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.

Representatives from volunteer organizations in Ukraine met with a charitable organization from Milwaukee on June 29 to discuss the humanitarian challenges of ensuring the care for Ukrainian children living in Russian-occupied areas.

When Iryna Suslova began a political network in 2019 to help empower women and create a better future for Ukraine’s children, she never dreamed that a full-scale invasion by Russia would begin only two years later.

But her organization, “Women’s Movement for the Future” quickly transitioned in response to the humanitarian crisis that Ukraine and its people faced. Instead of lobbying for national safety laws, women across the country were working out logistics to send supplies to areas devastated by daily bombings or helping families evacuate to safety.

The June 29 meeting at the Ombudsman of Ukraine’s Child Rights Protection Center (CRPC) brought together leaders of the women’s movement, and for the first time include a representative from America with Anya Verkhovskaya, Director of the humanitarian nonprofit Friends of Be an Angel.

As the meeting began, the women reflected on the past year and how they had all bonded to become “war sisters.” Their combined efforts directly cared for more than 50,000 people – all without any funding. Several who attended shared personal stories about the efforts they had made, or their account of Russia’s actions that reflected a policy of generational terrorism.

“… We collected plastic bottle caps for three years, after the first invasion by Russia began in 2014. It took us that long to raise money to buy artificial legs for amputee veterans …”

“… We’ve seen kids in Donbas grow up since 2014 with a childhood full of war. They lived with fear and trauma each day of their formative years. Now 8 years later, they are old enough to fight in the full-scale invasion. These youth never had a chance to live like normal children. They have only known a world where every moment of their existence has been dictated by Russia’s brutal grip …”

Women’s Movement for the Future was founded two years before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The aim of the organization was very simple, to empower women working for a common good. More than 25,000 women across Ukraine gathered together from different regions, with the goal to get to know each other.

“We knew that through share resources and combined efforts we could become stronger together. So each of us joined with her friends, representing civil society, NGOs, and different women from different spheres,” said Suslova. “We came together with shared values, to protect human rights – and to defend them on different levels of authority.”

The organization of women was determined to solve the social problems that created domestic violence and sexual violence against children and women, and human trafficking. Very quickly they became politically powerful and effective in moving their agenda forward. Not only did the group have an influence at local levels, but they lobbied for bills to change national laws in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine – Ukraine’s Parliament.

But then the war came to their doorsteps.

“On the evening of February 24, 2022, we had a ZOOM meeting with our coordinators from all regions of Ukraine. We decided that we had no right to give up, we should act! Every one of us had our own tasks to fulfill,” said Suslova. “We needed to provide assistance for the evacuation of those who were in need. People had to travel 100 miles to reach safety, from all parts of Ukraine. The trips would take more than 15 hours, and were always under the threat of missile attacks or bombings. It was a really dangerous time.”

Members of the Women’s Movement for the Future were able to provide safe places for refugees to stay, giving shelter to those who had evacuated from occupied areas. They moved families with children from one member to another, like a long chain that connected each link to another.

“Even now I can’t count how many people went through the network of our women, or the resources they helped to coordinate,” said Suslova. “Today, I can’t even imagine what we would do if it all ever happened again. That was a period when the instinct for self-preservation took over. But we did it before so I know we can do it again. Actually, we continue to do it today, our women have never stopped supporting each other.”

The organization showed what combining resources and sharing purpose could accomplish during the war. It was just a continuation of why they came together originally, preparation for what was to come – something they could never have imagined. Instead of working to make the future better, they saved as many lives as they could.

“In making those lives better, we also saved our future,” added Suslova.

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Series: Return to Ukraine

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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