Eastern European expats in NL send ambulances to Ukraine

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Photo: Lines Van Vrijheid

In the four weeks since its inception, Linien Van Vrijheid has deployed three humanitarian convoys to Ukraine. Informal networks within Ukraine and the Netherlands contributed to the foundation’s initial success.

On Saturday, March 26, a convoy of eight ambulances carrying supplies left the Netherlands for Ukraine.

It is the third convoy organized by Linien Van Vrijheid (Freedom’s Sails), a grassroots organization that emerged in the days after Russia invaded Ukraine. In less than four weeks, the foundation dispatched 15 ambulances and seven civilian vehicles with medical supplies and food to Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mykolayiv and Lviv.

“When one convoy leaves, we start preparing the next one,” says Veronika Mutsei, IT specialist and co-founder of Linien Van Vrijheid. “The war will not pause because we need the weekend off.”

understand needs

The coordinators of the foundation are Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian expats living in the Netherlands. Thanks to their connections with Ukrainians in different cities, they know what is needed locally.

“We had a great opportunity to ask people who really knew what was needed,” explains Dan Simanov, sailing company owner and co-founder of Linien Van Vrijheid. “That way we could make sure that what we bring is useful.”

Some requests are formal. Coordinator Maria Pedenko worked for the Ukrainian Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization before moving to the Netherlands. Pedenko receives requests for specific medical supplies directly from Ukrainian hospitals.

Other information flows in through personal relationships. Mutsei’s friend Aleksey Maslo usually lives in the Netherlands, but stayed in his hometown of Kharkiv after the Russian invasion. Maslo now runs Kharhiv Helps, a volunteer-based organization that distributes humanitarian aid around the city. The second convoy brought medicine and food to Kharkiv.

“We have very little medicine in town,” Maslo said. ‘The insulin, that [Zeilen Van Vrijheid] already brought lives saved.’

gather supplies

Deliveries reach Ukrainian hospitals in used ambulances. Private donations, both money and medicines, allow Linien Van Vrijheid to collect part of the requested stocks. According to Mutsei, the foundation’s central collection point in Utrecht collects about 85 boxes of medicines a week.

Hospitals help fill in the supplies that cannot be acquired without specialized access. The Luisenhospital in Aachen, Germany, donated relief supplies, which reached the Kiev Children’s Hospital in the first convoy.

Photo: Lines Van Vrijheid

Volunteers buy used ambulances in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium through online trading platforms such as Marktplaats. “Soon it may not be enough [second-hand] Ambulance in the Netherlands,” Mutsei laughed.

Delivery

After hearing reports that humanitarian aid was stuck at the Polish-Ukrainian border, Linien Van Vrijheid decided to drive the ambulances straight to Ukraine. On the other side of the border, Ukrainians pick up the vehicles and take them to certain cities.

Initially, the foundation mainly attracted Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian volunteer drivers. Their passports did not allow them to return from across the border. Today most drivers are Dutch.

Sailing school owner Marco Neeteson drove in all three convoys. “I do what I can,” he says. “If it means driving 24 hours, I will do it. Every minute late means a child could die without medication, so I keep going.”

Another driver is a business developer who asked to be identified as R Boer. He has two Ukrainian visa stamps in his Dutch passport. “For me, this war is not ‘only’ between Putin and Ukraine, but between dictators and the free world,” he says. “When we drive, we not only bring ambulances or medicine, we also support the morale of the downtrodden.”

The volunteer drivers receive official permits from Ukrainian institutions, which speeds up border procedures. “People take us more seriously when we have these documents,” Mutsei stresses.

Bumpy beginnings

The first convoy left before Linien Van Vrijheid was registered as an official foundation, with donations coming mainly from the founders’ personal circles. With no registration or official bank account, donors had to trust the founders.

Simanov recalls posting on social media that the foundation wants to buy an ambulance and urging people to bring him cash donations. “Within two days I collected almost 20,000 euros,” he says. “We bought our first ambulances this way.”

Registration as sew (Foundation) usually takes several weeks, but Linien Van Vrijheid did it in three days. Opening an official bank account was a bigger problem as it took banks weeks to verify it.

“We asked people to trust us,” says Mutsei. “We told them not to donate until our account is open, but also not to donate to larger organizations. We basically asked donors to be patient, and they were.”

Arrival in Kharkiv. Photo: Lines Van Vrijheid

What started as word of mouth is now attracting more established organizations. Foundations such as Libereco, Movement On the Ground, Oekraïners in Nederland or Asagao approached Linien Van Vrijheid to collaborate on the purchase of ambulances or relief supplies.

“From five volunteers who figure out how to send 50 packs of medicines from our own kitchen to Ukraine, we are now collaborating with other foundations,” says Mutsei.

“Another Russia”

The foundation also includes Belarusian expats in the Netherlands who have raised money for an ambulance. They called the car Žyviemabiel (Livehicle) after the slogan of the opposition movement Žyvie Biełaruś (long live Belarus).

Simanov, who gave up his Russian passport after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, pointed out that his Russian customers and Russian-speaking acquaintances played an important and positive role for Linien Van Vrijheid, especially in the early days of the foundation.

“We all feel responsible, it doesn’t matter if we have the passport or not,” he says. “Our world collapsed when the war started. Being active is a way to deal with this trauma, but also to show people that there is another Russia and another Russian people.”

Russians living in Russia also support the foundation with monetary donations, thereby taking personal risks.

reconstruction

Linien Van Vrijheid plans to continue his humanitarian work during and after the war.

“If the Ukrainians win the war, that’s just the beginning of our journey,” says Mutsei. “The greatest country in Europe is being destroyed and someone has to rebuild it.”

Aleksey Maslo shares this ambition. “Soon we will have a medical team and Linien Van Vrijheid’s car will be used in the region. We will continue to help people after the war is over.”

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