Sunflower Update: Lviv Run

It has been an eventful week. Writing now from Warsaw, just got back here from Ukraine a couple days ago, and we are preparing to return to Ukraine next week. This coming run we will likely travel much deeper into the country, and it will hopefully be our first two vehicle aid convoy, transporting up to six pallets.

Myself and Oro picked up a load last week in Lublin, Poland from the wonderful people at HelpUkraine.Center. The pallets almost did not fit in the van (see photos), and the size and weight of them did a number on the back doors of the van. We ran into serious engine trouble later that day in southeastern Poland, and then had miracle occur that enabled us to continue. (This story is a standalone post that I am almost finished writing, I promise.) We finally made in to a warehouse on the outskirts of Lviv, where, to unload, I had to back that huge van way, way up onto two skinny tire ramps that were sandwiched between the dock and a tall concrete wall. This is a thousand times scarier than it sounds like.

The following day Oro traveled to Kyiv for photo work, and that evening I was reunited with Kevin at the Hotel Dolynskiy, returning from Kyiv. On Monday Kevin and I visited a shangri-la like place. A huge, well organized warehouse full of aid supplies in need of drivers and vehicles to get it around Ukraine. We were introduced to this wonderful resource by Glynn Hunt, an amazing activist who has been working in Ukraine since the start of the war providing relief aid. Glynn will actually be riding with us late next week as we carry our first load from there across Ukraine. We owe him a big debt of thanks for this, and for all of the other resources and connections he has provided.

After many months of drafts and halfway attempts, we have cleared several days out to mostly work on our website and to write. Big thanks to Bob Meador and the team at Metric Media for their hard work and their patience with our sporadic nature. The van is in the shop for now (Ukrainian roads can be brutal), but should be up and ready by mid-next week. We are working on some fun fundraising ideas, which we are going to run by y’all soon.

This following is quite the tangent, but hang with me on it.

Wartime in European countries is weird as fuck. Of course I’ve read about it, and seen the movies, but as an American most of the first hand accounts of war that I’ve heard have been about Vietnam, or the dirty wars in Central America, or about Iraq and Afghanistan. In European war the battlefront areas of savagery, destruction, despair and deprivation are incredibly contrasted by nearby places of normality, civility, modern amenities, high culture, and even picturesque beauty. This is even more true in Ukraine lately than it was in the first few months of the war. The Ukrainians are very much embracing the return to normality as a cultural campaign of resistance against the Russian invasion.

When Oro and I finally arrived at the Hotel Dolynskiy in Lviv, tired and dusty after days of driving, car trouble, and unloading supplies at a warehouse outside of town, we did not have time to nap or relax, only for a quick shower. Because we had to get dressed for the Opera.

Lviv, like Odesa, has one of the world’s most renowned 19th century opera houses, and Oro had gotten a gig there photographing a new experimental production. We were given an informative tour of the building by a lovely staff member, and settled in to watch it and to work, respectively. The Opera House was stunning, and the skill of the singers and pit orchestra was exceptional. 

Lviv on that particular Friday summer evening is perhaps the most beautiful and romantic place I have ever been. The people of Ukraine were glowing and radiant and heart-breakingly beautiful. Almost everyone was smiling and laughing. This will not mean much to people used to Americans going out for the evening, but anyone who has ever been to Ukraine will know how remarkable that is. Even when enjoying themselves, Ukrainians are usually very tight-lipped and reserved in public. 

Reminders of the war were everywhere, from the memorials, the arcade games of shooting pellet guns at Putin’s face, the patriotic songs of the street musicians, the soldiers in uniform enjoying the night before shipping out, and of course the tension of the approaching curfew (11:00pm) at which point the streets will be empty by order of martial law. And the ever-present tension of the likely upcoming, almost daily, air raid sirens.

Despite this, the people were promenading in the square in front of the Opera House, and all through the historic old town, with a carefree joyous spirit. Yes, much of this was probably because it was a perfect summer weekend night. But there was more to it than that. I’ve been in Ukraine for many great summer nights. They didn’t feel like this. The people had that real look of hope through hardship, and a confidence bordering on swagger. If you’re ever playing poker and you see someone with that look in their eyes, you just fold fucking immediately, because there is no question that they are holding really good cards. Unlike many western pundits and Putin supporters, Ukrainians do not think their defeat is inevitable. Quite the reverse. They’re pushing all in, and they really like their chances.

Ukrainians have had to face the threat they have feared for decades, an invasion by Russia, and they are still standing. Not just standing, but rising, united, toward a victory. A victory that finalizes the creation of a free and independent Ukrainian nation, separate from the domination of the Russian Empire (in all its forms). 

