“I know these families. I know these faces. I personally know these names.”
In eastern Ukraine, in the villages that currently sit behind Russian lines, there are no basements. When the sounds of shells and bombs fill the air or when columns of invading tanks park only a few feet from the homes, many people seek shelter in holes or trenches in their back yards, or cellars normally used to keep canned vegetables from spoiling in the summer, waiting for the violence to pass and praying their home is not the next to be struck by missile or bomb.
These are the neighborhoods and towns Alina Pierowicz grew up in. Now a successful real estate agent with Hunt Real Estate ERA in Buffalo, New York, she has watched Russia’s unprovoked war swallow up the towns—and many of the people—she cares most about.
While her deep connection to her home country makes the ongoing invasion personally and indescribably heart-rending, it has also placed her in a unique position to help in areas that not even the international Red Cross or other humanitarian efforts can reach. And against the helpless feeling of listening to news from her family and watching the war unfold in the media, Pierowicz would not be helpless.
“People are forgetting the people in Ukraine, the ones that can’t get to the border,” she says. “You hear about those passing away, dying because they are trying to evacuate their village and they are getting blown up.”
She started with her own family, 15 members who were trapped behind Russian lines with a bedridden grandfather, tanks parked only a few feet from their front door. Finding someone who could evacuate that many people in these circumstances, including someone with significant medical needs, turned out to be too much of a challenge.
“That was basically impossible,” she says.
But pivoting from that difficult realization, Pierowicz has leveraged her own knowledge of the local landscape, raising money and resources in the United States to assist her family and hundreds of other families in the same situation. Pledging 100% of her next real estate commission to the effort, Pierowicz has found ways to deliver medical supplies, clothing and food into areas that most humanitarian organizations cannot reach, getting electricity turned on for families suffering in sub-freezing temperatures and helping to evacuate those who are able.
“It wasn’t a matter of finding places outside of the country, it was a matter of finding safety in Ukraine,” she explains.
Starting with a GoFundMe, the outpouring of support she received inspired her to create a non-profit, the Ukraine Relief Fund, with the help of her broker. Money donated has gone directly to these villages, family members or people she knows, who can buy and deliver limited supplies available in stores (which open only occasionally) or make connections with others on the ground in eastern Ukraine who can obtain items or services in the war-torn area.
“This is all direct contact with direct people, it isn’t just an organization that we’re sending money to,” she says. “Our nonprofit is working on encrypted phones…it’s amazing what we’re trying to achieve in such a short amount of time.”
Of those that are left behind in this region, a large number are elderly, along with women whose husbands are currently fighting or widows whose husbands died fighting over the last eight years, according to Pierowicz. Healthy younger people who had the resources to travel fled early on, grabbing the opportunity to get young children to safety. But not all children were evacuated—Pierowicz says eight of her own family members are still trapped, including children.
As she has helped some people get out of occupied areas, Pierowicz has also managed to create relationships with churches and organizations providing shelter to refugees, specifically focused on getting mattresses as sometimes the temporary housing does not provide anything for people to sleep on.
Clients in her real estate network have also reached out to offer their own homes as shelter for her family—second homes or vacation homes in Poland, in Canada, in Italy and other countries around the world. Other colleagues and agents have joined her pledge to donate their commission—all or part—to the non-profit.
“I did have a generous amount of people reach out,” she says.
Against the feelings of fear and anxiety, Pierowicz describes being uplifted by the support being offered to a country and people she cares so much about, from the country she calls home.
“I’m so proud and so happy to be a U.S citizen, coming from Ukraine and knowing those innocent people who do not want to fight,” she says. “They are peaceful, loving, hard-working people. It is nice to see that I am part of a country so good, where there’s people who want to do good.”
Like the people of Ukraine, Pierowicz says she will not give up, no matter what. She has discussed with her husband—a former United States Marine—the possibility of traveling to Europe and entering Ukraine from the west to serve more directly. That decision will be based on an assessment of where she can do the most good, she says.
“I’m able to do so much here from America,” she explains. “I’m like the middleman between all of these people and all of these things. I wouldn’t be able to help and benefit others. It doesn’t mean that I won’t , I’m still considering it. We don’t know where my placement should be best utilized…we’re continuing to pray for guidance and pray for any opportunity we may provide.”
Pierowicz has also kept an eye on the long-term outcomes of the crisis. While hoping and praying for peace, she knows regardless of the length of the war, there will be an incredible need for rebuilding—specifically repairing and creating new housing, after so much destruction wrought by Russian weapons, and she is also working with people in her region to find housing for refugees who are likely to come to the U.S.
She says her foundation, and her own energy and expertise will continue to serve Ukraine through whatever means necessary.
“Once the war ends, Ukraine may not be in the news every day, but the damage will still be there. Ultimately, I want this organization to be a resource to help rebuild the lives of Ukrainians whose lives have been shattered by war,” she says.
The need to help now, however, could not be more urgent, and the threat could not be more dire for those who Pierowicz is attempting to reach and aid in eastern Ukraine. Just last Monday, she received news that so many of those with loved ones in Ukraine dread: her grandfather had passed away during an attempt to evacuate.
“My parents and I came to America 20 years ago to find the freedom which was not present in Ukraine at the time,” Pierowicz says. “This is the same freedom that Ukrainians are fighting and dying to preserve at this very moment.”
For more information about the Ukraine Relief Fund, click here. Donations can be provided using Venmo or through GoFundme. Contributions can also be mailed to:
Ukraine Relief Fund, Inc
4698 Brompton Drive
Buffalo, NY 14219
Jesse Williams is RISMedia’s associate online editor. Email him with your real estate news ideas, firstname.lastname@example.org