When war broke out in Ukraine in the middle of history Ph.D. candidate Sam Finkelman’s yearlong research trip to Russia, Hungary, and Ukraine, he spent the first week feeling helpless, frantically looking at his phone in disbelief from his apartment in Budapest.
“Then it hit me. I’m in a country next to Ukraine where there’s this war happening; Ukraine’s a country I care deeply about; I have a lot of friends and loved ones there; and there’s this massive refugee crisis,” he says. “There’s something I can do.”
What started off as a rental car trip to the Ukrainian border to transport refugees has led to the creation of a nonprofit organization delivering medical supplies and tactical gear into the heart of Ukraine. Finkelman and his new colleagues have named the organization Zhyty Khochu, meaning “I Want to Live,” inspired by a line from a famous 1890 Ukrainian work by Lesya Ukrainka called “Contra Spem Spero!”
Finkelman, who had arrived in Budapest from Moscow in January, was living with an American friend, Weyland Joyner. The two of them planned to rent the car to head to the border. Before their trip, they met up with acquaintance Yuliah Kurbatova who needed a place to stay in Budapest. She connected them to Liza Rubchynskaya, who had been collecting medical supplies and needed them transported to Ukrainian hospitals. Rather than bring an empty car to pick up refugees, they could bring a car full of much-needed supplies.
“Once we met Liza, everything fell into place because she has incredible medical knowledge and connections with Ukrainian hospitals, maternal wards, and orphanages. So she started getting us lists,” he says.
The new friend group scurried around Budapest to various pharmacies trying to fill prescriptions from hospitals in Ukraine before their first run to the border. Rubchynskaya’s sister Karina was on the ground in Kyiv, traveling to hospitals, getting lists of supplies and texting them to her sister.
“It was a learning experience for all of us to realize where to get that stuff in Hungary. We started teaming up with more Hungarian friends who could help and quickly began realizing how many languages were involved: both national languages like Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and English, but also the language of medical knowledge,” he says. “Then, as we started loading up on defense and supply gear, there was a whole other facet of words in Russian that I never thought I would need, from ‘tourniquet’ to ‘bulletproof vest.’”
On March 2, they crossed the Hungarian border into Uzhhorod, Ukraine, to drop off the first batch of medical supplies and connect with the five refugees they were transporting to Budapest. There were a grandmother from Kharkiv and her twin 13-year-old granddaughters, whom she was raising after their mother’s death, and an elderly woman and her adult daughter from Odesa.
What should have been a three-hour drive back to Budapest took 16 hours as the refugees waited to get processed at the border, he says.
“The conditions on the Hungarian side were a bit disturbing. They were charging refugees to use the bathrooms, and there was no free water and nowhere comfortable for these older women to sit,” he says, noting the family from Kharkiv had just traveled for four days in train compartments meant for four people but which contained 12 people. “I was amazed at their patience, having been up all night.”
Once in Budapest, they set the families up in hotels for the night and the next day arranged transport to Germany for one family and found temporary housing just outside Budapest for the other, he says.
As Finkelman and his colleagues were gathering supplies for the first trip, he made a single Instagram post about it with his Venmo information, thinking a few donations from friends could help fund the journey.
“Money just started pouring in from every past corner of my life: friends from elementary school, their family members, friends from grad school,” he says. “It was clear how much people in the West really want to help, which was inspiring but also made me realize it would grow into more than just one trip.”
Transporting refugees into Hungary has become more streamlined in recent days, with buses and other means of transport at the border, he says. After making the first transport of refugees in the rental van, Finkelman says they realized the money they’d raised could be used more efficiently in getting supplies to Ukraine, so that is where the bulk of their efforts are now going.
Something that has struck Finkelman during these efforts is that many of the people he’s now working with, from his Russian acquaintance to the people connecting him to Ukrainian hospitals, all knew each other through a Jewish studies program.
“Given Putin’s propaganda about de-Nazifying Ukraine, it’s very interesting that many of these people I’ve met organizing these efforts are Jews from Ukraine, the U.S., and even Russia,” he says.
Now that they have incorporated as a nonprofit in the U.S., Finkelman is hoping the organization will continue to grow. The operation has already morphed from team members frantically running around to pharmacies to buying medical supplies in bulk like tourniquets, bandages, catheters, and IV equipment.
From Hungary, Finkelman had planned to arrive in Kyiv on March 14. Of course the war changed all that. Now, he’s looking at ways to extend his stay in Hungary to continue the nonprofit work he’s begun.
“I’ve always been a pretty academic guy, just spending my time in libraries and archives. I’ve never been deeply engaged in humanitarian aid efforts,” he says. “But I had to act. There was the combination of deep worry about a place that I care about, the people I care about over there, but also definitely elements of guilt of being an expert-in-training on this region and getting it so wrong.”
Part of the guilt is also not appreciating the extent of the refugee crisis globally until now, he says.
“It might have something to do with the fact that it’s a place I’ve studied, or that my great grandfather came from Ukraine,” he says. “But it shouldn’t have taken this tragedy for me to appreciate the grandeur of a global crisis that’s been ongoing for 10, 20 years”
He hopes that a takeaway for not just him but others around the globe is for these events to inspire people to think about ways to deal with the massive issue of refugees.
It’s been a busy few weeks, and recent events have caused him to rethink many of the assumptions guiding his dissertation research, which looks at Ukrainian, Russian, and Jewish nationalist dissidents in the Soviet Union.
“The present always shapes the way historians make sense of the past, and these cataclysmic current events certainly will change the story I have to tell about the Soviet past,” he says. “But for now, I am focusing my energies on using the skills I have developed in academia to help as much as I can.”
Contributions to “I Want to Live” can be made on its website.
A list of verified charities helping Ukraine can be found online.