When I was talking with Olga, a charismatic leader of HelpUkraine.Center in Lublin, about whether or how Ukraine would win this war, she snapped me off. “Ukraine has already won this war. The only thing left to determine is how many lives will be lost, and how much suffering there will be. But the end result is certain.” Judging from the light I see in the eyes of people across Ukraine, even in the midst of much suffering and bad news, she is not alone in that belief.

(Final Note: The photo at the end is at a place making homemade MRE’s for Ukrainians at the front lines or in places with food shortages. Basically portable “add hot liquid” versions of borscht. They were not willing to work with us to deliver the food, because some of the places they send it are classified. They did look at us and say that they could use some real man arms as volunteers to cut up the root vegetables, if we were so inclined. Certainly they were getting the job done, but the lead lady there was looking at our forearms with a look that said, yeah, I could put those arms to some real work. Kevin and I had to return to Poland. But to his immortal credit, Glynn Hunt returned in the following days to cut vegetables and prepare the borscht. There are reasons why we respect Glynn so much.)

Sunflower Update: Kyiv Run

Had a successful run into Ukraine last week with Oro (see photos). Delivered two pallets of aid and a box to the Kyiv area, spent a few days in Ukraine. We go to Ukraine again tomorrow morning, but this next run is likely to be shorter, perhaps just to Lviv.

The new van (Shylah) was a champ. Ate up the highway, and made the drive from Kyiv back to Warsaw (1000K with diversions) on one tank. The van didn’t cost as much as you would think (about $8000, plus another $1500 for upgrades, equipment, mechanics, and legal fees). We raised almost all the money from a couple of wonderful donors, and I want to say thank you to them again! We are putting that money to work, living very dirt cheap on the road, and keeping that diesel engine turning over for days. I am glad we spent a bit more than we were intending, and got the next level up of used vehicle. All the ones we looked at that cost much below our van were super clapped out.

While in Kyiv I bought a bunch of stuff for a future fund raiser or auction (photo post of the stuff coming), including some very nice hand painted wooden eggs, military patches and Ukrainian patches, some Putin Face toilet paper with some choice comments, and some surprisingly cool fridge magnets. Let me know if there’s anything from Ukraine you think would be good to pick up for fund raising sales.

The Hotel Dolynskyy in Lviv and The Hotel Ukraine in Kyiv are worth their own posts, which hopefully I will write and get up. This is true for many things, like the collection of destroyed Russian equipment in front of St. Michaels in Kyiv, or the wall of international martyrs in Maiden Square. This is most especially true of our short trip to Bucha, just outside Kyiv, and the site of one of the worst Russian massacres of the war so far. That is a topic that can’t be handled in a light update post, and requires a more serious moment.

On last weeks run got through the border into Ukraine pretty easily, but that was really not the case going out. Got to the first border crossing around 7:30pm, but had to drive an hour to another one. Finally got into Poland after 4am. And they tried to turn us back. Apparently, the spare fuel in the cans we were carrying, which are necessary in much of Ukraine (and which we’ve crossed back and forth with a half-dozen times) were now prohibited by some EU regulation, and then we weren’t allowed to just empty them into the tank, and then the person who could accept the payment of our hundreds of dollars of fines wouldn’t arrive for hours. There was a lot of pleading and explaining done in a couple languages, and a bit of us just flat refusing to go back, and then finally some sympathy from the border guards, and eventually we were allowed back into Poland without paying any fines.

Kevin is up to lots of exciting stuff that are also worthy of their own update soon, and that will play out in the near future. I’ll hint at some of it. There is a warehouse of aid in Lviv that needs drivers to get it into south Ukraine, there are tourniquets being bought in the USA and shipped to Ukraine. He has also arranged and given some deeply moving donations to support the animals trapped in a zoo near the front lines in Mykolaiv. He has been traveling for a bit, but we are likely meeting up this weekend in Ukraine. 

As a last update, we were fronted three sets of protective vests and helmets yesterday. We are intending to pay for them (if we ever have any money), but the people who had them decided our safety was more important than getting paid up front, and they just want the best for us. A profound thank you to them! We are not planning on going anywhere that they will be constantly needed, but if they are suddenly needed somewhere, then that is a real need, and it is best to have them. Yes, the vest looks a bit silly on my sternum, but they are made for regular torsos and don’t come standard in hefty boy gorilla sizes.

Some photos also of the border line, the lovely sunflowers next to it (which are everywhere in Ukraine) and other stuff.

Thank you all!

Sunflower Update: New Van

Meet our new van, Shylah!

It is a 2008 Citroen Jumper, can carry up to three pallets of aid supplies in its large cargo hold, has a rare crew cab configuration that will allow us to transport up to six people plus driver (small people), it is a diesel, and it gets really outstanding fuel mileage. With a full tank and some gas cans we can get it halfway across Ukraine and back.

