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    Slava Ukraini!

    By Joanie Juster–

    Let us not forget that this week marks the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian people are still fighting fiercely for their homeland, and while many people who had fled during the beginning of the onslaught are now returning, they are coming back to a devastated landscape with infrastructure destroyed. With no electricity or running water, their needs are urgent, and basic. For an update on the current situation in Ukraine, we talked with Laura Pauli.

    Laura Pauli with a Ukrainian soldier
    All Photos Courtesy of Joanie Juster

    An Accidental Activist

    Laura cheerfully describes herself as “marketing by day, humanitarian aid by night,” and she comes by that description honestly. Her expertise in marketing for the tech industry may pay the rent, but her passion is helping people at the most basic level, providing emergency aid to people in desperate need.

    When Laura arrived in San Francisco in 1987 during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, she stepped up to help, delivering meals for Ruth Brinker, founder of Project Open Hand. Over the years, she became a professionally trained chef and certified sommelier. When the Lightning Complex Fires and Glass Fires devastated swaths of California in recent years, she felt compelled to put her culinary skills to work for a more urgently needed cause. She spent weeks working with World Central Kitchen, cooking relief meals in disaster zones. In January 2022, she completed WCK’s chef relief training course, and when Ukraine was invaded on February 22, she was ready to put her training to good use.

    World Central Kitchen volunteer Laura Pauli makes chili for
    Merced, CA, flood victims

    ‘So Much Sadness’

    “I just had to be there,” Laura told me for the San Francisco Bay Times. Having just started a new job in January 2022, though, she wasn’t able to leave until June of that year. Through other WCK friends she was able to find a small apartment in Przemyśl, Poland—a major point of entry for refugees fleeing Ukraine—and started working in a 10,000 square foot emergency kitchen at the train station. She would work at the kitchen from 8 am until 1 pm each day, then go back to her tiny apartment to do her day job remotely, from 1 pm to 10 pm. “You couldn’t get through a shift at the train station without periodically walking around the back and crying,” she said. She recalled hearing one particularly heart-wrenching story from a colleague, who told her about when a train car full of babies arrived. No one knew who the babies were, whom they belonged to, where they had come from, or where they should go. That day, she said, everyone cried.

    As trainloads of refugees arrived each day, usually with what few possessions they still owned in one small bag, Laura described seeing “so much sadness, so much heartbreak. What they saw they will never recover from.” Laura and her fellow aid workers would greet them with water, food, kindness, and whatever other comforts they could provide. Children received goodie bags with juice boxes and a small stuffed animal. Her crew cooked meals on massive paella pans over propane burners. They could not only cook 700 pounds of meat or vegetables quickly and efficiently that way, but also even cake—she said it takes 1000 bananas to make 100 sheets of banana cake in one of those giant pans.

    Urgent Needs: Wood-Burning Stoves, Sanitation

    Laura has returned to Ukraine several times since that first visit. She did three humanitarian aid runs in 2023, delivering whatever was needed to smaller villages that had been overlooked, and delivering portable wood-burning stoves to soldiers in the trenches near the frontlines. Putting on a bulletproof vest and helmet the first time she was within two kilometers of the frontlines was an eye-opening experience, as they could hear the shelling. In a hollowed-out landscape with no electricity, the portable wood-burning stoves are essential not just to provide heat, but also to allow for cooking. For many Ukrainians, she said, especially the older generation, owning their own home was their life goal. They are strong and fierce, and they simply don’t want to leave their homes, no matter what condition they are in now. One older woman thanked Laura for the little stove she had brought, saying, “Now there are no more mushrooms growing on our walls.”

    Laura Pauli and a World Central Kitchen team of volunteers in Poland, where they made 35,000 sandwiches for Ukrainian refugees

    LGBTQ+ Ukrainians

    When Russia first invaded Ukraine in February 2022, there was legitimate concern for the safety of LGBTQ+ Ukrainians. In general, Laura reports, your level of safety in Ukraine largely depends on geography. Eastern and Southern Ukraine are more conservative and old-school, whereas Middle and Western Ukraine are more open. She said that in the larger cities, and in universities, younger Ukrainians can often be who they are, and love whom they love. However, the war has added extra dangers. Many queer Ukrainians have been displaced, and have had trouble fleeing the country due to Ukraine’s conscription policies. Many originally fled to Poland. But although Poland opened their doors to 1.5 million displaced Ukrainians at the beginning of the war, Poland also ranks last in the European Union in recognizing LGBTQ+ rights. Queer refugees often face discrimination, isolation, difficulty finding safe housing and employment, as well as getting access to appropriate medical care and benefits for themselves and their families.

    World Central Kitchen volunteers at work

    What’s Next, and How to Help

    For Laura, this difficult work has become her mission; “It is definitely a calling,” she says. In her recent trips, she began fundraising, and has been involved in rebuilding an orphanage. When asked how they can help children heal from so much trauma, she said, “We just try to give them the best life we can. There is so much joy and love; the kids are amazing. All we can do is love them as much as possible, and give them opportunities.” She is concerned that the United States isn’t giving enough military aid to Ukraine. Without substantial military assistance, Ukraine could lose to Russia—and then the rest of Europe is in danger of falling as well.

    Laura worries that the world has moved on and forgotten Ukraine. But she and her colleagues are doing everything they can to provide humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable Ukrainians. Besides World Central Kitchen, Laura is raising money for two charities providing direct immediate assistance like wood-burning stoves, insulation. adult diapers, sanitation supplies, and, always, healthy food.

    Laura’s life has been changed by what she has seen. She remains awed by how strong and fierce the Ukrainian people are in the face of the most brutal attacks. She is encouraged by the words of one of her colleagues there, who said, “Of all the horrors I’ve seen, I’ve never seen so many angels.”

    Be one of the angels. You can help by donating to these organizations:
    Feed the World: 
    UAid Direct: 

    Locally, Rainbow World Fund has been raising emergency funds for LGBTQ+ Ukrainians since the war began. They are able to get help directly to people in need through their partnership with Ukrainian LGBTQ+ organizations Fulcrum, LIGA, and Insight. Donate here:

    Joanie Juster is a long-time community volunteer, activist, and ally.

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    Published on February 22, 2024