SOFIA, BULGARIA — Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Iryna Gavrylova, a Ukrainian, worked in Bulgaria with a team of entrepreneurs on food technology innovations.
“Architects of new clean label organic food products and technologies, [CMYK Ingredients] run it [research and development] and prototyping crazy edible innovations,” states the website of CMYK ingredients.
But everything changed on February 24, when Russia launched a violent attack on Gavrylova’s home country.
The CMYK team put everything aside to focus on something completely different than what they were doing before, using the skills they used to start their business.
“When you face an emergency, sometimes you don’t have much choice,” said Gavrylova, in a phone interview with the reformer. “Sometimes you don’t have much choice.”
About a week before the invasion, it became apparent to Gavrylova and the rest of the team that things were going to get ugly, and get ugly fast.
“You never want to believe that something you love is going to fall apart tomorrow,” she said. “You don’t expect chaos and tragedy.”
The team members realized that what they had to do was find a way to help the millions of refugees fleeing the chaos and tragedy inflicted on Ukraine by the Russian invasion.
“Practically none of us get enough sleep,” Gavrylova said. “We were looking for solutions; how to get people across the border, how to transport them to a safe place, how to find them accommodation. It’s very overwhelming.
Gavrylova said meeting immediate needs is exhausting, but the team also spends several hours a day working on a new concept – a center for social integration, where refugees whose immediate needs are taken care of can focus on the daily tasks of adapting to their new lives.
Together they established Aid to Ukrainewith the mission of promoting “the economic freedom of Ukrainians [European Union] instead of welfare,” the website says.
Aid to Ukraine comprises three initiatives: coordination, integration and aid.
In the first, people help refugees get to Bulgaria safely by guiding them online or by phone. The same people coordinate all matters of logistics, accommodation and settling, as well as offer introductions to life and community issues in Bulgaria.
Social integration consists of psychological help and therapy for adults and children, language adaptation and help for adults who need to find ways to adapt their professional skills to their new life.
Aid to Ukraine also helps coordinate the delivery of medicines and supplies to hospitals and doctors in Ukraine.
“We buy the drugs, organize safe routes and make the deliveries,” Gavrylova said.
Most of the people who will make this possible are refugees themselves.
“For the first time in history, it’s refugees for refugees,” she said.
Gavrylova, who attended St Petersburg State University in Russia, believes what the team is building in Bulgaria can be replicated in other countries.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2021, 84 million people had been forcibly displaced around the world as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations.
Since February 24, more than three million of the 43.5 million Ukrainians have fled, including one million to Poland.
Since 2021, Europe has welcomed an additional million refugees from Syria, where more than 12 million people have been displaced. In 2010, the population of Syria was just over 21 million.
More than 2.5 million Afghans are considered refugees, the majority living in Iran and Pakistan. A further 3.5 million Afghans are internally displaced, having fled their homes in search of refuge inside the country.
Refugees around the world would prefer to return home, but if that is not possible, they are forced to start their lives over from scratch.
“Startup life is something that prepares you to create something that has never been before,” Gavrylova said.
“This project is about longer-term solutions,” she said, adding, “It’s a real humanitarian catastrophe. These people will have a place to sleep and they will have food, but they will have no place in society.
Unlike refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, who included entire families, Ukrainian refugees are women, children and the elderly; the men remained to fight the Russians.
“Which means that women will not be able to work regularly,” she said. “They will have to take care of the children and the elders.”
People can help by sending money directly to agencies such as Aid for Ukraine. The website also has a list of necessary medications.
She also said the United States could do more for refugees around the world, not just Ukrainians.
“The United States is not under the stress of taking in too many refugees,” she said. “It’s crap, to be honest.”
She noted that most of the refugees are refugees due to the policies of superpowers such as the United States and Russia.
She urged Americans not just to donate, but to call their senators and representatives and urge them to make it easier for Ukrainians and other refugees to stay in the United States.
“Each citizen must decide,” she said. “It’s about choosing your truth.”