We had it tuned up, put new tires on it, added a tow package, and kitted it out with emergency equipment, some tools, pillows and blankets for van sleeping, and some USB ports. Tomorrow is its first trial run into Ukraine.

This van was made possible by a couple of anonymous donors. However, the primary donor picked the name, Shylah. It is named for the fiercest and kindest of his pet rabbits, so if you know who that is say nice stuff to him.

Myself and Oro leave early tomorrow morning to pick up a couple of pallets of aid supplies from HelpUkraine.Center in Lublin, Poland and then begin the long trip to deliver them to Boryspil, near Kyiv, Ukraine.

This will also be the test run for a whole new approach to border paperwork that many of us, but most especially Kevin, have been working on for a very long time. This is an entire other post worth of stuff, involving our Polish Sunflower Foundation, registering vans in Poland, powers of attorney, customs forms, letters of intent, and much more.

We owe a big thank you to Vivek Chaturvedi. He fearlessly, and with endless patience, battled the Polish bureaucracy for us and emerged victorious. At one point there were three angry women on their side of the cubicle yelling at us to go away. I would have crumbled, or gotten upset. He maintained, and with a combination of cajoling, pleading, and strongly insisting, managed to get us legally registered, a new license plate, and the right stickers and paperwork. The Polish bureaucrat is a formidable creature, but Vivek was raised in battle with the bureaucrats of India, and there is no comparison for that level of obdurate intransigence. The van is now a legally registered to our Sunflower Project Polish Foundation (of which Vivek is a Vice-President officer), and should be ready for whatever the Polish and Ukrainian border officials throw at us. 

Kevin is leaving Ukraine now for Romania, having just delivered aid supplies to Kyiv, in addition to helping out some Ukrainian refugees with delivery of personal supplies from Poland to Ukraine. We will all meet somewhere in Poland or Ukraine in a week or two.

It is amazing, also, to have Oro Whitley here with us! He has brought the best can-do attitude, and will be using his skills as a professional photographer while volunteering and helping deliver aid supplies.

Ok, there is so much more, but that is more than enough for now. Enjoy these pictures of the van!

Oh, and, yeah, we could very much use fuel and operating money, so send us something in PayPal if you are so inclined.

Thank you so much!

Sunflower Update: The Border Situation

The situation at the Ukrainian-Polish border the last few weeks is exactly the opposite of what you would expect.

There are almost no lines of people or cars leaving Ukraine. In fact, the last time we crossed the border back into Poland there were only two or three cars there at all. The entire border crossing was basically deserted. 

The line of traffic going from Poland into Ukraine, though, stretched on for many, many kilometers, and the wait time to cross was two to three days. People were camped out on the side of the road, and were pushing their non-running cars, in neutral, forward in the line to save gas. Most all of the aid workers passing out food and water are now working on the Polish side of the border, helping people who are waiting to get in to Ukraine.

(As an NGO delivering aid we get to cut right up to the front of the line, driving past the weary rows of people for nearly an hour on the way to get special treatment. I do feel bad about that. Not quite bad enough to spend three days waiting in line.)

There are several reasons for this situation at the border.

Most of the people who were going to flee Ukraine have already fled, and those IDP that are left are mostly sheltering in the safer parts of western Ukraine. Also, some Ukrainians are returning to the country and to cities like Kyiv.

There is also a rush of people bringing vehicles into Ukraine. The Kyiv government just declared an amnesty on its huge import and VAT taxes for vehicles, and people are not missing the opportunity. There are a lot of car-carrier trucks waiting in those long lines.

Bureaucracy is a factor. The border crossings have not really adapted to the new reality, and still process cars and trucks in batches of five, with only one or two batches making it through per hour. I’m told this is an improvement, and given all of the searches and passport control and customs control checks involved this is probably true. They really need a new high volume system though, more like the crossings at the US-Mexico border.

But the main reason is this:

Over half of the vehicles waiting in line are large semi-trucks.

Ukraine is a large country, with a population of over 40 million. It’s longest borders are with Russia and Belarus, and a lot of trade used to pass between them, but now all those borders are closed.

It used to have a bunch of active commercial airports bringing in trade, and now the skies are closed, or, worse, filled up with Russian air power.

It used to have a bunch of ports bringing in trade, especially Mariupol and Odesa, but now the Black sea has been closed by the Russian navy.

So that means that every single thing coming into Ukraine has to come by road or rail from the west. And in practice, the vast majority of it has to come through a handful of border crossings in Poland.

Which means incredibly long lines and really horrible wait times to cross.

Somethings gotta give, right? Maybe not. But I can’t help thinking that the border delays are really hurting the Ukrainian economy and the war effort.

