FCSI Associate Andrey Teleguz tells Tina Nielsen about his fundraising work to help those struggling in his home country Ukraine and how the FCSI community can help
I was born in Ukraine, at the time when it was a part of the former Soviet Union. It took our parents 17 years to get out from the behind the Iron Curtain and in all that time they knew that the Soviet Union was not a place where they would be able to raise a family and provide a future for us. So, they campaigned and provided the West documentation to prove there was severe persecution happening, freedom of speech did not exist and there was a significant crack down on religious freedom.
For 17 years, my family and others in this underground organisation were the enemy of the state. We were mocked, persecuted, we could not get any higher education or a good career or job. That was the situation for anybody who was not joining the communist party or supporting the Soviet regime.
Memories in black and white
None of us know how we survived the KGB and did not end up on a train to Siberian concentration camps. But in 1989, we left because of the Geneva Convention that forced the Soviet Union to let the Jewish people go. Although we are not Jewish, we received Israeli visas, and we left on the train heading to freedom; we first lived in Vienna for a few months before spending six months in Rome where we started applying to different countries, and US gave us refugee status and we came here to Pennsylvania.
I was nine years old at that time; the memory was always this black and white, grey kind of memory. It’s like you have something there but so dulled down and depressing, eventually fading into a bad dream that you want to forget. Today, that dream started to wake itself and turn into a bloody new reality.
Fundraising to help
Even though we left and pulled out most of our family, we still have a lot of family back home. So, when the Russian invasion started, we received a lot of phone calls and messages – people sending pictures and asking for help. For a couple days we also were in shock and could not process what was happening. But then I got approached by one of my business partners who works with a Polish stone manufacturer here in Pennsylvania and he told us he had family back in Poland and offered to help, asking if there is anything that they could do or if we had anyone in Ukraine that needed help.
He knew some business partners in Poland that have summer camps, so we decided to book one of the camps where we can house around 300 refugees right away. We used our personal finances, and we just booked the full camp. Then that same night, working overnight, we opened a fundraising campaign, partnering with our Slavic church here in Pennsylvania.
Next, we started letting our contacts in Ukraine know that we could take refugees in Poland. And as of last Friday, we now have four volunteers that flew in from the US, representing us there and they’re helping to organize and be the feet on the ground.
Making a difference
The summer camp is intended as a temporary stopping point. We’re getting them in, giving them a place to rest, get a hot bath, food and from there, we’re trying to connect them with the local community programs, government programs, churches, or they move on to Germany, or other countries where they maybe have acquaintances.
My family is from the southwestern part of Ukraine, which borders with Romania and so far, no bombings have reached our area, making it a safe haven. We noticed a huge influx of refugees into that region, so our town is just overwhelmed – almost every household is hosting a refugee family. And then there’s a three or four day wait to get across the Romanian borders for those that are fleeing the country. Our volunteers set up tents at the border crossing and we’re feeding people, giving them sleeping bags, we have fire pits set up so people can just stay warm in the winter temperatures.
Our volunteers at the Romanian border are pretty much all my family and acquaintances from my hometown, so it was easy to use our already set-up channels of communications and funding transfers.
The other day I said to my mom, “maybe, maybe this is why you moved us here”. I feel this is our calling to help and we are in a position today to make a difference. We can’t look the other way; we can’t ignore what is happening. We can’t save everybody., but we are touching a lot of lives and we’re providing refuge to a lot of those people. We can be an answer to someone’s prayer and will do what ever we can not to turn anyone away.
We grew up in that oppression and we fled it many years ago, we are refugees ourselves. So, we understand what our fellow Ukrainian’s are going through today. And it’s very painful to realise that the old Soviet regime is attempting to return to power and that it’s happening today.
The Russian people don’t want this either. Here is the reality: I have family on both sides. My wife is Russian. My kids would go to Russia every summer and visit their grandparents. And it’s devastating for them as well. All these sanctions are impacting regular people in Russia. My sister-in-law was asking us – “how do I tell my kids they can no longer drink Coca-Cola, it’s not available anymore”. Cost of living just skyrocketed for everyone. Nobody’s winning.
We are not getting ourselves involved in the politics of the war, we’re strictly supporting and helping refugees. Right now, this has become bigger than us. Our initial approach was to raise some money and help refugees at least our close relatives and friends. Our goal was to raise around $150,000 and we thought that would be enough. But what was happening as our family members and friends where evacuating with our support, they would have simple conversations with other refugees that would beg to tag along. How could we tell them from here to push them away? Soon we realised we needed to expand our fund and that this was bigger than just us. So, we continued to advocate for support and now we raised more than $280.000.
The need is still there. And unfortunately, it’s probably going to be there for a while, we will be there for the rebuilding process, and we will be here for any refugees once the US starts accepting them.
Andrey Teleguz is Principal Owner with SCOPOS Hospitality Group and is the Fund Administrator for the Ukraine War Refugee Aid Fund created in partnership with Bethany Slavic Church.
To support the efforts in helping those fleeing the war in Ukraine, please visit https://bethanyslavic.org/pages/ukraine-aid-fund for more information