Social Issues

Providing power to Ukraine in the dark and cold of winter

Human rights activists, medical professionals and business community members around Wisconsin have come together to supply generators for Ukraine to keep lights and heat operating in the midst of war.

By Aditi Debnath | Here & Now

March 2, 2023

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“My partners at that time told me that what I’m doing is insane, but it’s going to save thousands of lives,” said Anya Verkhovskaya, a Milwaukee resident who is working to provide aid to Ukraine through the Friends of Be an Angel campaign. “It’s only money, and we’ll figure it out.”

A businessperson and human rights activist who has helped preserve memories of the Holocaust, Verhkovskaya fled the Soviet Union as a political refugee in the 1980s, and has written about grappling with overlapping Jewish and Russian identities.

Risking her retirement savings, as board chair for Friends of Be an Angel, she ordered just under $1 million dollars worth of portable power generators to be sent to Ukraine, preparing for the winter months.

“I’ve never ordered 1,100 generators before,” said Verkhovskaya. “Actually, a few months ago, I didn’t even know how to start a generator, and I didn’t know anything about generators.”

Anya Verkhovskaya sits in a room with a window behind her right shoulder, with a graphic at bottom reading "Anya Verkhovskaya" and "Friends of Be an Angel."

Anya Verkhovskaya, board chair for Friends of Be an Angel, helped lead efforts to fundraise and purchase more than one thousand generators to send to Ukraine. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

She then met Dr. Douglas Davis, who had a similar mission. Since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine that started Feb. 24, 2022, he has shipped an estimated 100,000 pounds of medical aid from a warehouse in Germantown.

“We had probably 50 gaylord boxes of supplies that we were having trouble getting shipped, and she’s like, I could take care of that,” said Davis about Verkhovskaya.

Douglas Davis sits in a large room with out-of-focus stacks of cardboard boxes and other items in the background, with a graphic at bottom reading "Douglas Davis, M.D." and "Rotary Club of Milwaukee."

Dr. Douglas Davis, a member of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, has led efforts to ship medical and surgical supplies to Ukraine since the large-scale invasion by Russia. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Davis, whose family is Ukrainian, evacuated his in-laws in February 2022 to his home in the Madison suburb of Oregon. His brother-in-law Dr. Taras Khaba has been able to use his medical connections in Ukraine to help determine high-need items.

“I didn’t feel very well at that time,” said Khaba, a member of the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America. He told me I know how to help you, how to help your country — and that’s to become volunteers.”

Taras Khaba sits in a room with a window behind his left shoulder, with a graphic at bottom reading "Taras Khaba, M.D." and "Ukrainian Medical Association of North America."

Dr. Taras Khaba escaped Ukraine with members of his family after Russia’s February 2022 invasion, and after moving to a suburb of Madison, has helped efforts to identify and ship medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in the war zone. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

But Davis and Khaba didn’t do it alone. The Rotary Club of Milwaukee has provided countless volunteers toward the cause, and in January 2023, the group was able to fundraise for Verkhovskaya’s generator project.

“We like to think of ourselves as people of action who work together to really make a difference not only in their communities but communities throughout the world,” said David Anderson, a district governor for Rotary.

Dave Anderson sits in a room with a window behind his left shoulder, with a graphic at bottom reading "Dave Anderson and "Rotary District Governor."

Dave Anderson, a district governor with Rotary clubs in Wisconsin, describes how volunteers with these groups have helped provide supplies to war-torn Ukraine. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

In February 2023, Davis traveled to Ukraine where he and a Rotary Club in Ukraine took delivery of the first generators to arrive. Amid air raid sirens and catching up with family, he said witnessing the payoff is what keeps him going.

“I think learning about all of that may have even been harder than medical school,” Davis said.

Back in Wisconsin, volunteers don’t have time to celebrate the generator project’s success.

“You can’t really celebrate any small victories or big victories, because there is this tremendous cloud of collective tragedy that is happening that you are trying to fight all the time,” said Verkhovskaya.

Though donations may be slowing down, the crisis-level need for humanitarian aid in Ukraine persists, now one long year after the invasion.

“If people think that this is just some country in eastern Europe,” Davis said. “No, this is World War III, we just don’t want to call it that yet.”

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