Tbilisi, Georgia. «Escaping Putin: Now we’re helping the refugees»

A group of young Russians based in Georgia’s capital are providing aid to Ukrainians affected by the conflict, organizing accommodation, distributing medicines, raising funds, and providing remote assistance to those who have been caught up in the bombing. “We reject the logic of this conflict and refuse to sit idly by,” they say.

In addition to the dramatic flight of the Ukrainian population from the missiles of the Russian invasion, there is another silent migration in this war that has been going on for more than eight months in the heart of Europe. These are the 400,000 Russian citizens who, in stark disagreement with President Putin’s decisions, have decided to leave their country, even with their bank accounts frozen and their entire lives compressed into a backpack. They are mostly young, educated and highly technical people who fled Moscow or St. Petersburg at the beginning of March, just as the conflict was starting, and then in late September following the Kremlin’s order for “partial mobilization” (the call-up of 300,000 reservists). Among the still accessible destinations, in addition to Armenia and Kazakhstan, is neighboring Georgia, the former Soviet republic where a visa is not required for up to 360 consecutive days, and above all, extradition to Russia is not provided. The only drawback is that there are no direct flights, since Putin invaded the country in 2008, as he is doing now in Ukraine. In the capital Tbilisi, we met some of these young Russians who, in addition to carving out a second chance for themselves, are helping thousands of Ukrainian civilians involved in a conflict that none of them ever wanted.

Helping to leave: the keyword is “evacuation”

The Helping to Leave office is a brightly lit room in an anonymous office on the outskirts of Tbilisi. At first glance, it looks like a tech startup: among the boys at work, there are those who stare at the laptop screen, those who make zoom calls, and those who fill out spreadsheets. “I joined this project on the second day of the war, feeling guilty for the absurd aggression unleashed by my country,” says Irina Fatyanova, a 33-year-old Russian, responsible for fundraising for the association that was spontaneously created on February 24 thanks to the initiative of a former casting director and a multimedia artist. “Since that day, the number of help requests has skyrocketed to an average of 1,000 per day. Requests that arrive on our Telegram chat and, in addition to informational, financial and psychological support, mainly concern the evacuation from occupied territories and assistance to Ukrainians deported to the Russian Federation, where they are placed in temporary settlements in precarious conditions, from which they want to leave as soon as possible.” Despite being free to move, many refugees are unable to leave because in the haste of their flight, they did not take the money or documents necessary to cross the border. The association functions as a sort of aggregator: if there is no one who can help on the spot, their remote operators take care of it, “because we are safe, have free access to the Internet, and are able to provide reliable information, which is often the key to saving those in danger.” The shifts in the “operations room” are covered 24 hours a day by Russians, Georgians, Belarusians and Europeans during the day, and by Americans or Canadians at night, able to directly contact local volunteers and “clandestine” drivers in Russia and Ukraine. Like those who saved Yanina’s paralyzed father from a stroke. Yanina, a 24-year-old girl from Mariupol who has been working in Kiev for four years, was unable to contact him for 52 days (the internet connection was disrupted due to blackouts) and was certain that he had died under the grenades that fell 30 meters from his house. Against all odds, she managed to embrace him again in a hospital bed in the capital.

Masha Balkina at the head of 300 “Volunteers Tbilisi” 

In the small garden of the hotel opened four years ago by her parents not far from the sulphuric baths of Tbilisi, which translates to “warm” due to the temperature of its springs, a 20-year-old Russian girl has managed to organize aid for 60,000 Ukrainian refugees in just a few months. Among the hotel guests and the comings and goings of refugees who, with a smile and a sigh in the afternoon, line up for aid, Masha keeps everything under control. “Starting with the coordination of volunteers (the most active are 300), who take turns sorting food and diapers, revising accommodations, providing document assistance, updating social profiles with which they launch various fundraisers. We exist only thanks to donations from ordinary people, like many bars and cafes in the city that donate part of their profits to associations like ours. In contrast to Putin’s propaganda that Georgians hate Russians!” she says while talking to Kirill, 27, originally from Siberia, the operational director of the association. In 2017, after being imprisoned for demonstrating in favor of Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition still behind bars, he escaped to Ukraine. “I know what it means to start from scratch every time,” he says as he introduces his wife, a Ukrainian girl he met at the “Volunteers Tbilisi” humanitarian aid point, with whom he got married last summer.

Emigration for action, medicine on demand

Halfway between a coworking space where those who have lost everything can meet new friends and a distribution point for medicines for Ukrainian refugees, the Emigration for Action association is located in a red brick building in Old Tbilisi. “As Russian expats, we realized that we couldn’t just sit back and do nothing,” says Nastya, the PR manager of the NGO. “So we focused on on-demand medicine. It all started when one of the co-founders, Daniil Chubar, 27, came across a man who didn’t have the money to buy medicine at a pharmacy last March. ‘There’s a Ukrainian flag on every pharmacy, but no one can help us!’ he cried out in desperation. “At that point, Daniil asked him for his phone number, and the next day we called him back to pick up the medicine at our headquarters,” adds one of the volunteers, Ira, 27, from St. Petersburg, who arrived in Tbilisi three months ago with her husband, an IT specialist. While she divides the medicines alphabetically in the basement of the building, she proudly tells us: “We launched our first crowdfunding campaign in July. We started with ten euros and ended up raising 20,000 euros”.

article published in the weekly Famiglia Cristiana n. 46 (13/11/2022)

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