Do you want to help Ukraine? Bring the necessary skill or stay home and send money

Two days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, the World Health Organization issued a global request: The war-torn country needed doctors, nurses and paramedics with experience in complex emergencies.

In a few days, a group of 22 people from Rubicon team, an international nonprofit disaster response organization headquartered near Los Angeles International Airport, flew to Krakow, Poland.

The team of doctors, nurses and other trained professionals drove rental cars approximately 160 miles to the border. They crossed Ukraine on foot, where a fleet of vehicles awaited. Divided into smaller groups, they fanned out across the western parts of the country, visiting hospitals and field clinics.

Team Rubicon has since sent three waves of substitutions to Ukraine. Each team has been carefully selected, a vital step in the rescue effort. Thousands of people around the world want to help in Ukraine, but they don’t have the skills, experience or credentials to work with an international humanitarian organization.

As it has done in communities in need from Mississippi to Mozambique since its founding 12 years ago, Team Rubicon plans to continue fueling the response effort. in Ukraine as long as his teams are welcome and can be of help.

That could be a long time.

From a windowless underground bunker Western Ukraine at the end of March, Dr. Erica Nelson and Dan Freiberg, their faces lit only by the light of a laptop screen, provided a real-time update on their activities as air raid sirens blared.

As deputy medical director and team leader of Team Rubicon, respectively, they were part of the organization’s first medical response team sent to Ukraine for three weeks beginning in early March.

Ukrainian soldiers hitchhiked and moved an artillery unit after Russian bombing destroyed a building near their location.

Ukrainian soldiers hitchhiked and moved an artillery unit after Russian bombing destroyed a building near their location in the Moskovskyi district of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“When you have five air raids, you are pretty limited on how much you can do, but in the last 24 [hours] I think those guys saw 27 patients, “Freiberg said, referring to a small sub-unit on the team. He had suspended his job as a firefighter captain in Goodyear, Arizona for most of a month to help.

“We’re all trying to use every connection or resource we have to really find places where we can be most effective,” he said. “We are quite well prepared and prepared for tomorrow. Now let’s spend the night at the shelter. “

Moments earlier, Brian McAchran had provided an update from his post near the Ukrainian border in northeastern Hungary, where his team was treating refugees and training local medical personnel in trauma care. At the start of the conflict, Team Rubicon had sent small groups to neighboring Eastern European countries, but no longer had teams in Hungary, Poland or Moldova.

“Today was a huge success,” said McAchran, coordinator for Team Rubicon. “Our doctor Vitaly [Belyshev] he’s been in the clinic for two days now … And we’ve identified some issues we could cross-train them with, things our medical staff are well versed in, like stopping the bleeding. They prepared for that training. “

Every day of the week, scenes like these were streamed in real-time from Eastern European bunkers, hotels and medical facilities to a large video screen in an elegant conference room at the nonprofit’s headquarters.

People using laptops at a table during a video conference

Staff members meet at Team Rubicon’s Los Angeles office to receive real-time updates on the nonprofit humanitarian organization’s efforts to aid in the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Nelson was on leave from his job as an emergency room physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. As he spoke from the bunker in western Ukraine, his voice rose over the din of others sheltering from the bombing of Russian forces.

“I think even though … we haven’t seen hundreds and hundreds of patients,” said Nelson, who has provided care in places like the Palestinian territories, Sudan and Jamaica, “we feel it’s important that we have been here for support them “.

Most of the patients she and her colleagues attended did not have the bullet and shrapnel injuries that one might expect. Most were women and children who needed medical treatment for existing conditions such as asthma and diabetes after fleeing their homes in other parts of the country.

Team Rubicon’s operations in Ukraine are guided by a set of principles aimed at “adding value instead of creating costs,” said Art delaCruz, the organization’s chief executive.

The goal is to find and employ highly trained and experienced professionals to make the greatest possible impact without being a burden or draining local resources.

“Anyone can get up from a sofa and say, ‘I can do this.’ But then the reality is that maybe they can’t, “said delaCruz, a retired naval officer.” If we’re responding to a tornado where a bunch of trees are knocked over, don’t send someone who can’t use a chainsaw when you can send someone who can “.

