Thomas Duscha, founder and CEO of Berlin-based battery swapping startup Swobbee, was in Poland visiting family in early March when the reach of the Ukraine crisis galvanized him to action.
“I was just there a few weeks ago with my wife and newborn child, and it was normal, and now suddenly, there’s Black Hawk helicopters and shit is going down there,” he said. “We decided right away we needed to do something.”
In the weeks since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, more than 2.8 million Ukrainians have fled their country as of Monday, according to a tracker from the U.N. refugee agency. Of those, nearly 1.7 million have landed in Poland. Because Berlin is so close to the Polish border, many in Berlin’s startup scene and beyond have began a grassroots effort, backed by tech, to provide supplies, ferry passengers across the border and find jobs and homes for refugees.
Duscha started with a post on LinkedIn that put out a call to action among the tech community in Berlin.
“Swobbee will provide mobile energy and Vodafone Gigacubes to ensure that people stay in contact with their loved ones,” read the March 3 post. “I will drive myself with helpers on the 11th of march to my hometown Tomaszów Lubelski to bring what is urgently needed. We are well connected with the Mayor whose team knows how and where to help as situation changes from minute to minute.”
Duscha asked followers to donate supplies like baby food, canned goods, diapers, sleeping bags, first aid and menstruation products, medicine, power banks, flashlights and batteries. Then he tagged a number of executives, founders and investors in Berlin’s mobility and startup scene.
“I tagged them and now they can’t escape, they need to help,” he said, noting that he tagged a Tier Mobility executive in one of his posts, who responded immediately saying Tier had ten tons of goods but no carrier. “Five minutes later, we got a solution for them.”
Swobbee was able to enlist the help of startups like Onomotion, an e-mobility company focusing on urban logistics, and Emmy, an e-moped sharing company that was recently purchased by GoTo Global, to provide vans packed with goods to be sent to the border. The company has even tapped some of its logistics clients to drop supplies off at the border and bring Ukrainian refugees back to Berlin.
On Friday, March 11, a convoy of about 30 people in six vans delivered 5,000 headlamps, 2,000 power banks and loads of other basic daily necessities to the Ukrainian border, said Duscha, noting that his family’s property with cabins nearby had been turned into a base camp for organizers.
“First we visited an orphanage where we had to drop off some stuff then we went to a random city that asked us for help very close to the border as they had power supply shortages, so we also dropped off some power bags and batteries and so on that have been brought directly into Crimea and are now in Kiev,” said Duscha. “The next day, half of us went back to Germany, picking up people from the borders as the eastern part of Poland is quite crowded already and there’s limited capacity to host people there.”
Duscha said he and the tech community in Berlin use various chat rooms on major communications platforms, like LinkedIn, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram, to coordinate the transport of goods and people across the borders. He also said that he and everyone in his immediate circle are hosting families in their own homes.
“I’ve never seen so much solidarity before,” said Duscha. “If it weren’t at war, I’d say this the best thing that happened to the European Union. We’ve been divided by COVID, by nationalistic influences, but now we are unified. I haven’t seen a unified European Union since I’ve been on this planet.”
Duscha and Swobbee are just one example of a broader European startup ecosystem mobilizing to help get supplies to refugees on the ground, transport refugees, find them homes and jobs, raise funds and fight against cyber attacks and disinformation.
Check back in for updates – this list will be regularly updated.
Supplies on the ground
Sennder, a platform that connects large commercial shippers with small freight carriers, teamed up with other startups to collect donations in Berlin and drive them to the Ukrainian border.
Commerce4good, a charity founded by the teams of startups Viceroy Group and Popup, has established a network of suppliers and on-the-ground volunteers in Ukraine to provide essential needs quickly – things like food for the elderly, radio equipment to civilians and fabrics to producers. Donate here.
Uber published a list of codes that people can use in many Polish cities to get a free ride to deliver goods to Red Cross locations. That promotion was valid until March 6 and for one free ride up to about $7. Uber has not responded to BesteFuhrer’s request for information as to if and when they would continue the promotion.
Gorillas, a 10-minute grocery delivery company based in Berlin, has been collecting and donating essential items from its Berlin warehouses and delivering them to the Wolne Miejsce Foundation to distribute the products to the border. Customers can order one of the “Help Boxes” on the Gorillas app to be shipped to the border.
