emory University’s business school. They “want to do good and want to respond.”

On April 3, Lars Whelan boarded a nonstop LOT Polish Airlines flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Warsaw.

Along with his toothbrush and other standard travel essentials, the burly 48-year-old packed a ballistic vest, camouflage clothing and Juno – his toy poodle, known in the Whelan apartment complex in Hollywood Hills for its pink-dyed fur pouf.

A man standing in a hallway with his toy poodle tucked into his waistcoat

Lars Whelan holds his dog, Juno, at his apartment complex in Los Angeles on March 8, 2022, nearly a month before heading to Poland to help Ukrainian refugees.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

For weeks after fighting broke out in Ukraine, Whelan had been trying to link up with an aid organization that could tap into his experience in international logistics, humanitarian aid and crisis management.

“The first thing I saw was the call for people with specific experience. And what I was thinking was, ‘I could be really helpful,'” he said. “My preference would obviously not be to show up and have someone hand me an AK-47.”

Whelan has managed logistics and security in countries like Gabon and Cameroon. In 2016, he traveled to Greece to help with the arrival of Syrian war refugees. The colorful map above his desk is interspersed with lines connecting the dozens of countries he has visited.

A member of the United States Merchant Navy since 1995, Whelan is also a Certified Medical Provider. And he’s been helping with Team Rubicon’s COVID-19 response in California, helping with food pantries relief efforts.

So he submitted his name when the group put out a call for qualified professionals. He has not yet been wiretapped by the organization, nor by any of the other people he has contacted.

The Rubicon team is headquartered in Los Angeles.

The Rubicon team is headquartered in Los Angeles.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

David Burke, Team Rubicon’s director of programs, said that despite Whelan’s track record, he was not yet a good fit for one of the organization’s teams.

“Pre-participation is always valued and appreciated. The rest of the vetting and application process is to make sure we don’t put anyone in situations where they would be uncomfortable and dangerous,” Burke said.

After being turned away by relief groups, Whelan decided to travel alone to Poland. Two days after landing in Warsaw, he had already found a way to make himself useful.

Ukrainian forces pass through the town of Borodyanka, Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces pass through the town of Borodyanka, Ukraine. The town was heavily damaged during its occupation by Russian forces, which have since withdrawn.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Operating from the Polish capital’s central station, he received a fluorescent yellow vest and a paper badge with the word “Volunteer” and its Polish and Ukrainian translations.

As refugees from Ukraine arrived in their hundreds, Whelan – and Juno, whom he tucked into his jacket – helped direct them to offices offering services such as travel coordination, government resources and temporary housing. .

“There are times when it slows down,” Whelan said in a WhatsApp message, “and then times when you have hordes of people trying to get information.”

But even the skills of the carefully selected teams of Team Rubicon are not always used in the way they expected.

“We came here expecting something that wasn’t the reality, so I think we had to take some time, and we had to check our assumptions and engage in a very humble and thoughtful way,” said Nelson.

A crowd of people lined up to eat

People line up to receive food aid at Ark Church in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Many people had been waiting for hours to receive food.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

From the dark and mysterious bunker, she had some advice for anyone considering traveling to Ukraine.

“Don’t just show up,” Nelson said. “There are too many mavericks here. There are too many people saying, “I’m a paramedic, I’m a veteran, I’m going to come here and help. Find, legitimize and apply to the right organization.

Or maybe stay home.

“Maybe just giving your money to organizations that know what they’re doing and engage the community is the best thing to do,” she said.

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