Canadian-Ukrainian companies pivot to deliver aid to war-torn country
Canadians responded with a range of aid to Ukraine as more than three million people have fled the country during the Russian invasion which is now in its fourth week.
There is the community fundraisingfundraisers like perogies for peace, non-profit organizations meet immediate needs in Ukrainepeople who buy equipment for the Ukrainian army and even Canadians enlist to fight on the front line.
Also eager to help, several Canadian-Ukrainian companies have reoriented their operations to finance or provide humanitarian aid. Three companies with ties to Toronto and central Ukraine told CBC News they were setting aside profits to do so.
“We are trying to do literally everything we can to help get aid to Ukraine,” said Iryna Kisil, director of experience at Meest Group, a shipping company based in Toronto and Lviv, where bombings have recently intensified.
In the early days of the war, which began on February 24, Meest switched from transporting international parcels for profit to delivering humanitarian aid at cost.
There is an urgent need for help from all sectors.
According to the International Red Cross, conditions in Ukraine have become “nothing less than a nightmare.”
From shipping company to crisis courier
So far, Meest has airlifted 50,000 kilograms of clothing, food, medical supplies and military equipment from Canada, and 280,000 kilograms of aid from the United States to Ukraine.
In addition, 30 containers are on their way by sea.
Founded in 1989 in Toronto by Kisil’s father, Rostyslav, the company was created to connect the Ukrainian diaspora in North America with the homeland.
Its name comes from the Ukrainian word meaning bridge.
Meest grew to serve more than 40 countries, but 75% of its business was still delivering parcels and online shopping to Ukrainian customers.
After the attack, he changed gears to become the country’s crisis courier.
“It is our responsibility to help Ukraine,” Rostyslav Kisil told CBC News through a translator in a video call from Lviv.
The new business plan is all about breaking even and keeping the doors open.
Some employees are missing, others work for free
The warehouse at Meest’s Ukrainian headquarters is full of supplies after they arrived in Poland.
Up to 350 drivers are on the road daily, providing assistance wherever it is safe to deliver.
Before the war, Meest had 2,500 employees in Ukraine. It was unable to locate 420 of its workers in Russian-occupied areas, such as the ravaged city of Mariupol.
The company is moving its staff to safe areas and out of the country.
Many of those who remain work for free.
With company revenue down, employees closest to the front lines get paid first.
Regarding the future of the company, Rostyslav Kisil said: “Two months, for sure, we will be able to survive.”
Iryna Kisil hopes to convince one of them to ship aid to the border countries, and then Meest would transport it to Ukraine.
“It would be such an amazing story in partnership, where the big guy helps the little guy make a difference.”
Meest is also trying to reach out to major retailers like Canadian Tire, Costco, Loblaws and Walmart to donate supplies and shipping costs.
The hotel becomes a refuge for refugees
Another connection from Toronto to Lviv is at the Hotel Wien.
The boutique hotel and cafe in the heart of the city have been part of the Mandyuk family for three decades.
His daughter Olha Mandyluk lives in Toronto, but worked at the hotel until she finished university.
“We can’t even imagine our life without her.”
She said the hotel has pivoted to house people fleeing eastern Ukraine in its 23 rooms. Some even sleep in the hallways and are also found in the family home.
Mandyluk said his father, Oleh Mandyluk, reduced room rates by more than 50%, charging only what was needed to cover utilities and pay staff.
The restaurant has moved to a simple balanced menu of comfort foods.
The family does not talk about how long the business can last this way.
Mandyluk’s father is 63, has a Canadian passport and could leave, but believes it is his duty to stay and help.
“He said he would stay until the end no matter what,” she said.
Saving Ukraine is a complete family effort.
Mandyluk’s work in Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce focuses on helping businesses in Ukraine to survive and collect job opportunities in Canada for people from the country.
One of his brothers lives in Poland, where he helps refugees. The other joined the Ukrainian army this month.
Mandyuk’s mother, Ivanna, would be working at the hotel if she hadn’t come to Canada in February to help her granddaughter Melaniya recover from cancer surgery.
Thanks to her daughter’s translation, Ivanna said that war is scary. She knows it’s not safe to come back, and along with the worry comes anger.
“I always try to live by Christian values and commandments, but at this point I would take a gun and shoot.”
The vodka brand dedicates all of its profits to aid
Zirkova vodka is owned by Katherine and John Velinga of Oakville and is sold in Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores. It is made under contract by a historic distillery in Zolotonosha, a town 2.5 hours southeast of kyiv.
When the invasion began, Zirkova announced 100% of the profits would go to humanitarian aid for Ukrainethrough the Canada-Ukraine Foundation.
“I’m not worried about myself right now, I’m worried about Ukraine,” said Katherine, whose displaced Ukrainian parents immigrated to Canada in the 1950s.
She turned to activism full-time, helping families linked to the distillery to safety and promoting Ukrainian aid organizations like Help Ukrainewho she says are quickly getting donations for the country.
The area was hit by shelling. Men have left to fight and the distillery makes disinfectants for hospitals.
She said “there is no plan B” for her business.
It cannot be moved as the brand is all about the country. The spirits, the bottle, the label – every part of Zirkova comes from Ukraine. She worries about the depletion of stocks and the bombing of the distillery.
But the country comes before the company.
“I can’t go to defeat,” Katherine said, “because the Ukrainians aren’t going. The Ukrainians are doing everything they can.”
A ‘double burden’ for companies trying to help
Before the war, Meest was growing rapidly.
Now Iryna Kisil wonders if Meest might have to become a sub-contractor for non-governmental organizations providing aid to survive, as current costs are unsustainable.
She said it is a “double burden” for businesses that have lost income due to war to keep operating and paying their staff, while providing or funding humanitarian aid.
As crucial financial donations pour in for charity, she worries “Ukrainian businesses are getting lost”.
Businesses will be key to providing needs, jobs and tax revenues to help Ukraine recover, say Kisil and Katherine Vellinga.
“It’s long term. It’s ongoing, and we need partners to help us,” Kisil said.