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A volunteer project has sent more than $1 million worth of food to those persecuted by the Lukashenka regime and could serve as inspiration for the current situation in Ukraine.
As protests and then a wave of repression rolled through Belarus after the disputed presidential election in August 2020, Filip Gavrishev, a Belarusian who had emigrated many years earlier, wanted to help his homeland.
“It was clear that money was needed, but it was important to support people right now. After all, it takes some time before funds transfer money. And if the father is arrested in the family, the family loses its breadwinner. Even if they have some things stocked up, they need help urgently.”
The idea of targeted help came to Gavrishev spontaneously: individual donors would become “helpers” for one or more families and buy food for them online for two weeks.
“If a person loses his job, his main problem is to feed his family. They need to survive – the goals are completely changing and they will not have any strength for any political activity. After all, what could be worse than your hungry children?”
Gavrishev started calling friends to support their compatriots back home, and before the month was out, as the crackdown on protesters grew ever more brutal, he and a handful of associates launched INeedHelpBy, a website to coordinate the assistance.
“Our project was invented to provide emergency assistance to those Belarusians who have suffered from repression,” says Gavrishev. “And today we say that our goal is emergency direct assistance to Belarusians who have completely or partially lost their source of income through their political activity – either they lost their jobs completely, or were forced to change jobs. They are also families of political prisoners.” Early on, the initiative also helped support people who were participating in strikes against the regime.
The need is still urgent. Accurate figures on how many people are currently under arrest or facing trial are hard to come by, as the regime, for obvious reasons, doesn’t publicize this kind of data. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Viasna, a Belarusian organization that documents torture, estimate that at least 35,000 peaceful protesters have been detained since August 2020. They have documented more than 5,000 criminal cases brought against protesters and 1,800 reports of torture. Since last July, the media and civil society organizations have faced purges, and thousands have fled the country. As of 28 February, 1,077 political prisoners remain behind bars, according to Viasna.
To date, donors have contributed over $1.2 million to Belarusian recipients, supplying food orders 13,492 times to over 2,000 families, for a total of 5,200 people, including over 1,900 children. The most active donor bought the equivalent of 60 grocery baskets. Many people have also sought and received help for their pets.
The initiative can also be supported by donations if people prefer to provide funds rather than buy food, though, as Filip says, this rarely happens as donors prefer to work with individual families.
Finding the Persecuted
Those in need of assistance in those early days were not in short supply. From August to October 2020, dozens of people were detained every day. At first, protesters faced “administrative” penalties, meaning they were fined, jailed for several days, and released, but not charged with a criminal offense. But then the number of criminal cases for participating in protests began to rise. In addition, during the violent suppression of protests and rallies, many people were hospitalized with broken bones, head trauma, and other injuries through the actions of security forces. As this was happening, people were being fired from state institutions for political reasons.
With the idea in mind and friends willing to help, Gavrishev started a personal quest to find the families of the victims. At first the search was difficult because little public information was available about those who faced repression. He had to ask acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances.
In the first weeks of the project, Gavrishev and his team were also faced with the reality that many victims found it difficult to ask for help.
“This is such a typical Belarusian trait: ‘I think I will suffer alone although I lost my job. I have no money, but I have a stash, I will get through somehow.’ We tried to change this attitude so that they would leave their stash for later, for some other needs, because we are now buying food for them. And it started to work. People realized that for the money they would have spent on food, they could pay off loans or buy clothes. Although there are still people who are uncomfortable or embarrassed to contact us, we are working on it,” he says.
Then people themselves began to turn to the initiative, as information spread by word of month. More people joined as donors and more families asked for help.
The way they link up is fairly simple. Those in need of help fill out an application through the Telegram messaging app. They must attach an identity document and a photo to the application, as well as at least one document confirming political repression, such as proof of dismissal from work, court documents attesting an administrative offense or crime, or a medical certificate describing injuries. Confirmation of having participated in a strike or media reports describing repression with photos or names also count. Naturally, this kind of information is extremely sensitive. INeedHelpBy works hard to assure users that their data is secure, accessed only by a limited group within the project team, all of whom reside outside Belarus.
