‘Pray for us’

Humanitarian workers from Georgia responding to catastrophe in Ukraine

Thunderous explosions shake the apartment building where Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk is staying in western Ukraine. Warning sirens regularly prompt him and his mother to take shelter in their basement. And they watch as thousands of people — most of them women and children — flee their homeland amid the Russian invasion.

A dentist from Alpharetta, Sarantchouk is among a growing number of humanitarian workers from Georgia who are responding to the unfolding catastrophe.

Atlanta-based CARE USA, Habitat for Humanity and the American Red Cross of Georgia have dispatched workers from the Peach State to eastern Europe, where more than 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees have sought shelter. CARE USA’s leader, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, is preparing to travel there next month.

Sarantchouk serves as a board member for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America Georgia Branch, a nonprofit advocacy group that has raised more than $150,000 for medical supplies, bulletproof vests and other aid for Ukrainians.

He traveled to the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk on Feb. 20 to visit his mother and grandparents. Sarantchouk opted to stay after the Russians mounted their attack four days later so he could coordinate humanitarian efforts for the committee.

“We have a lot of refugees — children from foster homes — in my city,” he said during an interview via WhatsApp. “It is a horrific time for people.”

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Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk of Alpharetta is in western Ukraine, helping the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America Georgia Branch distribute humanitarian aid.

Credit: Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk

Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk of Alpharetta is in western Ukraine, helping the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America Georgia Branch distribute humanitarian aid.

Credit: Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk

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Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk of Alpharetta is in western Ukraine, helping the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America Georgia Branch distribute humanitarian aid.

Credit: Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk

Credit: Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk

‘They had not slept for days’

Irantzu Serra-Lasa watched this month as ferries crossed the Danube River under a steady snowfall and delivered thousands of Ukrainian refugees to Romania. Most of them were women and children. Some had fled crises in other countries such as Syria and Yemen before hurriedly leaving Ukraine.

A veteran humanitarian worker from Decatur, Serra-Lasa traveled to Romania to gather information about how Habitat for Humanity could best help the evacuees.

“You have mostly women and children with nearly nothing else but a plastic bag. No suitcases. No anything. Just what they were wearing,” Serra-Lasa, senior director for disaster risk reduction and response for Habitat for Humanity, said by WhatsApp from Warsaw. “In some cases, they had not slept for days just because they were trying to get to the border.”

Working in eastern Europe, Habitat for Humanity is helping supply space heaters, hotel rooms and transportation for the refugees. It is also giving them emergency travel kits equipped with portable power supplies for their cellphones and laptops. Meanwhile, the humanitarian organization is helping figure out their next steps.

“We are trying to plan, but any plan can be completely hijacked by whatever happens next. It is definitely a very unnerving situation,” Serra-Lasa said.

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Irantzu Serra-Lasa of Habitat for Humanity this month visited Romania near the Ukrainian border where many refugees are fleeing the war.

Credit: Habitat for

Irantzu Serra-Lasa of Habitat for Humanity this month visited Romania near the Ukrainian border where many refugees are fleeing the war.

Credit: Habitat for

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Irantzu Serra-Lasa of Habitat for Humanity this month visited Romania near the Ukrainian border where many refugees are fleeing the war.

Credit: Habitat for

Credit: Habitat for

CARE and its partners are also at work in eastern Europe, providing transportation, shelter, food, water, blankets, sleeping bags and cash to the refugees. CARE is working with an organization that is training 200 professionals who will help the refugees deal with the trauma of war.

Nunn, CARE USA’s president and CEO, is preparing to travel to the Polish-Ukrainian border next month.

“This has gone from being a crisis that we all hoped would be short-term to one that I think we all expect will be long-term,” Nunn said. “More than anything, what people need is peace. They also need security, shelter, water and food.”

Like Serra-Lasa, Nunn has been gratified by the world’s outpouring of support for Ukraine.

“One of the few glimmers of hope from this crisis,” Nunn said, “is the kind of solidarity that we have seen from around the world with the people of Ukraine.”

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Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE USA, second from right, during a visit to Ethiopia. Terhas Berhe/CARE

Credit: Terhas Berhe/CARE

Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE USA, second from right, during a visit to Ethiopia. Terhas Berhe/CARE

Credit: Terhas Berhe/CARE

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Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE USA, second from right, during a visit to Ethiopia. Terhas Berhe/CARE

Credit: Terhas Berhe/CARE

Credit: Terhas Berhe/CARE

Marietta resident Nadir Punjani instantly knew he needed to act after the Russians attacked. His wife, Jenny, is Ukrainian. Her relatives survived enemy shelling in Kherson, a southern port city now occupied by Russian forces. It is also home to the church where the couple married 12 years ago. That house of worship has been reduced to rubble amid the war.

“Sitting in the U.S., I can just pray and send them good wishes,” he said. “But I realized, like, at some point, if you’re not going to walk the talk, you have no purpose.”

