The expat community of the Netherlands comes together for Ukraine – KyivPost
What is wide, yellow and brings hope to the farthest reaches of Ukraine? The Zeilen van Vrijheid ambulances. The small Dutch nonprofit was only founded after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, but has already managed to bring in more than 70 ambulances, a neonatal vehicle and a lorry firefighters in various Ukrainian cities close to combat zones.
The story of the foundation reveals the power of migrant networks and how people from different nations, officially enemies, can work together to save lives. For me, this was an irresistible source of hope during the dark months of the Russian invasion.
After finishing her day job as a technical solutions architect at a large insurance company, Veronika Mutsei is looking for used ambulances in the Netherlands and other EU countries. As co-founder and president of Zeilen, Mutsei is responsible for many different tasks, from coordinating purchases to finding and maintaining partnerships. A Ukrainian from kyiv, Mutsei probably hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since February 24. In an interview for DutchNews, she told me: “When a convoy leaves, we start preparing the next one. The war won’t end just because we need a weekend off!
The sense of urgency helps mask the suffocating anxiety about Ukraine’s future. All Zeilen coordinators are expatriates from Eastern Europe, having left their home country a few years ago. Yet since the invasion they have transformed their private and often professional lives to support Ukraine full-time. They mix raising children, day jobs, and a huge number of tasks needed to buy an ambulance, fill it with supplies, assign transit plates, and find volunteer drivers. While this often means sacrificing sleep, social relationships, or putting their jobs at risk, it’s little compared to what so many people in Ukraine are going through right now.
In times of relative peace, expatriates reunite with relatives and friends back home. In times of large-scale war, these feelings can develop into a kind of pre-panic attack state, contained only by the will to keep doing something. Mutsei’s best friend, Aleksey Maslo, remained in his hometown of Kharkiv after the outbreak of war. Zeilen supports its grassroots organization, Help Kharkov, with evacuation cars and humanitarian aid. One of the vehicles Zeilen donated to Kharkiv Help evacuated more than 170 disabled people from bombing hotspots in the city.
The migrant condition of having one foot here, one foot there helped Zeilen quickly understand what was needed most to help Ukraine. Medical coordinator Maria Pedenko, now a healthcare consultant in Amsterdam, worked at the Ukrainian Ministry of Health. Its relationships with hospitals in various Ukrainian cities have allowed Zeilen to receive specific requests for medical supplies. “The list is actually very short,” smiles Zmicier Zaleznicenka, Zeilen’s media coordinator, in an informal conversation. “Hospitals only need one thing – everything!”
And Zeilen delivers, to the best of his abilities. Acquiring 70 ambulances in just over two months is a figure that few established humanitarian organizations can claim. Zeilen canned its overhead to a minimum, running entirely on volunteers so they can put all their resources into helping. “The most important thing for us is to be productive and efficient,” proclaims Mutsei.
Since March, Zeilen’s relationship with health facilities has deepened to the point that the Ukrainian Ministry of Health requested a neonatal ambulance directly from the foundation. the ambulance hit Odessa Children’s Hospital in the second week of May.
The foundation’s co-founder, Daniil Simanov, was born in Russia, although he surrendered his passport after the invasion of Crimea. While in the Netherlands, he established a network of Russian-speaking expatriates from across Eastern Europe which fueled the foundation’s early activities. Before Zeilen was officially registered or had a bank account, Simanov raised nearly 20,000 euros informally, in cash, to buy the first ambulances and humanitarian supplies. “We want to show people that there is a different Russia and a different Russian people,” he told me in an interview for DutchNews.
A Ukrainian and a Russian coming together to support Ukraine sounds like a conciliatory fairy tale but, in reality, Mutsei struggled emotionally with the cooperation. In an interview for the BBC, she admitted to having strong feelings of hatred against Russians after the invasion, especially since her relatives, including her younger sister, remained in hot spots of the war. She remembers wanting to channel those negative feelings and excess anxiety into action.
For many, getting involved in helping people is the only way to cope with the overwhelming trauma of war. Volunteers of various nationalities have mentioned that working with Zeilen helps them find purpose after their world has collapsed into a new, unfamiliar and hostile state. Being active certainly can’t heal their trauma, but it does help ease the pain.
In the darkest times, many people show their best. Zeilen has energized many goodwill. Corporate sponsors flock to buy ambulances and friendly organizations from across Europe and beyond step in. For example, one of Zeilen’s main partners, the ASBI company, financed the purchase of 10 ambulances to return to buy 10 more. Collaborators bring hope for a better future, like schoolchildren in The Hague who raised more than 5,000 euros in a fundraising competition for the school.
Through collaborative efforts, Zeilen is able to undertake extremely important work. During the third week of May, the foundation coordinated the transport of six seriously injured soldiers to a German hospital for surgery and rehabilitation. This was one of the very few successful attempts to place evacuated Ukrainian military personnel under EU medical care.
I have followed Zeilen’s activities almost from the beginning, not only for journalistic purposes. As an Eastern European migrant in the Netherlands, my world also fell apart on February 24. My hometown, Lublin, is as close to Lviv as it is to Warsaw. Despite all the notions of journalistic objectivity, I am human, and worried. Seeing so many people from different backgrounds working tirelessly to help helps me cope. It brings hope that decency and kindness can and will triumph over blind cruelty and megalomaniac imperialism.
So keep driving, Zeilen. First to victory, then to the reconstruction of Ukraine.
Zuza Nazaruk is a freelance journalist based in Rotterdam, who writes about environmental and social sustainability, migration and public policy. His work has been featured in Euronews Green, DutchNews and Morocco World News. To find out more, visit him website.