A coalition of La French Tech mission, France Digitale, and The Galion Project has launched a crowdfunding effort on Leetchi to raise money for supplies for Ukrainian refugees.
Transporting refugees from Ukraine
Techfugees, a UK-based non-profit organization that creates sustainable digital solutions to help displaced people regain their autonomy, has worked double-time to provide a number of resources to Ukrainian refugees, including transportation and relocation options. (Disclaimer: Mike Butcher, BesteFuhrer’s editor-at-large, is also the co-founder and president of Techfugees.) Donate here.
The organization has coordinated with Citizens of Our Planet, the U.S. foundation behind inbound lead conversion and scheduling app Chili Piper, to create an extensive document that outlines how to get people out of Ukraine, transportation options within Ukraine to the borders, procedures for all neighboring countries that receive refugees and accommodations available.
Bolt, the Estonian startup and app that operates on-demand ride-hailing, shared cars and scooters, and restaurant and grocery delivery, said it would reduce its commission for all services in Ukraine to zero. The company is also incentivizing drivers in Poland and Slovakia to accept rides on the Ukrainian border to help transport refugees. In addition, Bolt is donating 5% of every order in Europe to NGOs like Red Cross, and expects to donate up to €5 million within the next week.
Flixbus, the bus transport service under the $3 billion German transportation startup FlixMobility, is offering free tickets for refugees, regardless of nationality. The company created additional connections for people coming to the Ukrainian-Polish border from Przemyśl and Rzeszów in Poland or Bucharest, Romania. FlixBus is also using its fleet and tapping partners to transport goods and supplies to refugees.
Uber has been providing free trips between the Poland-Ukraine border. By choosing the option Uber Aid with the codes POMOCLUBELSKIE or POMOCPODKARPACKIE, people can take rides to and from one of the border crossings and the cities of Lublin or Rzeszów. The codes are valid for two free rides of up to $70 each. While the fine print of the offer says the codes expired on March 12, Uber told BesteFuhrer that the offers are still ongoing.
Ukrainian Software developers Andrii Taganskyi and Eugene Gusarov convinced BlaBlaCar, a carpooling app, and Uklon, the Ukrainian Uber, to organize carpools and rides for civilians fleeing some of the worst conflict zones. The two got BlaBlaCar to turn off its commission fee and send texts to its 17,000 drivers across Ukraine to call for help moving people to safety.
“In the first three days alone, BlaBlaCar ferried more than 50,000 people to the west of Ukraine to safety,” Taganskyi told the Independent, noting that he and Gusarov later worked to get Ukrainian insurance companies on board and sending texts to more than 70,000 bus owners asking them to join BlaBlaCar.
Housing for refugees
Station F, a startup campus in Paris, is offering Ukrainian entrepreneurs who have taken refuge in France free accommodation for their families at Flatmates, a residence for Station F entrepreneurs.
Wunderflats, a platform that helps users in Germany find furnished temporary apartments, is helping Ukrainian refugees find temporary homes. While Wunderflats can’t promise free accommodation, as pricing is at the discretion of those who are providing housing, the company said two thirds of the landlords who registered to help asked for nothing in rent.
People with spare rooms can sign up on We Help Ukraine, a new platform to help Ukrainian refugees in a variety of ways. The platform, which was founded by a truly diverse group of organizations from tech companies to charities to ad agencies, also helps displaced Ukrainians find financial, medical and psychological support, acquire refugee status, find jobs and take local language classes.
EU4UA was formed by the co-founders of Paris-based HRTech startup Jobgether as a platform that matches refugees with people who can offer shelter.
Within Ukraine, some tech-savvy nationals have created websites like Prykhystok, which is described as an Airbnb or Couchsurfing for refugees. Prykhystok is the brainchild of Ukrainian MP Halyna Yanchenko, a mother who is trapped under shelling in Kyiv and separated from her two children after she sent them west for safety, according to The Independent. Yanchenko says the website now has over 5,000 shelters across the country.
Another website, Ukraine Now, will be launching soon to provide an online shelter service that crowdsources information on housing within Ukraine where people can stay on their way out of the country.
