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Friday, May 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Countering powerlessness: In Denmark, locals desperately try to help Ukrainian civilians

All over the country, Danes offer small-scale humanitarian help — raising funds for medicine, clothes and food and making trips to get Ukrainians out of the war zone.

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK (CN) — After Russia invaded Ukraine on March 3, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen quickly announced a three-fold humanitarian aid effort.

“In our view, there are three tracks. We expect a need for increased humanitarian assistance in Ukraine, a need for help from Denmark regarding neighboring countries, and that we — on Danish soil — will shelter Ukrainian refugees”, she said.

The following morning, the government allocated 50 million Danish krone ($7.4 million) for the United Nations and Red Cross, who work on the ground to help Ukraine’s 42 million citizens. The money is earmarked for medicine and health services, first aid equipment, helmets, ammunition, food and blankets. 

Mykhailo Vydoinyk, the Ukrainian ambassador to Denmark, called all Danes to help fundraise and asked mayors and government officials to provide storage space for the collected items.

So far, many have chosen to answer that call. New Facebook help groups are created at the speed of light with members from all three major Danish geographical regions — Jutland, Zealand and Funen. The group “Save Ukraine” has 19.000 members alone. One of them is Trille Charlotte Bohl Skjelborg, who started collecting clothes and blankets on the outlying island of Bornholm.

Bornholm is a highly strategic location due to its Eastern placement in the Baltic Sea. In addition, the Russians occupied it almost a year after the liberation of the rest of Denmark during World War II.

“Friday afternoon, I noticed the big Danish warship Niels Juul positioned outside our shores. And it struck me. This is serious, it is really happening. My feeling was one of powerlessness. People are suffering while I am here with little means to act,” Trille said.

She contacted the nearby community center Mariegården and arranged with its manager to create a storage place. Another island resident who owns a bus company plans to drive a bus that can seat 70 refugees to the Polish-Ukrainian border, Trille´s idea is to send some clothes and save some for the arriving refugees.

A bag of children's clothes for Ukrainian civilians with a tag written by Trille's son (photo courtesy of Trille Charlotte Bohl Skjelborg).

In just two days, the center has received 30 big bags of clothes. Trille initiated the collection with her son, and in her view it has an educational value.

“If someone needs it, you help any way you can. Even if you live in a small town far way," she said.

“In Denmark, they have shown so much care and attention. Maybe because the war is geographically close, it becomes more relatable.”

—Anastasia, a Ukraine-born resident of Denmark

For Ruslan Lypovenko, the war is closer to home. He has lived in Denmark for 12 years, but his mom, dad and brother still reside in Ukraine.

“I was driving my son to his kindergarten when my mom called. My son, now the war begins, she said. My parents live close to a military airbase in the small town Zhitny Cory, where the Russians bomb,” he said.

“Every help — in Denmark and other countries — makes a big difference. Ukrainian pharmacies are empty, and people hide in basements and cellars. The frequent power and signal cuts make it difficult to communicate.”

Ruslan considered joining his brother in the Ukrainian army. But given his wife and young son, he finds it safer to help from the Danish home base. He organizes large shipments with everything from painkillers to pillows through his export company RLM Carexport.

He drives for hours every day to collect donations from private households — medicine, canned food, duvets, sleeping bags, flashlight batteries and diapers. The goods are stored in the company warehouse and picked up by trucks. The first truck left Monday, and the second one on Tuesday evening.

Later this week, Ruslan and his Polish colleague Michael Janiszewski will head to Poland to pick up and deliver bulletproof vests at the border.

“We have been contacted by young Ukrainian boys and girls living in Denmark. They ask if we can bring their family. I am prepared to make several trips to help people get to safety," Ruslan said, adding he is moved by all the volunteers in Denmark who take vacation leave to help him.     

Danish volunteers packs clothes for Ukrainian civilians in Ruslan Lypovenko's warehouse at Funen in Denmark just after Russia's invasion (photo courtesy of Ruslan Lypovenko)

The willingness to donate is currently so massive that Red Cross stores and other nonprofits cannot keep up. So they now ask for money donations instead of clothes and material goods. And the Ukraine-Poland border is packed with volunteering convoys, so authorities have asked to hold transportation back from other European countries.

Anastasia, whose husband plans to drive to the border soon to help Ukraine's neighbors like Poland and Romania handle the incoming refugees, notes many Ukrainians don't want to come all the way to Denmark. Instead, they want to stay as close to their homes as they can.

Social media already plays an exceptional role in this war, because Ukrainians can connect with Danes directly through Facebook groups, Anastasia said. In the forums “Safe Ukraine,” “Help Ukraine” and “Help for transport of Ukrainian refugees to Denmark,” people write in Ukrainian, English or Russian and ask for pickups for specific towns, passenger numbers and drop-off locations.

Anastasia was born in Ukraine, and her grandparents still live there. When asked about the number of Danes currently helping out, she is very moved.  

“I find it completely overwhelming. I get very emotional because it is so important that people show solidarity and stand together," she said. "In Denmark, they have shown so much care and attention. Maybe because the war is geographically close, it becomes more relatable."

“Danish people have this big community identity, which we can mobilize. People unite across political opinions, language, and cultural beliefs. To me, that is incredibly beautiful.”

Over a million Ukrainians have already fled, according to the U.N. In Denmark, local municipalities rearrange sports arenas, hostels and hotels and schools to accompany new arrivals. They call for Danish authorities to change the current laws so Ukrainians do not have to file for asylum status.

In Svendborg, a mid-sized town on Funen in central Denmark, the mayor made a list where citizens can sign up to offer private accommodation for Ukrainians. Local volunteer Jesper Christensen aids with the Facebook group “Provide shelter for Ukrainian refugees in DK”, which at press time consists of over 2.500 members.

Jesper is a former military servant of the Danish Home Guard, and he has great respect for patriotism and a sense of nationality.

“I understand why Ukrainians will fight hard for their country. I can’t bear that they are suffering. That is why I want to help in any shape or form I can”, he says.   

For Jesper, his primary motivation for aiding is one of frustration and sadness. And he is not alone.

All over the country, Danish residents feel a need to transform this deep-rooted powerlessness into aid activities right now, Anastasia believes.

“After the initial shock subsided, it was replaced by aggression. A want to change the situation. No one can move on if we all hang on to grief individually," she said. "These days, many people feel tired and exhausted because they spend a lot of energy dealing with the sadness of war. But it is also our gasoline and our driving force. And that is powerful.”  

Courthouse News correspondent Mie Olsen is based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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