Yana Walder, Ukrainian from Vermont, helps Ukrainians one family at a time
Nearly five months after Russia first invaded her country, Yana Walder, a Montpelier resident raised in Kharkiv, has raised more than $100,000, which she has donated to hundreds of families in Ukraine.
When VTDigger first spoke to Walder, 37, in March, she had just been helping her mother and goddaughter escape Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Her work continued daily, coordinating with volunteers in Ukraine to support those in need, especially single parents and pregnant women.
“It’s like any tough situation: you can just ignore the news, you can numb yourself, or you can get turned on,” Walder said. “Doing something feels good to me. Like, during this time that will go down in history, I was involved, and I was active, and I’m doing my part.
Walder provided dozens of photos of the families she helped and the accompanying bank transfer confirmations. The portraits are austere. Mothers – some breastfeeding – gather their children for a selfie. Babies watch with a conscious void. Some children smile with slightly curled lips. Others, exhausted, look into the lens of the camera, show themselves.
Walder has been working with Yuriy Muhin, a volunteer near the town of Dnipro, for the past few months. She sends Muhin $600 a week, which he uses to buy food and supplies. Muhin loads his car, drives around the area distributing goods. Together, Walder and Muhin have helped feed more than 250 families, she said.
As well as working with a regular set of overseas volunteers, Walder’s network is growing. His work spread by word of mouth in Ukraine. Neighbors told neighbors about her. A single father struggling to care for a young child was discovered by a cashier at a supermarket, Walder said. She helps people buy groceries, medicine, medical care – anything that keeps people safe and alive in the midst of war.
After meeting people in need for the first time, Walder goes through a standard verification process, video chats and asks for documents to confirm their identity. Then she sends money to a colleague in Ukraine, who can transfer it more easily between Ukrainian bank accounts.
“It’s overwhelming what has happened, and the scale of the destruction in my country and in the lives of people I know,” Walder said. “It seems more overwhelming than the time it takes to go out and try to find the money (to help).”
Money came from the United States, Mexico, Canada, and the United Kingdom, from Walder’s friends and business contacts to foreigners who heard of his work. On Facebook, she posts photos of the people she tries to help. Putting faces to the work she does often encourages people to contribute, Walder said.
Sometimes the money runs out, and sometimes she has to ask twice, but the donations kept coming in, allowing Walder to help more people each week.
Walder built his humanitarian efforts around a full work week. She could fundraise in the evenings, talk to people asking for help on the weekends. Just when she starts to run out of money, another donation will come along, Walder said, bringing her back into action.
While larger aid organizations have been active in Ukraine, Walder said it was almost impossible for mothers to receive money to care for their children or to pay for evacuation. Queues for meager food last for hours and sometimes fights break out. Moms, Walder said, can’t afford to spend six hours waiting for a loaf of bread and two cans of meat, let alone the physical toll such a wait takes.
Recently, Walder helped a young couple and their newborn baby flee the Russian-held city of Kherson. The family needed $600 – about a month’s income – to pay for a driver to help them escape. But this money alone would not be enough. Stuck in a long line of traffic at a Russian-controlled checkpoint, the family’s plan was blocked, Walder said. So the mother, who was still breastfeeding her newborn, jumped out of the car to negotiate with the nearby soldiers. Spinning a thread about a quick trip out of town to buy the baby medicine, the family was allowed to leave after paying a $100 bribe, according to Walder.
“It was their little trip, and I was really, really excited for them to get out safely,” she said. The $600 took Walder half an hour to fundraise and changed the lives of its recipients.
Unite for Ukraine
Last April, President Joe Biden announced the Uniting for Ukraine program, which allows Ukrainian citizens and their families to come to the United States for two years if they have an American financial sponsor. The aim is to accommodate some 100,000 refugees.
NBCNews reported in late June that more than 71,000 Ukrainians had come to the United States, including more than 20,000 entering through the US-Mexico border. That path is largely over as the Biden administration instead encouraged entry through the Uniting for Ukraine program.
Walder managed to bring his goddaughter to Vermont through the federal program and hopes she will arrive from Austria – where she has lived since fleeing Ukraine – later this summer. According to Walder, the application process is relatively simple and involves submitting a few basic financial documents.
“I would just encourage people to not be afraid to fulfill someone’s sponsorship,” she said, noting that she is in contact with people across the state who have agreed to offer. rooms in their homes to Ukrainians. “I think we should help, because we can. We are safe; we have the resources.
What changed ?
“The trauma of being on the phone with my mom when she was under bombing, that’s how it changed my memory. It’s crazy,” Walder said. “March and April are kind of like a black hole in my memory.
“I think it’s, as I understand it, just the brain’s way of protecting you.”
Even with an ocean between her and her homeland, the war transformed Walder. The fireworks make his heart beat. Doors slammed too. It’s strange to her that even though she was physically removed from the war, she nevertheless suffered physical effects.
Despite these effects, Walder remains committed to helping Ukraine and has been inspired by the support of her extended community in Vermont. The world is watching what happens, if Putin – a dictator – is allowed to enter a democratic country and take it by force, Walder said. This struggle has united people globally.
“I was walking down Montpelier State Street today, and there was a woman walking with a Ukrainian flag,” Walder said. “Our job, behind the front lines, is to support, to take care of people, to take care of refugees.”