WASHINGTON — When Russian troops occupied Kherson in southern Ukraine, the occupying authorities offered 16-year-old Anastasia a vacation to Crimea, officials told her mother. A holiday away from war.
But as the days passed, Anastasia realized that she wasn’t getting the vacation and that the Russians probably wouldn’t let her go home.
Anastasia’s mother was only able to escape when a nonprofit called Save Ukraine sent her mother by bus to find her. They are now living in a shelter run by the group in the capital Kiev.
Anastasia said she was happy to be alive and with her family, as were the other children.
“Some people regret that they have to leave their homes,” she said, on condition that her last name not be used. “But we’re also happy because we understand that life is more than a house that can be destroyed. Now we have the opportunity to move on and move forward again.”
In the 14 months since the Russian invasion, USAID has provided $18 billion in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including about $15.5 billion in direct support to the government to bolster its healthcare and education systems and repair its power grid, the Russian military Target it multiple times.
In addition to this aid, U.S. aid agencies have also provided grants to Ukrainian nonprofits serving war-torn populations. Save Ukraine, which was formed after Russian troops attacked the country in 2014, is one of them.
From the outset, its goal has been to relocate Ukrainians living in occupied areas or near intense fighting to shelters or new homes.
Last May, with funding from aid agencies, Save Ukraine set up a hotline to provide medical and mental health care to people affected by the invasion. The money also helps the group deal with evacuation requests and provide counseling and legal assistance.
After receiving a second grant, Save Ukraine opened a daycare center in Kherson for children traumatized by the occupation.
In total, USAID provided $290,000 to save Ukraine, a fraction of the overall US aid. But U.S. officials say the Ukrainians have shown they can do a lot with the resources they have acquired.
“One of the most encouraging responses we’ve seen from Ukrainians is their ability to do things on a shoestring,” said Isobel Coleman, the agency’s deputy administrator. “In the context of the billions of dollars we’re giving to the government, we’re giving very little money. But this is a small organization that can do things very effectively with a little money.”
American private donors and corporations have also contributed about $7 million to saving Ukraine. All Hands and Hearts, a US non-profit organization that has funded the construction of 100 shelters as well as armored buses, cars and ambulances, has used the funds to move 74,000 Ukrainians away from the front lines.
As the war enters its second year, Save Ukraine has expanded its mission. When it became apparent that Russia was deporting children from occupied Ukraine, the group began organizing a rescue.
U.S. funding does not go directly to these efforts, but the U.S. government supports them.
“There is nothing more desperate than a parent who is separated from their child; they will do everything they can to get that child back,” Ms Coleman said. “In the fog of war, with few agencies able to help these parents, saving Ukraine has been a lifeline, being able to find children and find a way to get them back to their parents.”
The Ukrainian government estimates that at least 16,000 children were taken. Save Ukraine has rescued nearly 100 people.
In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, saying he was criminally responsible for the kidnapping.
The impact of saving Ukraine may be small in terms of numbers, but its rescue gives hope to parents like Veronika Tsymbolar, whose 8-year-old daughter Marharyta Matiunina was taken from her.
When the Russian army took over Ukraine last year, Marharyta lived with her father, Ms Tsymbolar’s ex-husband, in a small town near the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine.
The Russians blocked communications, leaving Ms Tsymbolar in touch with her daughter for months. Ms Tsymbolar finally found her ex-husband in the fall, when the Ukrainians started driving the Russians back to the river.
She said he initially made excuses to keep Marharyta from answering the phone. Ms Tsymbolar then called her former neighbor with a horrific story: her daughter had gone missing.
“The only thing I can tell you is that I hate Russia and all of them with all my heart,” she said.
When Russian troops began to retreat, a neighbor who sympathized with Moscow fled with Maharita.
In an interview, Ms Tsymbolar’s ex-husband, Oleksii Mitiunin, said he began searching for his daughter hours after she disappeared. He learned that the Russian army would not let Marharyta through the checkpoint, so the woman with the child left her there.
Mr Mitiunin said he had tried to retrieve Marharyta but “the Russians attacked me and told me to go away”.
Unable to find her daughter on her own, Ms Tsymbolar contacted Save Ukraine. The team located the child in the Crimean resort town of Feodosiya.
In February, Ms Tsymbolar boarded a bus with other mothers looking for their children. Once in Crimea, Russian officials refused to release Marharyta, but they backed down when Ms Tsymbolar insisted.
Ms Tsymbolar believes her daughter’s abduction is part of a larger Russian campaign to brainwash children and erase Ukrainian identities. But she said she felt very lucky that, against all odds, they were reunited.
“Marharyta is fine,” Ms Tsymbolar said. “She’s home.”
Asya Shtefan contributed reporting from Kiev.