Out of fear of KGB officers infiltrating the network, donors, too, must confirm their identity with a photo and link to an active social network with an open profile. Donors can choose to send two weeks’ supply of food to an individual or a family, at a cost ranging from around $40 to $130 depending on family size. They can also choose to help more than one family simultaneously.
Once a request for assistance receives a positive response, the applicant is matched with a donor who has pledged to help a family of that size. After contacting the family through a secure mode of communication within 48 hours, the donor or family selects the items in the food basket from a list of Belarusian stores that take online orders, noting, for example, possible allergies or other special requests, and based on a set budget determined by the size of the family and a list of recommended foods.
The food baskets are not meant as long-term assistance. After the initial food delivery, recipients can usually count on a further two baskets. An individual or family who is really struggling financially can ask to extend the assistance for another two deliveries, extending the support period to 10 weeks. They can apply again one month after the end of the assistance, in the case of new circumstances related to the loss of income for political reasons.
The INeedHelpBy team has grown from an initial four members to around 30, with volunteers located around the world, including a big contingent in the United States. These are members of the diaspora, most of whom left long ago. Everyone works without compensation except the satisfaction of pitching in to help those caught in the struggle back home.
“Donors get feedback instantly,” Gavrishev says. “The family receives food and writes directly to you. And it’s much more than just food aid. We help psychologically as well. A person understands that he is not alone, but a similar Belarusian who lives abroad, overseas – in China, Germany, Israel – takes care of him personally, that he cares about this resident, let’s say, of Buda-Kashalev, Brest, or Hrodna. And when a person in Belarus receives a message like ‘Hello, I’m from Florida, I can help you with the products you need – let me order them for you,’ that moment has a very big supporting effect.”
Donors and those whom they have assisted often become friends and keep in touch even after the recipients no longer need assistance.
“They celebrate holidays together online, for example,” Gavrishev says. “They pass on not only food but also [gifts]. The most heartwarming story was when a donor was invited to become the godfather for the family he helped. A girl was pregnant when a Belarusian from abroad assisted her. And when she gave birth, she invited him to come to Belarus when it will be safe, and become the child’s godfather. This story touched us all in the team and we realized that we are working for a reason.”
When the initiative first began, a queue of people who wanted to help quickly formed. Eighteen months later, the trend has changed. Now that information about the project has spread and the number of volunteers has declined, it’s a queue of those who need help that lingers – moving fast, but not disappearing.
Gavrishev cites burnout to explain how this happened.
“Our main resource is not money, but people,” he says. “And it requires us to work carefully. … We want the project to be as comfortable as possible for all participants and for everyone to receive positive emotions. We have people from all over the world – about 2,000 people have bought products at least once. But burnout has affected both the team and the helpers. Someone leaves, someone takes a break, new people come. But we see the result of our work. And now the help is even more important than it was a year ago because people are morally exhausted.”
The team had in mind to help Belarusians who fled the country as well, but it turned out to be too challenging both technically and psychologically. In some countries, ordering online food deliveries from abroad presents too many complications, and even if this were easier, donors have their own preferences about where their aid goes.
“Donors have said that they want to support those people who stayed in the country, because they are in dire need of someone to take care of them,” Gavrishev says.
Something Like Tinder
Siarhei joined the project as a volunteer in August 2020. He cannot give his full name because he is afraid of reprisals against his relatives back home.
“I saw what was happening in Belarus, all this violence, and immediately wanted to help in some way. I appealed to various organizations and initiatives. INeedHelpBy responded first, that’s why I started working there,” he says.
Siarhei’s job is to process and review applications and then connect families that ask for help with those who can provide it.
“It’s something like Tinder, only for those who need support,” he says, referencing the popular dating app.
“Once, a retired woman from Belarus contacted us,” he recalls. “She wrote that she could not buy a grocery basket for the whole family, but she really wanted to help and had 20 rubles [$8] and asked us what to do.”
