Razom, the aid agency fighting for freedom in Ukraine
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A few days before the first bombs hit Kyiv, human rights charity Razom reopened its Emergency Response Fund. The last time it was activated was to provide aid during Covid; before that it was in 2018, when Russian coast guards captured three Ukrainian Navy vessels. The latter event was mostly quelled without conflict, leaving Razom to invest its funds into education, culture and civic engagement. But on 24 February, the charity’s worst fears were confirmed: Putin’s order to execute a “special military operation” arrived shortly before breakfast.
Razom, which means “together” in Ukrainian, was founded off the back of the Revolution of Dignity, a series of protests in 2014 that culminated in the removal of former President Viktor Yanukovych. “People came out of the woodwork,” recalls Razom’s president Dora Chomiak, speaking from her office in New York. She was born in the US to a Ukrainian family, and much of her family is still in the mother country. “People who were just living their lives, who weren’t particularly active in the existing Ukrainian American community, emerged in solidarity with their friends in Ukraine,” she says. With that support the organisation was founded, its mission to unlock the potential of a country finally able to define itself in its own terms; “a Ukraine that’s a democracy, where people respect human rights, where there’s dignity,” adds Chomiak.
The goal since then has remained largely the same – except, of course, that today the landscape is completely different. Where Razom could once focus on mobilising artists, cultivating tech startups and incorporating Ukrainian perspectives into Western academia, the present concern is getting aid to the injured. “Our work from the get-go has been to build a prosperous Ukraine,” says Chomiak, who runs the charity with an almost all-female team of fellow Ukrainians, “and that’s what we’re continuing to do.”
How to encourage prosperity in a war zone? Chomiak grimaces. “Today, unfortunately, in order to build a prosperous Ukraine, we need to retain the brains and bodies of its citizens.” Working in tandem with volunteers in Ukraine and US, Razom has established a supply line of tactical first aid to those who need it, and a further stream of financial donations to “turn into medicine”. They’re also working with partner charities – including Nova Ukraine, United Help Ukraine and Sunflower of Peace – to provide support for the more than two-and-a-half million people who have now fled the country. With the goalposts constantly shifting, Razom has set up a Linktree with different ways to do so – be it donations, volunteer work or protests – that’s updated daily.
But this support, says Chomiak, could be “anything that lets people connect with this part of the world, anything that encourages curiosity”. She points to a recent concert hosted by American punk rock band Gogol Bordello, whose front man, Eugene Hütz, came to the US after the Chernobyl disaster. Another event at New York’s Metropolitan Opera plays music by Kyiv-born composer Valentin Silvestrov – and even Bono has been reciting verses by Ukrainian poets. Razom wants the world to see Ukraine “not just as a place where Russian bombs are falling, but as a place of mass creation, of talent and creativity.” Prior to Putin’s invasion, the charity’s cultural efforts included Ukraine-focused book clubs, theatre projects and support for Ukrainian designers such as BEVZA. “Ukraine is so diverse, so hip and so forward looking, with an understanding of an ancient, deep history,” says Chomiak.
Chomiak is worried about sustaining public attention – that soon the world might write off the destruction taking place in Ukraine. “The Kremlin is throwing bombs on Ukraine, but what they’re doing is trying to destroy what we’re doing right now, which is having a conversation across borders in a respectful way,” she says. “It’s not about Ukraine, it’s about human rights. It’s about how we want to live.”
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