04 Nov 2022
  • Michelle Balon
  • Indira Mogollon

IOM Germany talks to SafeBow, a grassroots organization supporting vulnerable groups in Ukraine

“If you are a single mom, an elderly man with 60 cats, if you are disabled, a cancer patient, a Holocaust survivor, a third-country national, an international student, even if you’re a military-aged male in Ukraine—there is nobody that we won’t help,” says Simone Ledgard of SafeBow—a collective of volunteers from around the world dedicated to helping the most vulnerable in Ukraine.

Shortly after the war in Ukraine broke out, Simone from Perth, Australia responded to a call to action on Instagram by model/activist Rain Dove to support marginalized groups in Ukraine. A single mother to two children with special needs—and a volunteer firefighter—Simone could not imagine being in this situation: “A war breaks out, and it’s a person’s worst day, but that’s only compounded by the fact that you might be physically disabled, or an elderly lady with a 40-year-old son with autism. How do you get your child to safety? Who is there to fill those gaps?”

“Rain Dove has a big social media audience, so that’s how we teamed up and generated our first funds,” explains Deborah Thoden, a single mother who also responded to Rain Dove’s call to action and is now a case manager with SafeBow in Berlin, Germany. As more people reached out via Instagram, the call to action evolved into a grassroots organization.

When anyone in need reaches out to SafeBow, a case manager works with them directly in their native language for as long as needed. “What sets us apart is our unique way of providing one-on-one support,” says Deborah. People reach out for help with their evacuation, getting basic supplies, or because they’re having a breakdown. For the latter, SafeBow connects them with counselling services in their native language. They’ve provided medication, including hormone therapy, helped people find transport, organized surgeries, secured accommodation, and much more.

Simone became the taskforce leader for international students, third-country nationals (TCNs) and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), teaming up with African diaspora leaders in Germany, Kosovo, the United Kingdom, Norway and Poland. One of their cases was a 16-year-old student trying to escape Sumy. On top of the chaos of escaping a war, the girl had her period. “Imagine having the worst day of your life, you are young, you are frightened, you are escaping a war and as a young woman, you get your period. But you can’t bathe and have no access to sanitary products,” says Simone. From across the globe, the taskforce prearranged her accommodation in Lviv, got medicine and sanitary products dropped off at the hotel and supported her with safe transport.

"It was through connecting people that we could provide this level of care,” Simone says. “I’ve never been to Ukraine, or even Europe,” she continues, “but if you message me and say that you’re in Kharkiv and need heart medication and cat food, I can get you that.”

Before the war, Ukraine was a hub for international students, including many from across Africa and Asia. Dare Adegboye from Nigeria was studying Marine Engineering at the Kherson State Maritime Academy when the war broke out. Others were working towards their medical degree while providing for their families. “One night you went to bed thinking you are about to become a doctor, and the next day you’re a refugee, homeless and broke,” Simone states. The mental health implications of this need to be recognized, and adequate support must be provided.

The struggle faced by TCNs fleeing the war is diminished by statements like “they can go back to their own country” or “they can sort it out,” Simone explains, “but it doesn’t matter what it says on your passport—male, female, what country you’re from… that trauma is the same trauma felt by all.”

Far from being outsiders, the international students had laid down roots in the country. “I was studying and working, and everything was going smoothly, I loved it there,” says Dare. “They’ve worked, they’ve lived among the community, they have friends, they’ve gone to Ukrainian churches, community groups—immersed themselves, learned the language,” explains Simone. They are “devastated by what’s happening,” she continues, “but now no one wants them.”

Dare managed to flee through Romania to Lithuania, but he had lost important documents along the way and was unable to obtain a visa. Having depleted his funds and gone through “a traumatizing experience,” Dare did not know how to proceed. He eventually met SafeBow, who assisted him with arranging transport from Lithuania to Hungary, onward to Portugal, and eventually to Canada, where he is finally settled and continuing his studies.

In Germany, SafeBow supported a heart surgeon and former English teacher that lived in Ukraine for 12 years. When the war broke out, he left everything behind—his home, workplace, and friends. But holding a passport from an African country, his skills are being overlooked. In their conversations, he repeats to Simone: “let people know that I’m intelligent, educated, and willing to work. I don’t want to sit idly,” he often says. “People forget how much of each country is made up of skilled migrants,” says Simone, and many TCNs believe their professional skills are going to waste.

In cases where the younger generations migrated but the parents or grandparents stayed behind, the older generation rings their children or grandchildren for support obtaining medication, food, and physical assistance, and the youth get in touch with SafeBow from abroad. During power cuts, people who are unable to walk upstairs could find themselves trapped. A grandchild, for example, contacted SafeBow from outside Ukraine to get support finding volunteers that could carry her wheelchair-bound grandmother down eight flights of stairs onto an evacuation bus.

Working digitally is SafeBow’s “lifeblood”—the organization formed, fundraises, and answers requests for help through social media. In Berlin, Deborah provides on-the-ground support to new arrivals. “We have this big volunteer group with different time zones,” says Deborah, “so we are able to team up and provide support 24 hours a day.”

“It was through connecting people that we could provide this level of care,” Simone says. “I’ve never been to Ukraine, or even Europe,” she continues, “but if you message me and say that you’re in Kharkiv and need heart medication and cat food, I can get you that.”

Many of the international students and professionals who fled Ukraine are now unsure of how to move forward. “I’m in touch with students that speak five languages and hold three degrees, yet they are homeless,” Simone says. The Nigerian heart surgeon speaks five languages, including Ukrainian. He could, for example, accompany Ukrainians to German doctors to translate. As a doctor himself, he would know the medical terminology. Such solutions are being overlooked.

Though many SafeBow cases are now safe, countless more vulnerable Ukrainians and TCNs are still in need of urgent support. “The pleas for help are more desperate and the support and funding less available,” reports Simone. If you are interested in supporting the work of SafeBow, visit their website to learn more.

SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth