A call for help (Day 126)
I knew this day would come. And now it is finally here.
In a way, I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier. But now the day has arrived, so I have to start my morning at 8am with an appeal for fundraising help, rather than delivering supermarket gift cards.
I delivered my first supermarket €50 gift cards to a group of a dozen Ukrainian women on April 19, a little over two months ago. Since then, with an enormous contribution by Mario Zechner who singlehandedly built a website and took over bulk purchases of gift cards and their distribution, we have delivered well over two thousand (I don’t want to jinx writing the exact figure) €50 supermarket gift cards to Ukrainian refugee families all across Austria. We deliver most cards by post, having quickly learned it makes for much easier logistics. However, for some residents of dorms in Vienna, I continue to meet them in person, knowing they are in vulnerable situations and not fully trusting they will receive their mail in group homes for hundreds of residents, particularly when a card worth €50 is inside. So Mario and I work in tandem, each delivering cards, Mario to those who apply via the website (the waiting list is over 1000 families), and I to those who write me directly over Telegram or Messenger. I have two piles: by post and in person, and I try to prioritise as best I can the neediest cases. When I receive more cards or funding, I deliver immediately.
I now have three cards left and money to buy one more, which I will do today, and deliver four cards to a dorm in Vienna’s 11th district this afternoon. Those residents are unfortunately living in no man’s land: many are in wheelchairs, the dorm is considered an emergency residence, they are “fed” (several told me lunch sometimes runs out by 12:30), and therefore do not qualify for any money from the state. So they sit there, fully at the mercy of whoever is in charge. One elderly resident who uses a walker told me a social worker hasn’t been on site since June 2. Only a volunteer translator comes from time to time.
Every time I deliver cards in person, I hear new stories. This outreach work is also important because it keeps me aware of what is happening to Ukrainians here in Austria. I also continue to text back and forth about requests for cards with Ukrainians from all over Austria for the same reason. Yesterday I received calls from Vienna and Villach. A text from St Pölten asking for help in general. I had to explain I am not Caritas nor Volkshilfe. I can only offer a grocery card. A mom from Vienna writes me about finding a suitcase. A woman in Burgenland wrote me ten days ago about her husband’s cancer and daughter in a wheelchair. Yesterday, the government (the actual Austrian state) asked me to confirm her phone number. Good news they are looking into this family’s situation, and it seems they have their own apartment now and are being taken care of, bad news it took a while and they still have to ask me for the contact which is somehow hilarious as I am literally just using Facebook Messenger it is not rocket science.
Many of the Ukrainians have no money on their Austrian SIM cards or don’t have them at all yet. They communicate perfectly when connected to the internet. So texting is ideal. There are no age limits to this: I regularly receive messages from pensioners in their 70s over Telegram.
The nicest messages are the ones of thanks and the photos of the food they bought with the card we sent. This one from Vienna made me smile yesterday at the end of a long, hot day — sometimes the combination of raising teenagers (or rather, not raising) and dealing with the Ukraine refugee crisis is overwhelming for me personally.
In addition to the grocery card project, I am also dealing with lots of one-offs, like trying to figure out what to do for Pasha’s school in the fall and if they should move to Vienna, and how to find an apartment here, or texting with the young mom in the motel with rats in the courtyard, and hoping that situation will be resolved soon. Every day there is something.
Regarding that motel — I don’t know how it ended last night, but I do know first the police showed up yesterday afternoon, then Caritas. I can only hope the situation will improve for the better. I texted the mom with the number of another volunteer who knows of housing options in Austria, and hope maybe she can move to one of those facilities. I told her, whatever happens, it cannot be worse than what you have now, and we will find you a car that can drive you and your child. But there are 48 Ukrainians living there. Fixing it for only two people isn’t good enough.
Media work is usually beneficial because it draws attention to the issues, but it unfortunately has not, for us at least, resulted in fundraising boosts. I raise more money when I say I am empty on Twitter than I do when I spend hours working with a journalist (sometimes this doesn’t even end up in a report and this is really, really frustrating, as you want to give the benefit of the doubt, but…it can be a huge waste of time retrospectively).
So my huge appeal on all of you readers is: please tell your friends, please share this on Facebook or Instagram or other sites where I haven’t been as present with these stories. I am like a stuck record everywhere I go, but fundraising in person is nearly impossible. Many people I see socially in Austria (three kids, you have these light conversations) change the subject. It makes them uncomfortable. They want to brag about their summer holiday plans, not Ukrainians going hungry. But I know there are people out there who do care, who want to help donate €50 towards groceries for one family for one week, but I have to reach them. And for that it takes a village.
To put it very simply, if you live in Austria, please DM me or message me here for my address to send / drop off physical €50 supermarket gift cards, any chain: Hofer, Spar, Billa, Rewe, Penny, Lidl. I check addresses to make sure there is that brand shop in that area before I send. You could also please mail €50 gift cards to Mario in Graz.
