Return to Ukraine: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that recorded news from areas across Ukraine, including Milwaukee's sister city of Irpin, from June to July of 2023. It was the second time in the span of a year that the award-winning Wisconsin news organization traveled to the country during the war. The purpose of this journalism project was to document a humanitarian aid mission by the Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, and report about conditions 17 months after Russia's brutal full-scale invasion.

“Be an Angel” is an initiative that started as a simple charity to provide Syrians escaping from their country’s civil war with homes, jobs, and educational opportunities in response to the refugee crisis that overwhelmed Germany in 2015.

Journalist Andreas Tölke did not intend to create an international NGO or make a career change, but unfolding events combined with his own family’s history.

“My Grandmother was killed in Auschwitz,” said Tölke. “If she had the chance to escape, she could have lived a long life. Having been born on the bright side of life, it is our duty to support those who fear for their lives. And in return for all we give, the reward is the peaceful society we all want.”

“Friends of Be an Angel” was established in the United States in 2022 as an extension of Tölke’s work and also in response to another crisis, the unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation.

Anya Verkhovskaya had fled from the former Soviet Union in 1989 at the age of 19, coming to America as a teenage political refugee a year later. After becoming an American citizen, she would go on to work with filmmaker Steven Spielberg. From 1994 to 2001, she documented the life stories of more than 9,000 Jewish, Romani, and other Holocaust survivors for the USC Shoah Foundation.

“On the first day of Russia’s invasion I was in a daze. I just sat in front of my computer as the unthinkable news poured in. Like so many others, my life had turned upside down,” said Verkhovskaya. “I remembered all the years that I lived and worked in Ukraine, writing down and documenting the stories of Holocaust survivors.”

Verkhovskaya then considered what actions she would have taken, if she lived during the Holocaust, to help the people she had interviewed.

“I realized that I could not be indifferent to such violence, to such a tragedy,” said Verkhovskaya. “I had to participate. I had no choice not to.”

She began calling friends and associates asking for suggestions about how she could help. Verkhovskaya became so desperate to get involved that she randomly dialed phone numbers all over Ukraine. She asked the strangers who answered the phone what they needed and how she could help them.

Soon after Verkhovskaya learned about an organization in Germany that had successfully helped refugees from conflict zones since 2015. She took inspiration from Tölke and his efforts and began cooperating with his organization. Verkhovskaya’s work increased so dramatically that it soon made sense for her to open an American chapter of the charitable foundation.

“Because of the Russian military’s constant brutality against civilians from the start of the war, that is where we have seen the most urgent need,” said Verkhovskaya. “We receive cries for help every day. The longer the war continues, the more bereft and deprived the people become. Eventually, they are forced to flee their homes with what little they can carry.”

Verkhovskaya explained that Friends of Be an Angel see continuous waves of wounded children, the elderly, women, and soldiers. All of them need help in the form of medical supplies and specialized medications.

Her Milwaukee-based humanitarian organization stays engaged in Ukraine in three main areas: emergency care, civilian evacuation, and humanitarian assistance. But the nonprofit also supports efforts for the future that will be needed one day to rebuild the nation.

Friends of Be an Angel has also forged many partnerships with like-minded organizations that are involved in logistics, supplies, and fundraising. For example, Iryna Suslova and her organization Women’s Movement for the Future are on the ground in Ukraine identifying needs. Then groups like the Rotary Club of Milwaukee and the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America (UMANA) help assemble those resources.

Since March 2022, Verkhovskaya has helped move 4,000 tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine from America and Europe. The total value of those donated materials, from medical equipment manufacturers and humanitarian product suppliers, has been estimated at about $50 million.

But some medical items are literally priceless, the cost of a life, because they are so rare to find in Ukraine. During a pack and sort organized by Dr. Douglas Davis and UMANA on June 10, where donated supplies were organized by volunteers and prepared for shipment, Verkhovskaya set aside items that would be carried by hand to Ukraine for her upcoming June-July trip. The small cargo bags contained hard-to-find items like titanium screws for maxillofacial reconstruction.

“There was one bag that quite literally contained items so vital that each one represented a life, that someone had a chance to live,” said Verkhovskaya. “Instead of a box of bullets, where each one could take a life, I had this bag of medical supplies, where each thing meant I could save a life.”

Milwaukee Independent was embedded with Verkhovskaya’s Friends of Be an Angel team on the humanitarian mission to Ukraine for several weeks in June and July.

“I had been doing this work from the comfort of my office. The time had come for me to visit and be on-the-ground with my team in Ukraine,” said Verkhovskaya. “It was a very full travel schedule to see colleagues, visit aid sites, meet with State officials, and evaluate with my own eyes where we were missing opportunities to help.”

In recognition for her efforts and the work accomplished by her organization, Verkhovskaya was honored by the Office of the Ombudsman of Ukraine. In a memorandum of cooperation, Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights recognized Friends of Be an Angel as an overseas partner.

“The purpose of the memorandum is to consolidate efforts aimed at protecting the rights of children in the conditions of the legal regime of martial law, as well as post-war reconstruction, to promote compliance with the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” said Commissioner Lubinets.

The Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsman) exercises parliamentary control over the observance of human rights and freedoms. One of its most important responsibilities has been to facilitate the return of Ukrainian children who were abducted by Russia.

The mass kidnapping of children by Moscow is what led the International Criminal Court to issue arrest warrants against Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 17, following extensive investigations into his responsibility for documented war crimes.

“Together we work for Ukrainian children,” added Commissioner Lubinets.

Individuals or organizations who wish to be a friend to Friends of Be an Angel and support their work can make tax-deductible donations online.

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Series: Return to Ukraine

Lее Mаtz

Milwaukee Independent has reported on Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine since it began on February 24, 2022. In May of 2022, Milwaukee Independent was the first news organization from Wisconsin to report from Milwaukee’s Sister City of Irpin after its liberation. That work has since been recognized with several awards for journalistic excellence. Between late June and early July of 2023, Milwaukee Independent staff returned to Ukraine for a second assignment to report on war after almost a year. The editorial team was embedded with a Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, on a humanitarian aid mission across Ukraine. For several weeks, Milwaukee Independent documented the delivery of medical supplies to military and civilian hospitals, and was a witness to historic events of the war as they unfolded.

Return to Ukraine: Reports about a humanitarian mission from Milwaukee after a year of war