Ukrainian-born Santa Barbara resident Helen Lash has opened a GoFundMe page for those looking to help her Ukrainian family and friends. | Credit: Courtesy

Skin Deep sales manager Helen Lash took off early from work this Friday afternoon. She had a plane to load.

Lash was born in Rivne, a city in western Ukraine south of the country’s border with Belarus, and moved to Santa Barbara in 2005 at age 13 with her parents; her grandparents, who left Ukraine in the early 1990s, were already here. On Friday, she was headed off to Sacramento to help a crew of other volunteers pack a plane crammed with the sort of things friends and families recently displaced by the Russian invasion might need as they join one of the fastest-growing exoduses of refugees in modern history.  

Skin Deep Sales Manager Helen Lash with her mom and dad, Nadia and Valentin Lash | Credit: Courtesy

According to Skin Deep’s Nina Meyer, Lash has Ukrainian relatives who spent five days driving to the Polish border but had to walk 10 hours to make it to the other side because the traffic jam was so intense. These were people, Meyer said, who owned bakeries, restaurants, and successful businesses; they had to flee. Now that they’ve gotten across the border to Poland, Lash’s relatives are trying to get to Germany, a major destination for displaced Ukrainians. 

The city of Rivne has been under intense bombardment over the past two weeks, and it’s only gotten worse. Once famous for making high-end decorative medieval armor, Rivne is now retooling to build chain-linked caltrops — road spikes big and sharp enough to cause serious problems for military convoys. 

To help fund the relocation efforts of her family and friends, Lash has opened a GoFundMe page for those looking to help. Skin Deep customers, Meyer added, are welcome to drop off donations at the shop. The store will be donating a percentage of its monthly sales to Lash’s effort. This is just one of many smaller impromptu relief efforts launched by people of Ukrainian descent in the Santa Barbara. 

On a much larger scale, Direct Relief — a Santa Barbara–based international aid organization specializing in the delivery of medical supplies to disaster zones — has sent three shipments of supplies to aid those uprooted by Russia’s assault on Ukraine in the past two weeks, with another shipment looming. Direct Relief has operations inside Ukraine, but also in Poland, where most of the refugees first go. 

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According to Katerina Takovska, a Direct Relief worker now operating out of Warsaw, Direct Relief has access to 13 warehouses in the region to which its supplies are being sent. From there, the materials go to two of the refugee centers on the other side of the border from the city of Lviv in western Ukraine. Takovska said about 20,000 refugees arrive a day but that no large, established refugee camps have emerged yet. Buses and cars from as far away as Spain, Estonia, and France, she said, show up and whisk the refugees away.

According to Skin Deep’s Nina Meyer, the church of Helen Lash’s relatives in Ukraine was destroyed by Russian bombs. | Credit: Courtesy

Most of the refugees she sees are children, women, and older people. Most, she said, remain only for about 24 hours. 

Direct Relief is sending medical supplies specific for wartime needs, such as special drugs that speed the clotting processes for those dealing with severe bleeding. But it’s also sending everyday drugs, including over-the-counter painkillers and insulin for diabetics who would otherwise die because their access to medications has been cut off by the war. They also report a strong need for oxygen.

Takovska said she was much impressed by “the solidarity of the Polish government and the Polish people” in their response to the refugees. “It’s something to see — the number of volunteers who have shown up at the relocation centers — they come with hot meals, with support. I’m really proud to see people respond this way.”

Right now, Takovska said, the estimate is there are two million Ukrainian refugees. That’s in just two weeks. It’s expected the number could go as high as six million. According to the United Nations, as many as 12 million will need assistance. In addition, Ukrainian officials claim 63 hospitals have been damaged and five medical workers killed. By contrast, the World Health Organization has confirmed 18 attacks on hospitals, ambulances, and health workers.

Helping to put that in context, Tony Morain of Direct Relief noted that Yemen had four million refugees over a six-year period with 1,133 attacks on medical facilities since 1964. According to the United Nations, 20 million people need assistance. Syria had 6.6 million refugees since 2011 with another 6.7 million internally displaced. Between 2011 and 2021, there could have been as many as 600 attacks on medical facilities and health workers.

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