The first few days after the Russians attacked Ukraine, Mike Ilani just shut down. Through numerous friends and family, the Ukrainian native heard about roads he used to travel back and forth were now spotted with Russian land mines, his friend’s recently opened flower shop destroyed by bombs, the father of his cousin’s best friend killed in the violence.
“When you see the building that you passed through for 20 years destroyed, and you are so far away, it’s a horrible feeling. People are getting killed. People are losing their homes. They are real people,” Ilani tells Poets&Quants. “Understanding that it’s somebody’s home, that it is somebody’s life–and not just somebody’s, it’s what six or eight million people who have been misplaced? It was paralyzing.”
Like so many around the country, Mike and his husband, Jon Ilani, were nearly frozen in those early days by the shock of what they were seeing. Both are full-time students–Mike is studying to be an esthetician while Jon is a first-year MBA candidate at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. They didn’t understand how they were supposed to go to class and to meetings when Mike’s country was being attacked.
So the couple, who live in Baltimore, Md., got to work. Through their evolving aid efforts, which they call Ukrainian Alliance, they are connecting the everyday Ukrainian people suffering through the war with the people in this country and elsewhere who are desperate to help. Their mission is to help at the individual level–teachers, students, shop owners, grandparents—people with an immediate, specific need that other and bigger aid organizations may be missing. Like the mother of seven who needed money right away to buy food for her children. Or the village volunteer who needed a bullet proof vest to protect himself while on patrol or delivering food to the bomb shelters. Or the woman who needed thyroid medication after it disappeared from store shelves.
While their efforts began with their own friends and Mike’s family still in Ukraine, they have since expanded to others who are reaching out with specific needs, either through Instagram, word-of-mouth, or through the website they established. The couple has raised $30,000 so far, and have helped coordinate hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of humanitarian aid through a network of volunteers helping them from Poland as well as Lviv, Kiev and Brovary in Ukraine. They also connect Ukrainian people directly with donors.
“I think it gives us a feeling of stability on the surface, like we are in some sort of control–which we’re not. But we’re able to help at least some of those who are screaming for help,” Mike says.
In the first weeks after the invasion, Poets&Quants reported on countless reactions from business schools. For example, Stanford MBAs collected millions’ worth of medical supplies, Canada’s Ivey Business School announced plans to bring 10 Ukrainian MBA students to join its current cohort, and Ukrainian MBAs studying abroad urged the world to galvanize around their home country. Now that the war has been going on for more than 50 days, other news is starting to crowd out the headlines.
“I think our biggest message to people now is that it’s not over. We know you’re tired, but so are the people in Ukraine. So are the volunteers, so are the soldiers, so are the mothers, but it’s not over yet. They still need your help. They still need your rallies, and your attention,” Jon tells P&Q. “We also want people to know that every little bit helps. People hear in the news that $50 million was sent to Ukraine and they think, ‘Well, what can I do?’ But, when I get a whole day of donations of $5, it adds up.”
Late last week, Poets&Quants was able to sit down with Mike and Jon to talk about the Ukrainian Alliance and their efforts to help everyday people still reeling from the war. Since we spoke, Russia has intensified its attacks in eastern Ukraine and launched missiles at the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Reports of civilian casualties continue to rise.
Our conversation, presented below, has been edited for length and clarity.
Mike, tell us about growing up in Ukraine. Do you still have family there?
Mike: I grew up in the suburbs of Kyiv, the capital, about 20 minutes away. My grandparents live in the capital so it was always a very easy commute. I grew up in a family with one sibling, my younger brother, and my parents who unfortunately are not with us anymore.
How are your brother and grandparents now? Your friends? What kind of contact have you had?
Mike: Thank God for the connection and the service that they still have. That’s really a blessing because every hour I am in touch with my grandparents, my brother, cousins, uncles, aunts. I’m constantly on the phone with someone.
Jon: But some of them lost connection for a while.
Mike: Some of them, yes, indeed disappeared, but we were just hoping that they were okay because they were in the cities that are destroyed right now–like surrounding Kyiv from the Belarusian side. So we were just praying that they were OK. That was like the first, second week of war.
Jon: It was really scary. It’s like his best friend that he talks to every single day. Always. Like, on FaceTime all day, and then all of a sudden, there was no service, and he had no way of knowing how she was doing. It was very scary.
Next page: Connecting with grandparents in a war zone + Starting Ukrainian Alliance