After attending pro-Ukraine rallies in downtown Atlanta, Punjani traveled on March 14 to eastern Poland, one of the primary landing spots for Ukrainian refugees. That is where Punjani teamed up with other volunteers and transported refugees from the border to a shelter in an apartment complex in Lesko, Poland. At the shelter, refugees are given food, clothing and other necessities paid for in part by a fundraiser Punjani organized. Government-run refugee centers are overwhelmed and some families are sleeping on the floor of the local train station, he said.

“Hearing their stories about being displaced on such short notice makes me feel blessed,” he said. “It makes me appreciate our freedom, our safety and the security that we live in, and our kids live in.”

U.S. to welcome Ukrainian refugees

The Biden administration recently announced the United States would accept as many as 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and others affected by the Russian invasion.

“In particular, we are working to expand and develop new programs with a focus on welcoming Ukrainians who have family members in the United States,” the White House said in a statement. “The United States and the European Union are also coordinating closely to ensure that these efforts, and other forms of humanitarian admission or transfers, are complementary and provide much-needed support to Ukraine’s neighbors.”

The International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency with offices in Atlanta, is poised to help them relocate here, though there are still many unanswered questions about how and when the Ukrainians will arrive.

“We are glad to hear the U.S. government is prioritizing the needs of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters,” said Justin Howell, executive director of IRC Atlanta. “But it is still very early. We do not know what that timeline looks like. Is that going to be in the next three months, six months or one year?”

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Justin Howell, left, executive director of IRC Atlanta, said: “We are glad to hear the U.S. government is prioritizing the needs of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters."

Credit: Shelsea Doran

Justin Howell, left, executive director of IRC Atlanta, said: “We are glad to hear the U.S. government is prioritizing the needs of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters."

Credit: Shelsea Doran

Combined ShapeCaption
Justin Howell, left, executive director of IRC Atlanta, said: “We are glad to hear the U.S. government is prioritizing the needs of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters."

Credit: Shelsea Doran

Credit: Shelsea Doran

Howell underscored the IRC and other agencies are still helping resettle refugees from other countries in Georgia, including Afghanistan. Since September, for example, the agencies have resettled in the Peach State more than 1,700 Afghans who have been evacuated since the American military’s chaotic withdrawal from their country. The resettlement agencies have scrambled to hire more staff and scale up while finding the newcomers homes, jobs, medical care and legal services.

‘Help us as much as you can’

Sarantchouk attended North Gwinnett High School after his parents brought him to the United States in 1999. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen and studied dentistry here.

His mother, also a U.S. citizen, moved back to her native Ukraine a few years ago and lives in Ivano-Frankivsk. Sarantchouk was visiting her there when the Russians attacked last month. While in his mother’s apartment, he can hear and feel vibrations from the fighting.

This month, Russia’s military said it fired missiles to destroy an underground ammunition depot storing Ukrainian missiles and aviation ammunition in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.

Sarantchouk said one of the Russian bombings woke him up.

“I had never been in a war,” he said. “I had never experienced any of this kind of feeling of an explosion — how powerful it is.”

People are staying inside their homes more and turning out their lights at night, Sarantchouk said.

“It was a nice and peaceful city. Kids were playing. The restaurants were open. Normal life was going on,” he said. “But now it is totally different. Everybody can see people are scared. It’s not that happy city anymore as it was before.”

Sarantchouk attended a recent funeral for his cousin’s 19-year-old son, a Ukrainian soldier who was killed in Kyiv this month amid the Russian invasion. Mourners fell to their knees, Sarantchouk said, while the soldier’s father wept.

“It was very heartbreaking,” he said. “He was a kid. His father was crying. He was like, ‘Why? Why? Why… I was supposed to die. I am older. Why did you die? It was my turn.’”

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Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk of Alpharetta is staying with his mother in western Ukraine. “We have a lot of refugees — children from foster homes — in my city,” he said. "It is a horrific time for people.”

Credit: Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk

Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk of Alpharetta is staying with his mother in western Ukraine. “We have a lot of refugees — children from foster homes — in my city,” he said. "It is a horrific time for people.”

Credit: Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk

Combined ShapeCaption
Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk of Alpharetta is staying with his mother in western Ukraine. “We have a lot of refugees — children from foster homes — in my city,” he said. "It is a horrific time for people.”

Credit: Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk

Credit: Dr. Andriy Sarantchouk

Ukraine needs more weapons, ammunition and medical equipment, said Sarantchouk, who has observed Ukrainians volunteering to defend their country with only hunting rifles.

“They are ready to fight for their land,” he said. “They don’t have any ammunition. They don’t have any jackets, helmets — they have nothing.”

At the same time, he has been touched watching eastern Europeans pulling together and helping Ukrainian refugees. He mentioned an Ivano-Frankivsk hotelier he knows who is taking in foster children from Kharkiv and feeding them at his own expense.

“When I see how people are united,” he said, “it gives hope that we are going to win this.”

Asked what message Americans need to hear about Ukraine, he said simply: “Pray for us. Help us as much as you can.”

Lautaro Grinspan is part of the The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s immigration team, covering metro Atlanta immigrant communities. He is a Report for America corps member.

How you can help

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The International Rescue Committee in Atlanta