But Siarhei’s involvement goes beyond organizational work. He personally has bought grocery baskets for about 10 families. “I had a desire not only to feed a particular family, but also to do something more,” he says.
The team does, however, have to be careful of fraudsters. Thinking money was exchanged, some would-be donors proposed splitting the budget for a grocery basket with the volunteers.
“One person called himself a victim and wanted us to buy him a house,” Siarhei recalls. “But if such a person applies and even forges documents, he can only get food for two weeks. Is it worth the effort?”
The project team now has a system for responding to unusual applications, although these are not common, he says.
Siarhei also faced burnout, but managed thanks to the support of fellow volunteers and through limiting the high demands he had placed on himself.
“In the beginning there were a lot of emotions when we saw all that savagery in the country. And I thought that instead of going to bed, I had better work. After all, for my 15 or 20 minutes a person will receive food the next day. So we worked day and night. It was very difficult. As the team got bigger, I managed to reduce my involvement in the project. I gave myself this rule: no matter how I feel, I have to close one application a day. And I agreed with the team that I would work less.”
Siarhei and one of the families he assisted became friendly, and they have plans to visit each other in safer times.
Waiting in Line to Help
Ksenia joined INeedHelpBy as a donor in August 2020, when the project was just getting started. A lawyer, she has been living outside Belarus for many years, and had no illusions that the widespread protests after the election would end without resistance from the authorities. “I left as a student, but even then I realized that the legal system in the country was not working,” she says.
“I saw Filip Gavrishev’s message on Facebook sometime in late August. There was no initiative yet and people were discussing how we could help the victims of the regime. The idea was simple – find families in need and order groceries to be delivered to their homes. As soon as administrators posted information about a family in need, within seconds 30+ people responded with offers to help,” she says. “I had to monitor the postings and fight for the right to help my first family.”
Since then, Ksenia has provided long-term support for four families and also helped to address the short-term needs of several others. She also managed to establish meaningful relationships with some of the people she helped.
“I did not make that a goal, but everything worked out very organically. We continue to stay in touch even outside the project and try to provide emotional support to each other. It is very important to show people in Belarus that they have not been forgotten. In the beginning I especially needed to feel that I could contribute to the cause, that I could do something for someone. After all, it was unbearable to wake up, read the terrible news, and do nothing. And when I started participating in the project, I felt a sense of belonging and it became easier for me.”
Ksenia also faced some fatigue when, as 2020 rolled into 2021, it became clear that the fight against the regime would be a marathon.
“By that time, the people we were helping had started to run out of breath. They began to express feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, frustration. And it was harder for us to accept the lack of clear positive results. Some donors came to help although they had very limited resources. They could only participate for a short period of time. Others were put off by the fact that some families, although it happened rarely, tried to game the system and obtain help when they didn’t really need it. Cases like that negatively affected morale.”
Ksenia says she managed to cope thanks to the support of the group, new Belarusian friends, even her 8-year-old daughter. The girl brought her mother some money she had saved from her allowance and asked Ksenia to buy something extra for one family to have along with their tea.
With the assistance of the project team, this author attempted to contact people who received help from the project, but no one wanted to talk, even anonymously. Some recipients remain in Belarus and are afraid of reprisals; others may have been ashamed to admit that they faced such a difficult situation and needed assistance.
The project’s website does include a few testimonials. One says, “Thank you very much for what you do!!! Thanks to you, our family received not only help during this difficult period for our country, but also made new friends!” And another: “Many thanks to your foundation for your help, to honest, sympathetic people who do not stand aside from other people’s difficulties. Good luck and prosperity!”
INeedHelpBy has also inspired others – the diaspora in the Netherlands started up a project with a similar model, helping refugees from Belarus with clothes and other items.
Gavrishev thinks the project will be needed for more than a year or two, and even after the end of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime.
“My goal in general is to convey to Belarusians how important it is to be united,” he says. “I believe that now is the time to unite to do good. In 2020, Belarusians were united by violence, arrests, and bloodshed. But such emotions cannot stay at peak level – people are devastated. I hope that basic support, a shared responsibility for each other, and simple good can unite Belarusians again.”