A chartered Airbus A330 cargo jet is set to arrive from Lithuania at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Monday and to depart in the coming days loaded with 32 tons of medical supplies bound for Lublin, Poland, near the border with Ukraine.
Last week, Liliya Kovalenko, 44, left behind her family and the safety of her home on the Eastside and flew to Poland on a one-way ticket to be there when the jet arrives. She’ll shepherd its cargo into the war zone of Ukraine — and pursue a very personal mission.
The relief flight is the culmination of relentless efforts since war broke out a month ago by diverse groups of individuals along the West Coast from the Bay Area to Seattle.
“A community has been formed,” said Josh Pickering, 30, a Navy veteran and a medical student at Stanford University, who has been on the ground in Poland since March 15 organizing the logistics of the plane’s arrival. “Everybody is working together to help Ukraine out in any way that they can.”
Syed Faraz, 37, a Muslim immigrant from India who formerly flew spy plane missions for the U.S. Air Force, now doing an MBA at Stanford, tapped his military connections now working in the airline world to help find a suitable cargo aircraft.
Faraz said he’s followed the buildup to the war in Ukraine closely since December, hearing from members of his former squadron who were flying daily sorties in Eastern Europe to gather intelligence.
“We need to help another democracy,” Faraz said. “There hasn’t been a good guy versus bad guy fight like this since World War II.”
Still, Kovalenko, president of the Ukrainian Association of Washington, said there are no military items aboard the relief flight, only medical supplies including bandages, sterile surgery kits, needles and syringes, IV tubes and packs, pediatric medicines, etc.
“We can deliver stuff to civilians or paramedics who work on the ground over there in Ukraine, but not for the army,” said Kovalenko.
Pickering echoed that “all of it is humanitarian aid.”
“If any bit of it, even if it’s defensive equipment like body armor, things like that, the entire order will be seized by customs and none of it will make it to the Ukrainians,” he said. “So Liliya and myself have gone through pretty much every square inch of the supplies we’ve received and made sure that there is nothing like that going through.”
“Unfortunately,” Kovalenko added emphatically. “We would love to, but we have restrictions.”
To make the relief mission a reality, Pickering teamed with the local Ukrainian American community led by Kovalenko, who organized the medical supplies and their storage in a warehouse in Puyallup.
Kovalenko flew to Poland to join Pickering on March 23. She’ll chaperone the supplies through the border to Ukraine, where she’ll help oversee their distribution from the western region of the country.
Alaska Airlines pilot Tom Cappelletti, 57, who previously flew big cargo jets for UPS and various humanitarian airlifts while in the Air Force, helped charter the Airbus A330, pushing past setbacks as efforts to lease other planes fell through.
Last-minute schedule changes were forced first by bureaucratic demands for paperwork and then by required repair work for a part on the A330.
Supporting the relief flight with funding and round-the-clock efforts to pull the mission together are a group of MBA students at Stanford led by Ukrainians in the program and their allies on campus. Among those, Faraz connected the Stanford group to Cappelletti and Pickering linked up with the Seattle-area Ukrainian American community through Kovalenko.
Kaiser Permanente and other hospitals in the Pacific Northwest as well as a medical surplus facility run by Providence St. Joseph Health in Lacey donated medical supplies.
Medical Teams International, a Christian nonprofit based in Oregon focused on health care for refugees, helped aggregate the donated supplies.
At a news conference late Monday at Sea-Tac Airport, local politicians including Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell are scheduled to celebrate the relief flight as a display of support for Ukraine.
War room at Stanford
Andrei Molchynsky, 32, one of the leaders of the Stanford MBA group that organized the relief mission, was born in Ukraine and moved to Canada as a teenager for college.
His mom and grandma have been evacuated out of Ukraine. He’s in touch every day with his dad, who is still there as Russian troops and shellfire draw ever closer.
Molchynsky said everyone in the small group of Ukrainian students in the MBA program was in shock for 24 hours when the war started, glued to their phones and laptops.
Then they organized, launching a website StandWithUkraine.How, that offers resources for those who wish to help in any way, including volunteering and donating money. The website has raised $120,000.
In addition, when the airlift project became the focus, the MBA students and their allies solicited money from corporate and individual donors through Nova Ukraine — a charity formed to provide humanitarian support for Ukraine after the Maidan popular uprising in 2014 that threw out the Russian-backed government of then-President Viktor Yanukovych.
Those donations will cover the $600,000 needed to charter the cargo jet.
The group got a list of requested medical supplies from the Ukrainian Ministry of Health and volunteers worked the phones to raise funds, mounted a social media campaign and arranged the logistics of the airlift with contacts in Ukraine and neighboring countries to the west.
“We have a dedicated war room on campus,” said Faraz. And with the nine-hour time difference with Ukraine, “the group is working day and night,” he added.
In Washington and Oregon, the Ukrainian community worked to gather supplies.
Gail Mannex, distribution manager with Medical Teams International said her organization provided donated medical supplies from hospitals and medical offices along the Interstate 5 corridor.
Pickering, who has been operating on four hours of sleep a night, said contacts in Ukraine he’s working with are grateful for the group’s efforts and have offered to help get the supplies distributed despite the real risks to their own lives.
“There is a resolve and deep, deep courage. As terrible as this is, they are ready to fight in any way that they can,” said Pickering. “I don’t know how you don’t give 20 hours a day to that.”
Pickering’s wife, a pediatrician at Stanford, is with him in Poland. Once the medical supplies have crossed into Ukraine, he’ll join his wife in offering primary health care to refugees streaming across the border.
Kovalenko has a double mission in traveling alone into the war zone.
In addition to overseeing the disposition of the medical supplies her community provided, she’ll travel to her hometown in the west of Ukraine to look after her parents and try to get them to a safe place.
Both her parents are in their 70s and the health of her mom, a cancer survivor, is fragile.
“They cannot go anywhere by themselves,” said Kovalenko. “They need someone to help them.”
And when will she return home to her husband and two teenage children?
“I have no idea,” Kovalenko said before she left for Poland. “I don’t know how fast will be this process — to deliver the supplies, to organize and distribute to the various houses.”
“You never know what might happen over there. Everything’s changing so fast,” she said. “So I didn’t buy my return ticket yet.”