Sunflower Update: Kevin NPR Interview

This is Kevin’s interview with Mark Brodie of NPR about his harrowing journey escaping Kharkiv on the first day of the war, his journey out of Ukraine in those days of chaos, and about the founding of The Sunflower Project. The interview is excellent, and the article on the web page about it is also good reading. It was recorded by KJZZ in Phoenix, Arizona, but was syndicated nationally. Thank you to Mark Brodie and Vicki Berger for making this interview possible. The photo is of Kevin the moment he finally crossed into Romania, after several ragged days of travel and intense border tribulation.

Listen at

Sunflower Update: Early Days

Hey all! Lots of good news in the last few days.

  • We have an apartment now in Warsaw! Two bedroom and a couch in the living room, so as we grow we can stuff all of us in. Kevin Raison is in there now, and I’ll be going to Poland in a week or so, and it is nice to have a place to sleep. Was kinda sweating that.
  • Kevin delivered our first load of relief aid directly to Ukrainian border. (See photos) Hooked up with an animal charity over there. The supplies were subcutaneous chips for pets, going to a vet clinic in Lviv doing free work for refugees. These chips help in surprising ways. Of course, they help people who might lose their pets. But also, there are many refugees traveling with their dogs and cats, and pets are not allowed into the EU countries until they have been chipped. So people are trapped in Lviv, unless they want to leave their pets behind. These thousand chips will directly help a thousand animal refugees and the families that love them.
  • Our draft website is being built! So much goes into websites. Well, a lot of you are familiar. But we should have something up rather sooner than later.
  • We have an official mailing address now in Seattle for the organization. One more brick in building an official nonprofit. We should soon have official phone accounts so we can move on from our personal lines.
  • We have our first online fundraiser up and live! Please, you know.
  • We are making good contacts daily with great people, and networking with other great projects and organizations. Likely some cool announcements in that area coming soon.
  • We are continuing to source MRE’s for delivery to Ukraine.

The news from Ukraine is awful. It has been 48 hours now that up to a thousand people, (all civilans seeking shelter) have been trapped alive under the rubble of the theater in Mariupol that the Russians shelled. And rescuers can’t get to them because the Russians are still shelling the area. It’s maddening. The response should be global, on the scale of when those Thai boy scouts were trapped in a cave. Yet there is little news of it.

The only way to fight this kind of tragedy, and to fight the despair it brings, is, well, by fighting it.
Many hands pushing on the rock.

This is a Dunkirk moment in our lives.
The question of “How many boats should set out to provide relief?” has a simple answer.
All the boats.
Every damn boat.
Cruise liners to skiffs, if it floats get it moving.
We’re a little boat now, but we are already putting out to sea and moving.

Thank you all!

Sunflower Update: First Update

(Official Announcement!!!!)

The Sunflower Project:

Emergency Relief for Ukraine

Rick Wilson (me) and Kevin Tzaddi Raison are partnering to create an NGO that will obtain and deliver emergency aid to the people of Ukraine. Focus to begin with is on medical supplies and other non-lethal aid, like body armor for medics.

It’s time for Americans from our communities to get in this thing in a meaningful way.

Project is about ways that Americans can help Ukrainians. And about the things that a small, nimble, guerilla aid group can get done that the large institutional charities cannot do or are failing to get done.

Kevin is setting things up in Europe, and I am building the organization in the States for now, and will join him in Europe soon.

We both have contacts in Ukraine and Poland that we are working with, and are getting more every day. Details of operations will come in next couple weeks.

Will need tons of help, volunteers, and cash donations. Already working with some early key staff, will be reaching out to more. If we are sometimes slow in getting back, know that we are working 20 hour days trying to build this organization from ground up. (I will let everyone know how to donate in a week or so when we have that system set up.)

The plan is simple in concept;

  1. Collect donations and volunteer help in USA. (We are prioritizing cash donations, but will be sourcing some hard to find items stateside.)
  2. Collect aid supplies at our base near Ukraine.
  3. Load aid into vans and trucks, deliver aid to Ukraine. (Kevin is purchasing a vehicle in the next couple days.)
  4. Widely publicize us doing the things above, and also the situation on the ground. Leverage this publicity and media and social media engagement to get more donations and volunteers.
  5. Repeat.

The plan is simple. The details are a bit overwhelming.

I will be back in Seattle in a couple weeks or so, and am going to be having meetings with those who want to join the project.

Also, am going to try to set up a fund-raising party or show. Will need help with that. Short notice, but things are moving fast.

Also also, we are setting up legal status, banking, social media, a website, key staff, a shipping system, a European home base (almost certainly in Poland), and so, so many more details.

Ok. More info will follow over next few weeks.

Thank you all!