When you give me cards, they go directly to dorm residents in Vienna and by post across Austria to those who wrote me directly. I have a waiting list now of 55. Mario is working off his waiting list and it is HUGE. Some families have been waiting over a month. Unfortunately, at the moment, demand for cards from Ukrainian families in Austria far exceeds supply. And we are only sending one card per family, one time. I get asked every day multiple times a day about sending a second card, to which I have to reply, I am so sorry, we cannot, there are many families who haven’t received anything yet.
If you prefer to donate money, that can be done super easily via IBAN (we have our own bank account now thanks to Mario’s perseverance!) or credit card / Apple / Google Pay on the website here.
If you would like help me personally fill these empty 55 envelopes, you can donate directly to me via PayPal here. It is totally fine to donate in US$ as I am doing this all with the magic of an American credit card with high limits. I swallow the foreign currency losses myself. My number one priority now is to reach as many people as possible. My biggest fear is to have to say our pot dried up and we cannot help anymore. I have always pursued the easiest solution in the moment because bureaucratic stuff is not my forte. But I am fast. And this is a fast process.
To recap about why it is not easy for Ukrainians to go get jobs in Austria to support themselves, please read this thread I wrote this morning in response to yet another political discussion by well-paid bureaucrats in Austria which makes you want to bang your head against the wall. As of next week Monday, Austria will no longer have anyone in charge of its refugee response. As in, the job will remain unfilled, because the man currently in charge took a promotion within the police instead. Yes, really.
Lukas Gahleitner-Gertz @LukasGahleitnerGestrige Pressekonferenz von @JohannesKopf und Flüchtlingskoordinator #Takacs verlangt nach einer Zurechtrückung: #Asylfakt10 Thema: #Zuverdienstgrenze bei Vertriebenen aus #Ukraine 1/12 https://t.co/tzqo838uFo
I hope this helps better explain why the situation is so desperate and why it is a slow process for most Ukrainians to become financially independent here in Austria. No one can survive on €215 per adult and €100 per child per month. Those who can work (and remember, many cannot: pensioners, those with limited mobility, hearing loss — I have met many such Ukrainians of all ages, mothers with babies) are often banned from doing so because going to work would mean losing their state-provided housing and these merger benefits. The entire system is rotten and designed for failure. And in the meantime, families are going to go hungry. Of course, Tanja and Mario distributing €50 supermarket gift cards is in no way a solution to a failed state response to a major humanitarian crisis. But it is the best possible response I can think of at the moment, particularly because, thanks to the Austrian Post, we can reach people in all corners of the country within a few days. But for that, we need funding to buy cards.
Thanks for your attention. Please do share this information with friends and family. I will continue to try and share the Ukrainians’ stories to put a human face to this crisis. Last night I called Andrey (name changed), a resident in the dorm in Vienna’s 11th district, to say I would bring him a card today. A woman answered the phone. It’s Katya, she said, Andrey just borrowed by phone to call you. Oh, could you please tell Andrey I will bring him a €50 supermarket gift card tomorrow? Yes, but what about me, she says. I am in a wheelchair and I live here too! Katya, I say, of course I will bring you a card too. You didn’t get one from me yet? She is very grateful. I add her name to the list.
I have the names of every Ukrainian I gave cards to written down at home. Just like I have all the receipts of cards I’ve bought with the money received. I must take a tally but I am somehow scared the real number will overwhelm even me. I keep it a mystery for now.
While I am at the dorm later today I must ask for Alisa, a young mom who left her backpack on a bus and lost all the documents, passports, etc. and her toddler was just in hospital for rotavirus. Yesterday I spent some time connecting Alisa to a translator who could help her go to the police and file a report. It took me like 20 minutes just to connect them over Telegram. In the end, it was totally worth it, as the volunteer translator managed to find Alisa’s backpack in the lost and found of the Wiener Linien and hopefully she will get back some of her possessions, as well. She lost her Hofer card too. It was in the bag. The doors in the dorm don’t lock so residents carry their valuables with them at all times. I promised Alisa another card when I have them. I didn’t have any extras when I saw her earlier this week. I never have extras. When I receive cards, they immediately go into pre-addressed envelopes, which I prepare ahead of time, answering texts, all day, every day. I feel like a moral obligation to be on the other end of the phone, to be a human being responding even if to say please be patient it is going to take us some time to send you a card.
No news today — you’ve seen it, and it is grim. I know the Ukrainians here in Austria are still in most cases much better off than their compatriots in Ukraine in war zones. But I am here and not there so I am trying to help the Ukrainians where I live, and I am grateful to have access to an international audience, so those of you living in North America can help too. It really does take a village. Thank you.
My phone just buzzed.
Hi its Sergey do you know which dentist sees Ukrainians for free?
My name is Kristina and I am here with my daughter do you have a card for us?
Hi it’s Tanya thank you so much my card arrived.
And back to work I go. But I cannot do it without funding. That’s where we need the global village to step in. Every little donation really does help, immediately. Thank you.
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