“When you have five air raids, you are pretty limited on how much you can do, but in the last 24 [hours] I think those guys saw 27 patients “,

– Dan Freiberg, team leader, Team Rubicon

David Malet, a University of America professor who has published two books on foreign fighters and non-combatants traveling to war zones, agrees.

“Many organizations prefer to receive money and resources rather than foreigners who are inexperienced and may become accountable or, alternatively, try to sideline local leadership,” he said in an email.

Many who lack the necessary skills give up and find different ways to help relief efforts in Ukraine. Others travel alone in Eastern Europe, hoping to find a way to lend a hand once they are ashore.

“Some people really feel a personal responsibility,” said Ken Keen, a retired US Army lieutenant general and associate dean of leadership at Emory University’s business school. They “want to do good and they want to respond”.

On April 3, Lars Whelan boarded a direct LOT Polish Airlines flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Warsaw.

Along with his toothbrush and other regular travel items, the burly 48-year-old packed a ballistic vest, camouflage clothing, and Juno, his toy poodle, known in the Whelan apartment complex in Hollywood Hills for his fur. pink tinged with pink.

A man standing in a hallway with his toy poodle snuggled into his vest

Lars Whelan keeps his dog, Juno, in his Los Angeles apartment complex on March 8, 2022, nearly a month before they traveled to Poland to help Ukrainian refugees.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For weeks after fighting broke out in Ukraine, Whelan had been trying to get in touch with a humanitarian organization that could capitalize on his expertise in international logistics, humanitarian aid and crisis management.

“The first thing I saw was the request for people with specific experience. And what I thought was, ‘I could be really useful,’ “he said.” My preference obviously wouldn’t be to introduce myself and someone hands me an AK-47. ”

Whelan has handled logistics and security in countries including Gabon and Cameroon. In 2016 he went to Greece to help with the arrival of Syrian war refugees. The colored map above his desk is crisscrossed with lines connecting the dozen countries he has been to.

Coast Guard since 1995, Whelan is also a certified health care provider. And he helped with Team Rubicon’s COVID-19 response in California by participating in the rescue at food pantries.

So he presented his name when the group launched a call for qualified professionals. He has not yet been exploited by the organization, nor by any of the others he has addressed.

Team Rubicon is based in Los Angeles.

Team Rubicon is based in Los Angeles.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

David Burke, program manager for Team Rubicon, said that despite Whelan’s background, he is still not a good fit for one of the organization’s teams.

“The previous participation is always appreciated and appreciated. The rest of the verification and application process is to make sure you don’t put anyone in situations where it would be uncomfortable and dangerous, ”Burke said.

After being rejected by the rescue groups, Whelan decided to travel to Poland on his own. Two days after landing in Warsaw, he had already found a way to be useful.

Ukrainian forces move through the city of Borodyanka, Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces move through the city of Borodyanka, Ukraine. The city was heavily damaged during its occupation by Russian forces, which have since retreated.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Operating out of the central train station in the Polish capital, he was given a neon yellow vest and a paper badge with the word “Volunteer” and its Polish and Ukrainian translations.

ace refugees from Ukraine arrived by the hundreds, Whelan – and Juno, who tucked into her jacket – helped direct them to desks offering services including travel coordination, government resources, and temporary housing.

“There are times when it slows down,” Whelan said in a WhatsApp message, “and then times when you have hordes of people trying to get information.”

But even the skills of Team Rubicon’s carefully selected squads aren’t always used as intended.

“We came here expecting something that wasn’t reality, so I think we had to take a hit, and we had to test our assumptions and engage in a very humble and caring way,” Nelson said.

A crowd of people lined up for food

People line up for food assistance at the Ark Church in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Many people had been waiting for hours for food.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

From the dark and eerie bunker, he had some advice for anyone thinking of traveling to Ukraine.

“Don’t just introduce yourself,” Nelson said. “There are too many mavericks here. There are too many people who say “I am a paramedic, I am a veteran, I will come here and help”. Find, legitimize and apply to the right organization. “

Or maybe stay home.

“Maybe simply donating your money to organizations that know what they are doing and are engaging the community is the best thing to do,” he said.