WICKER PARK — Jackie Birov has spent weeks agonizing over the Russian invasion of Ukraine and trying to help people from Chicago.
The Wicker Park resident and first generation Ukrainian American brought her aunt and uncle to the city in March after evacuating them from the war zone. Since then, she estimates she’s helped 20 other people escape and raised $13,000 for supplies to ship to Ukraine.
Now, Birov is heading to Ukraine for the first time since she was a child to volunteer. Working with Florida-based nonprofit Project Dynamo, Birov said she will primarily be in western Ukraine working as a translator, connecting with other NGOs and helping people who have filled out evacuation forms.
She is leaving for Ukraine Saturday, and bringing 100 bags packed with full body armor for 200 people.
“What pushed me is I feel a moral duty,” Birov said. “It sounds lame. I had stalled in the hopes that someone else would go instead of me or that the war would end … I finally said yes.”
Birov partnered with Project Dynamo in her work helping Ukrainians leave the country. The organization was founded last fall by veterans who wanted to evacuate refugees from Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban takeover. The group has performed daring missions in Ukraine, including rescuing premature twins from Kyiv. After speaking with Birov, Project Dynamo founder Bryan Stern urged her to volunteer on the ground, she said.
Birov said she’s planning to stay in Ukraine for at least one month. When she’s not coordinating evacuees in Russian over Signal, she’ll spruce up her language skills by reading one of her old Russian books from high school or streaming the Ukrainian series, “Servant of the People,” a 2015 political satire starring a popular actor: now-president Volodymyr Zelensky.
In the meantime, she’s hustling to pack and pay her way to eastern Europe.
The airline she’s taking accepts unlimited checked bags at $107 each, so Birov is fundraising over Instagram and Venmo to make her goal of $10,700 to get the bags of body armor to Ukraine. She’s still waiting on her own armor, which Stern’s family had promised to ship her overnight, but she’s far from packed even with her trip just two days away.
“I’m a big procrastinator and this is no exception,” she said as she scrambled to her mom’s house to grab extra sweaters and jeans.
She’s planning on doing most of her work from Chernivtsi, a city in western Ukraine not far from the Romanian border. But she said she’ll assess the situation while she’s there and may go to Kyiv if she’s needed.
Returning to Ukraine and Kyiv in particular would mark a “strange and sad” moment for Birov. The pandemic canceled a previous trip she had planned. Before the invasion, she also was planning a trip this summer.
If she does make it to the capital, Birov said she’d like to visit the cemetery where some of her relatives are buried.
“I’d still like to see where they grew up,” Birov said. “If it’s possible to go to those places, I’d still like to do that, but it’s definitely bittersweet to be doing it now. But there’s this feeling of, ‘Who knows what’s going to happen?’ And this might be the only chance to do that.”
The aunt and uncle Birov brought over from Ukraine weeks ago initially warned her not to go, but they have since supported her trip. Her mother told her how proud she was, something Birov said was an unusual show of emotion from her stoic eastern European family.
“We’re not the type that does that. They’re not overly effusive, warm people,” Birov said. “I think this is common to a lot of immigrant families. They’re not big huggers … they don’t say ‘I love you’ all the time. It’s definitely different to hear that.”
But Birov admits she has not given all the details of her trip to her 75-year-old father, who worries about her safety.
“My mom and sister and uncle, they know,” Birov said. “[My father] has begged me not to go into Ukraine, and he keeps being like, ‘You’re just going to be in Romania? You’re just going to be in Poland, right?’ And I just say, ‘Yeah, don’t worry.’”
Despite her determination, Birov said she still feels uneasy. After weeks of sleepless nights trying to evacuate her family and others, she had found some solace in a more settled routine.
“It’s selfish but I do feel sad,” she said. “I feel like I’m giving up my life. I don’t anticipate having time to be active … anything that I enjoy doing now I’m fully expecting is just gone.
“It also feels worthwhile,” Birov said. “In a lifetime, what is a couple of months of someone’s life?”
Birov is also collecting donations for her trip via Venmo: @Jackie-Birov
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