Volunteers from Vienna NGO YOUkraine were floored when someone showed up to their donation drive with three huge bags of food and hygienic products for children in Ukraine. They were even more shocked when he left, went to the store and returned with more donations. Little did they know Jesse Alexander would end up creating a campaign online to buy, fill and send an ambulance with medicine and equipment to Ukraine.
“We posted on Facebook [about the drive], and if somebody is willing to help, you can bring the kids’ products to our storage unit in Vienna. And [Alexander] had seen this announcement,” Solomiia Dmytriv, financial director at YOUKraine, said.
Alexander is a history professor at Webster University’s Tashkent campus, former Webster University Vienna employee and YouTube presenter who lives in Vienna. This was his first interaction with YOUkraine, one that would soon develop into a bigger relationship.
Alexander discovered YOUkraine through his girlfriend, a Ukrainian native. Through local networks and social media, she learned YOUkraine was holding a drive for a children’s hospital in the region she’s originally from. At that point, the couple decided to get involved with the organization. They had already taken refugees into their home and donated to other organizations, but they gravitated toward YOUkraine.
“I thought, ‘here’s something that I can do,’” Alexander said. “ My work, other than teaching at Webster, is quite public, mostly on YouTube with history documentaries. So I thought, ‘I want to start a campaign to take responsibility for the next ambulance fundraising.’”
Alexander’s ambulance campaign is one of many that YOUkraine has already created. Since their formation in February 2022 – a small gathering at a church, just days after the Russian invasion began – YOUkraine has found eight ambulances across Europe to donate to Ukrainian regions in need.
The ambulances are fixed and loaded with humanitarian supplies before being sent to cities requesting aid after devastating losses from the conflict. Dmytriv said that around 200 tons of medicine and medical equipment have already been sent to various sites in Ukraine.
Funds for equipment and supplies are expensive. YOUkraine has raised €103,835 – equivalent to $103,835 – since Mar. 30, according to their upcoming September report. Each ambulance itself costs €10,000, with other supplies potentially costing thousands more.
The organization has important connections with both Ukrainians around Europe, as well as others simply looking for a tangible way to support those affected. For members of the Ukrainian diaspora, these campaigns are personal.
“My mother told me that in Lviv, she saw a rocket flying over our house,” Dmytriv said while talking about her family still in Ukraine. “I have eight nephews and nieces, and one of them has told me that she has seen military flights of Ukrainian men so close [to the ground] that she can recognize the pilot.”
Dmytriv has friends in the Ukrainian Forces, one of whom lost a limb. Alexander’s household is affected personally as well, describing the horror of his girlfriend receiving a call during a dinner about her mother falling asleep to air raid sirens. A friend, who was with his wife and toddler, once texted Alexander from an underground shelter in Kyiv saying they were being bombed.
Alexander felt motivated to volunteer both as a human and as a historian. In his time studying war history, he’s been able to study statistics and strategies, always knowing what’s going to happen next. But when living through a war, that’s not possible.
“I know a lot about how bad wars can get, and this current war is a terrible thing. But it could get worse,” Alexander said. “I really, really – at just at a personal, emotional level – don’t want to see that happen. It’s immoral. It’s unethical. And I think anybody who values human life ought to be opposed to it.”
In his opposition, Alexander decided to message YOUkraine, offering to use his platform to promote a donation campaign for another filled ambulance. His online presence is palpable as the host of documentary YouTube channels the Great War and Real Time History, which have 111,000 and 1.5 million subscribers respectively. As of Aug. 25, Alexander said his partnered campaign had raised “about two-thirds” in just under two weeks.
The partners are hopeful for this campaign to be fulfilled as soon as possible and are excited for what’s to come. Dmytriv said that one of the main ways the group stays motivated – outside of already having a massive passion for the cause – is through reports back from those on the ground in Ukraine who receive donations. A story that stays with her is when YOUkraine volunteers delivered supplies to Mykolaiv, an area under heavy attack when the war began.
“When they had got [the donations], they called us and said they really appreciated the help, especially since other volunteers from Ukraine [were] nervous to go there,” Dmytriv said. “They were almost crying and said ‘we hadn’t even thought that we could even ask [YOUkraine] to send such kind of help to us.’”
Delivery of the ambulance is also part of Alexander’s campaign. After the funds are raised and the ambulance is prepared, he plans to drive it. Currently, Alexander is not sure how far he can drive, depending on whether he is allowed past the Ukrainian-Polish border. But the ambulance will arrive in Ukraine, no matter what.
No matter the distance, Alexander believes in the importance of providing tangible results of people’s donations. Throughout the delivery, he and other volunteers will document their journey through photos and descriptions online.
“We want to show people what’s happening,” he said. “Allowing people to kind of connect with it, with what they’ve done . . . We’ll do everything we can to show people, ‘Hey, you can trust us, you did the right thing, and here’s the result.’”
Through documentation and online campaigns, YOUkraine hopes to gain more support from around the world, underscoring the importance of help they’ve already received.
“I want to say thank you to the US, Ukrainians can feel the help of the US and Europe,” Dymtriv said. “We are very grateful for all the countries that support us. We understand that the war started six months ago. Maybe there are some people starting to forget, or get used to that. So I just want to ask that they not forget.”
YOUkraine’s campaign is available on their website with more information on the organization and other campaigns.