A Word (and Shelter) from Kyiv

By Gwyn Lurie and Zach Rosen   |   February 28, 2023

I’ve long thought the most important and interesting work being done in Santa Barbara County, by far, is taking place in the nonprofit realm. I cannot think of a stronger example than the critical work currently being done by ShelterBox, which annually helps provide emergency shelter and essential items to more than 400,000 displaced people around the world. 

Kerri Murray, president of this global relief organization that responds to the world’s worst disaster and crisis situations, spoke to us from her hotel room in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she warned us that if an air raid siren were to go off, which happens several times a day, she would have to rush to a bomb shelter and call us back when she could. 

As Zach Rosen reports in his piece, coming up on the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, Murray filled us in on work being done by ShelterBox’s highly skilled team in this war-torn country, their fifth operation there in a year of war that has seen the fastest-growing displacement crisis since World War II, with 13 million people having been displaced. Which is to say nothing of the tens of thousands of people who are sheltering in place in their badly damaged/destroyed homes. Sometimes their work involved providing temporary living structures, and sometimes it’s things like mattresses, thermal blankets, and hygiene kits for people sleeping in collective centers, simply so they can get some sleep and keep from freezing in the dead of winter. 

Ukraine is just one disaster zone that ShelterBox is working to provide life-saving support to displaced human beings around our troubled globe. The post-earthquake disaster zones in Turkey and Syria are another. 

More details in Zach’s piece, but if your heart breaks like mine does for the millions of people around the world who really just want to go home, and you’d like to send your support, please do so at the ShelterBox page at The Giving List. Click on Santa Barbara. ~ Gwyn Lurie

Finding Shelter in the Storm

The 1/9 storm at the beginning of the year saw the entire Montecito community evacuated, but we were at least able to return home safely after the storm had passed. With the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the millions of displaced citizens will not have that luxury. 

For the past year, ShelterBox has been helping Ukrainians with the resources they need to maintain some sense of home, wherever they have found shelter. The ShelterBox teams are “always boots on the ground,” physically working alongside a group of partnering organizations in the regions they are assisting. ShelterBox USA president Kerri Murray and I had originally spoken after her first visit to Ukraine at the onset of fighting. Now, as we hit the one-year mark of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Gwyn Lurie and I wanted to speak with Murray to hear how the situation has evolved, where ShelterBox is currently focusing their efforts, and what new needs are arising. 

For years, ShelterBox has focused on “long, protracted conflict situations” in areas like Syria and Yemen, providing emergency shelters and life-sustaining essential supplies for displaced communities and areas affected by natural disasters. But with an always changing world, they have had to adapt to the new challenges found around the globe. “The fastest-growing piece of our work over the past five years has been responding to conflict situations, and so we responded immediately when the war started,” said Murray. She was part of the initial team that landed in Poland to assess the situation as Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th. In the past year, ShelterBox has been able to provide support for 37,000 people so far with plans to assist 30,000 more over the winter months.

Their initial arrival and situational assessments resulted in three programs. The first immediate one was the distribution of thousands of mattresses to churches, schools, and other collective centers so those fleeing would simply just have a place to sleep, along with thermal blankets and hygiene kits to support them. The second program was directed toward eastern and central Ukraine. In addition to core support like thermal blankets, water containers, and solar lights, this program supplied their shelter repair kits so those sheltering in place could fix windows, walls, and roofs with tools, tarps and plastic sheeting, foam sealants, and other materials to help patch up damage to their homes or shelters. 

The third program focused on assisting the refugees being externally displaced by the war and centered on supporting Ukrainians in small countries such as Moldova that may not have had the resources and infrastructure needed to meet the influx of refugees. ShelterBox provided hygiene kits and other basics but was also able to support refugees with small stipends to help with food, prescriptions, health care needs, and additional essentials. 

With conditions always evolving, they have now focused all of their efforts within Ukraine. “You have now a year later, 13 million people who have been displaced by the war, and that’s over eight million people who have been externally displaced – it’s like a country – then five-and-a-half million people who have been internally displaced,” said Murray. “The other thing that I should mention is that there’s 17-and-a-half million people in Ukraine that need humanitarian assistance, so it’s nearly half of the population. That stays true one year later.” 

ShelterBox is currently working on its fourth program, with a fifth one soon to launch. “We started evolving aid as the seasons changed,” said Murray, “and now we’re in the midst of winter, so we’re here right now delivering probably the most important programs we’ve done in the past year, which are helping people survive the winter.” Both programs will run concurrently and are distributing similar resources but are differentiated by geographical regions, beneficiaries, and other logistical nuances. 

“We have a very customized set of aid items that are based on the assessments that have been done, what people have asked for, and what they need right now,” said Murray. For the freezing Ukrainian winters, this means they are focusing on the distribution of high thermal blankets and sleeping bags, shelter repair kits, solar lights, water carriers, and especially wood-fired stoves that allow individuals and families to keep their space warm. “A lot of the air strikes are targeted to power infrastructure, so you’ve had: One, a lack of power in so many areas, but then you also have rolling outages all the time. That affects not just electricity, but then there’s no heat and then there’s no running water,” said Murray. 

“Some people are in dormitories, if they’re coming from Donetsk. We toured one today that people are going to move into next week. It’s 110 people and they’re very tiny, tiny rooms, but each tiny room might have four little single beds next to each other.” Murray told us about one family she had just met that had 15-minutes to flee their home. Initially, they went to a basement with 60 people but only one heater. That family was fortunately able to find a small, single apartment for themselves to rent, but with no heat or power, the stove, thermal blankets, and solar lights were vital for helping them stay there.

A Worldwide Team

With operations around the world, it takes an array of experts and specialists to help with logistics and distributions so they can quickly respond to these areas. “The team that I’m with is, I would say, some of the most highly skilled people in all of emergency response,” said Murray. Along with logistics professionals, there are security details, as well as monitoring and evaluation professionals that help make the systems operate efficiently and safely. Of course, that doesn’t count the many supporting locals and organizations that help make their work possible. “When we’re here on deployment, we don’t drive. We always have a local driver who is really your fixer, and who speaks the language, translates – a lifeline to be able to do aid work.”

In Kyiv, Murray was part of a five-person team, though she mentioned ShelterBox has a larger team currently in Syria and Turkey, responding to the emerging crisis after the devastating earthquakes. “Our work in Syria is the longest in our history in 11 years. We’ve brought emergency shelter to over half a million people. We also work in Turkey and a lot of what we make is in Gaziantep, which is affected by the earthquake.” The ShelterBox team in Turkey had just experienced two aftershocks the day we spoke and had to move from their eighth-floor hotel space to sleeping on the lobby floor for the night. “We’ve already done an airlift with Turkish Airlines of tents to Turkey. We had a lot of aid supplies, blankets, and children’s clothing already in Syria for our winter distributions that we’ve diverted to families who have been affected by the earthquakes.”

Whether it is Ukraine or Syria and Turkey, many of these areas have ongoing needs and will take years to recover and rebuild. In Ukraine, that recovery can only truly begin once the fighting has stopped. From now, to that moment and beyond, ShelterBox will be there, helping provide the resources needed to maintain some sentiment of home.  


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