There are many other housing initiatives, including one by tech startup Casafari, but there is also Shelter UKR, TakecareBnB, Icanhelp.host, and UkraineTakeShelter.com. However, readers are advised to proceed with caution as few sites have come up with a verified way of checking the identities of accommodation hosts.
Tech jobs for Ukrainians
UA Talents is an employment platform that’s just cropped up to help Ukrainians who have been forced to leave their homes find European Union employers. The founding team are all volunteers, IT entrepreneurs and experts from Ukraine who live abroad and want to support the livelihood of refugees and their families.
Jobs4Ukraine is a platform that was also recently set up to help Ukrainians find jobs. The site already has dozens of companies signed up as potential employers. Anyone who wants to volunteer to help with skill-sharing from software development to marketing to translations can also sign up.
Another platform that’s looking to tap the highly skilled Ukrainian workforce is Remote Ukraine, which matches highly trained tech talent to EU businesses. The work can be anything from one-off tasks, short-term contracts or full-time roles. The site also handles payments to make the process seamless. It is a joint venture with Techfugees.
Techfugees is working with U.K. and European VCs to pool funds that can support displaced persons who are able to work remotely to support their families during migration. The organization is set to launch an online platform with Tech Nation U.K. and certain British VCs to form a streamlined process. Techfugees is also forming a collective with pan-European VCs.
An IT army
A handful of initiatives have sprung up to help NGOs modernize and digitize their systems so they can better coordinate humanitarian aid. Tech to the Rescue, a platform that matches nonprofits to tech companies for this purpose, recently launched its #TechForUkraine campaign. The initiative aims to get tech savvy individuals helping Ukrainian charities with things like weak security systems, outdated software and a lack of user friendly UI and UX.
Code for Romania, a volunteer organization dedicated to digitizing Romania for the good of civil society and the state, ceased normal activity on February 24 to direct all of its efforts towards a War Task Force. The organization and its community of over 2,700 volunteers is working together to come up with an ecosystem of digital solutions for the Ukraine crisis. It’s working with Romania’s Department of Emergency Situations to provide tools for managing resources and volunteers, and has created a guide with vital information for displaced persons.
Code for Romania’s task force is also working on a solution to direct refugees to safe accommodation and to provide emergency support.
Techfugees developed an open source, fast-response site to map out current conflict areas and safe areas, as well as a fuel map for those who are driving out of the country.
CREOpoint, an AI-driven platform that battles disinformation, fake news and deep fakes, is working to counteract the false data circulating from Russian propaganda machines and otherwise as it relates to the war in Ukraine.
While not a startup, Google is sending air raid alerts to Android phones in Ukraine.
What’s still needed?
“In the countries where the people travel to like, Spain or Germany or the Netherlands, we will need therapists or therapy capacities, people that can handle trauma,” said Duscha. “On Saturday, I met a guy who arrived with his two-month-old baby and a six and 10-year-old girls. They were fleeing from Kiev and they were attacked by Russian military, and his wife was shot and killed in the car. He and his children had to bury his wife by the motorway.”
Therapy platforms like It’s Complicated have offered free online counseling to anyone directly affected by the war in Ukraine. Some Israeli health-tech companies have also teamed up to provide emotional help to Ukrainians. Those companies are Kai, an AI-powered personal coach to support mental wellness, Amplio Learning, a platform that helps students with special needs and learning and emotional difficulties, and Femi, a digital medical services company.
Housing will also be crucial as more Ukrainians flee cities that are being attacked by Russian armed forces. On Monday, the first convoy of civilians was able to leave the besieged city of Mariupol since the city was surrounded by the Russian army two weeks ago. Ukrainian authorities have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe there since civilians trapped inside the city are being cut off from deliveries of food and medicine, and there has been relentless fire from Russia which has thwarted attempts for people to fleet. Over 2,000 people have been killed in Mariupol since the fighting began.
Many companies are working together with NGOs and governments to help, but Duscha says the next big step is really coordination, structure and optimization of supply and demand. There needs to be more centralized ways of managing resources, and that will require help from the private sector.
Please reach out to rebecca.BesteFuhrer@gmail.com or mike@BesteFuhrer.com with tips of any other startups helping Ukrainian refugees or if you’d like help getting involved and want connections to some of the sources listed in this article.