By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an attack in the Ukrainian region of Donbas, which marked the beginning of a conflict that is estimated to have forced more than two million people, mostly women, and children, to seek refuge in neighboring countries to save their lives.
But they have done it in the worst possible conditions in order to sustain a forced and cruel change of life since thousands of families have been divided when the man of the household must stay to defend his country, while the woman and children travel to the closest border point. Sometimes, children have undertaken this journey alone.
This humanitarian crisis has placed all eyes on the Ukrainians who, in the midst of a pandemic, have had to witness the destruction of their country: hundreds of transportation infrastructures, houses, hospitals, and nurseries have been damaged.
The insanity has been such that many countries around the world have joined forces to help refugees who spend days without a hot meal. On this side of the world, South Florida, where hardly anyone goes to bed with an empty stomach, solidarity has been made visible in different ways, but help is still as welcome as it is essential.
Kids helping kids
“My parents were Cuban refugees. I know what is like having to move to another country to start over,” says Manuel Melcon, president of Brothers 4 Others, a non-profit organization created by six children, ages 12 and 13, who are in seventh grade at the Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami.
Connecting with the pain of Ukraine was one of the reasons that led him and his colleagues to join forces with the Miami-Dade Police and Global Empowerment Mission to set up 19 donation boxes in different police stations and schools across the county that later would be sent to Europe.
“These are innocent people who left behind everything they knew, which is unfair. That is why we want to make their lives easier,” says Gabriel Robaina, 13, and who is the social media specialist.
The donations they collected during March, ranging from food cans to diapers, were taken to a warehouse where the kids assembled them on March 25 to be sent to Poland where the majority of Ukrainian refugees are.
They made this effort in the middle of a busy schedule, since they are all part of the school swimming team and, just like any other children, they too must fulfill their school obligations.
“We usually meet on weekends and when we have days off from school. This is our priority and that is why every time there is an opportunity to help, we jump right at it,” they said during a zoom interview.
The crisis in Ukraine was one of them, leading them to take an active role in it as soon as they heard what was happening. As children, they were moved by the fact that many minors are separated from their parents and must go through difficult conditions such as enduring cold temperatures.
However, the children’s commitment to their community did not begin with Russia’s attack on Ukraine but a while back, in November 2021, when they realized they wanted to help in a more direct way. “We were making donations through our school but weren’t meeting the people receiving the help, and we wanted to interact and connect with them,” says Manuel.
It was with this purpose in mind that the organization was created aimed at working mainly towards foster children and the elderly. “It’s a team effort,” they say, in which each one of their members chose a role according to their personal interests.
“It’s an honor for me to see them spending so many hours to help others because at this time we all need a little sunshine. I like the fact that they can learn how the community comes together in times of need and that good actions can emerge in the midst of so many negative things,” says Manuel’s mother, Martha Melcon, who is a Sergeant for the Community Affairs Bureau of the Miami-Dade Police Department.
These children think many people are willing to help but don’t know-how. For this reason, they want to be a role model and invite people to contact them through their Instagram account @brothers_4_others if they want to aid Ukrainian refugees.
One way ticket from Florida to Europe
Silvia Lattova, an attorney and founder of THINK+feel Contemporary, an art gallery in Delray Beach, also took an active role in the Ukrainian crisis. Of Slovak origin and living in the United States for 30 years, she is currently in Slovakia helping the victims of the war.
“Up until last year I lived in Delray Beach. My husband bought an apartment in Miami that I still haven’t gone to,” says Lattova, who traveled to Slovakia to watch her ill sister but had in mind returning to Miami after a while, which still hasn’t happened, because a war was crossed in her path.
“My sister passed away in November and when the war started, in February, I was in Prague ready to catch a plane with a stopover back to Florida. I changed my plans and went back to Slovakia to help the refugees on the border with Ukraine.”
Her main motivation was born from a historical event: The Soviet Union’s invasion of the former Czechoslovakia (which after disintegrating gave birth to Czech Republic and Slovakia) in 1968, something she has heard about many times from her parents. “We lived under Soviet occupation from that year until 1989. We wanted to be a democratic country but the Russians didn’t let us.”
Back then – she explains- her country was defenseless against a much stronger one that invaded it overnight, just like it happened with Ukraine. “Knowing the past, how could I sit around to do nothing while watching all these women and children trying to flee from their country?”
After turning to them, her eyes have witnessed depressing scenes, such as mothers who from one moment to the next become the exclusive head of their household while traveling to a country without resources and unable to speak the language. In other moments, she has seen hungry and tired people get to the borders early at night only to stand in endless lines until the next day in the middle of the cold winter.
For this reason, she frequently moves to the borders with all kinds of essential supplies that she has managed to gather using her own money in addition to the resources collected through a Facebook fundraising and the charitable auction ‘It’s Not Business As Usual’ that can be accessed at the following link: https://www.charityauctionstoday.com/auctions/artists-tfc-auction-to-benefit-ukaine–30225
“I started this online auction with 20 pieces of art from 13 artists to help the refugees I meet here. If anyone can donate money or bid on a piece of art, please do so. In Florida, some people stop eating because of a diet, while here they do it involuntarily, that gives you a little perspective.”
Other links for donations
- United Way: https://www.unitedway.org/our-impact/work/no-nav/unitedforukraine#
- Sunny Isles Beach Government Center: https://www.sibfl.net/ukraine/
- HelpLifeinUkraine: https://helplifeinukraine.online/
- THINK+feel Contemporary: https://www.thinkfeelart.com/
- Ukraine Red Cross: https://donate.redcrossredcrescent.org/ua/donate/~my-donation?_cv=1
- World Central Kitchen: https://donate.wck.org/give/236738/#!/donation/checkout