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A Ukrainian Google Worker Helps a Food Nonprofit Take Flight Back Home

Bake4Ukraine volunteer staff stand in front of freshly baked bread from 21.3 cafe in Brovary, Ukraine.

Andriy Vasylenko, his wife Arendam and their four children woke up to the sound of bomb explosions on Feb. 24—the start of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. “Life over here is coming to some sort of normalcy compared to the earlier days of the war,” he said, as destroyed Russian militant tanks and armored vehicles were left in Brovary, a key city east of Ukrainian capital Kyviv, where the Vasylenkos currently reside.

Watching the news closely, his nephew Vitaliy Demyanik immediately called his Uncle, asking how things were looking and how he could help. Demyanik currently lives in New York City and works in the sales department for Google.

“When my uncle called me and told me he was starting Bake4Ukraine, I thought of creating a donation site for him,” said Demyanik, who was born in Kyiv and remembers his life here in the United States, but still feels personal ties to Ukraine as his uncle and cousins still live there. “I just see the pictures of buildings destroyed and hearing what they’ve been able to do despite the war is really moving.”

He arrived in the U.S. at the age of six with both his parents and younger sister in April 1991, months before the fall of the Soviet Union. “They wanted a better life for us,” he said, as he remembers the stories his parents would tell them of being imprisoned and persecuted as a result of their faith under the Soviet regime.

One memory which stood out was landing in the U.S. for the first time with his family and staying at a hotel in New York City on a layover flight headed to Sacramento, California. 

“It was the first time, obviously, for all of us in the U.S.,” he said. “And I remember hearing a knock at the hotel door and as we’re trying to fall asleep, my mom tensed she said ‘it’s the KGB here to get us!’ but instead my dad opened the door to find a person holding a bucket of KFC chicken.”

Demyanik clearly remembers that after the four of them settled in the room, they ate their first meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the U.S. and watched “Walker, Texas Ranger” in grabbing what they felt was living the American dream, he said.

Growing up most of his life in Vancouver, Washington Demyanik attended elementary and high school and graduated with a bachelor’s in economic geography and geographic information systems from the University of Washington.

He started working for Google as an account strategist in 2011 and six years later moved for the first time to New York City. “I think living in the U.S. has taught me the importance of giving back, and helping my uncle back in Ukraine was me doing just that,” he said.

When he heard Russian military forces started launching their missiles into cities such as Kyviv, Kharkiv, and Kheron he was simply heartbroken. “I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Demyanik.

He recently flew to Tijuana, New Mexico as he heard his childhood friend over the phone tell him that Ukranians were arriving at the border requesting to enter under humanitarian parole.

This was after President Joe Biden announced a new refugee sponsorship program would take place on April 21, 2022.

With more than 6 million Ukrainian refugees leaving their homeland and making their way into neighboring countries such as Poland and Moldova according to data provided by State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, Vasylenko and his family decided to make the difficult decision to stay—out of a spiritual calling— and help those who had also decided to remain.

Before the invasion, Andiry was running a Dutch bakery ingredients company called Zeelandia for the past 19 years, which supported local bakers to learn how to bake, manage and sell their goods.

Andiry was then inspired by his 19-year-old son Petro Vasylenko, who has Down syndrome, to launch the charity organization called Bakery 21.3 five years ago, followed by Cafe 21.3 a year ago.

“We decided to go with these names in dedication to March 21 which is World Down Syndrome Day,” he said. “The bakery was oriented to giving jobs to people with Down syndrome in Ukraine.”

When the war broke out, missile strikes hit around the outskirts of Brovary, including three bakeries destroyed as a result of Russian missiles. “Our food supply was their target,” said Andriy, as he saw Russian armored vehicles attack smaller eastern villages close to where his family is currently living.

“My wife had packed all of our suitcases to leave but then we realized there would be alot of traffic heading out of the city,” he said. “After some praying and thinking I sat with my wife and I said well, we just don’t know how long this war will last or what will happen, but we just have to use what we have now to try to serve people.”

After the third day of the war, Andriy reached out to a couple of friends and local church members who helped distribute bread and soup to members of the community after seeing shuttered restaurants and empty bread shelves at local grocery stores. 

“Soups are normally a very popular part of Ukrainian meals, Borshch is the most known Ukrainian soup, which we’ve been giving out,” said Vasylenko. Borshch is a common soup in many Eastern European countries, but particularly carries roots in Ukraine having a mix of vegetables along with a broth named Bouillon.

In a report released by the World Food Programme, a total of 44 million people in 38 countries are facing conditions of famine and humanitarian assistance. The war against Ukraine has sent international food and energy markets spiraling, raising food prices even further. 

Both Russia and Ukraine export more than a quarter of the world’s wheat products, according to the WFP report titled Food Security Implications of the Ukraine Conflict.

“I saw a lot of panic from locals and people getting in their cars headed west away from the war, as food supplies were cut off days after the war,” said Andriy. “We felt as a family God was calling us to stay here to support and be a light for people.”

As the war made its way into weeks, Bake4Ukraine along with international neighbors including family and friends of his wife living in the Netherlands helped expand their distribution efforts into the eastern city of Chernhiv, by providing food and medical supplies.

Using small buses to transport supplies into cities such as Kyviv, Cherniv and Brovary, “many locals were reached out,” he said.

“We started Bake4Ukraine out of a place of need as we witnessed the bombings happening near us and around us,” said Andriy. Using Facebook he reached out to find volunteers who were willing to help out at the bakery and to his surprise around 150 people responded asking how they could help. 

Both Demyanik and his other nephew Ivan Sobvij, who lives in Vancouver, Washington helped set up the Fundly—a fundraising site to help cover direct expenses and equipment used to help feed families. The campaign launched on Feb. 28 of this year and so far has been able to raise over $150,000 and seeks to raise another $50,000 in three days.

Other organizations such as caregiving facilities were also receiving donations from Bake4Ukraine as it served as a lifeline for vulnerable communities who also remained in the city.

Oleksandr Sahno, who is a caregiver at Peremoga a Christian rehabilitation center had purchased food for the center two weeks before to the start of the war, and has relied on Bake4Ukraine free bread and soup program to come by and provide food supplies for people at the center.

“When I heard about this program it was such a relief to me, we had to limit the amount of people we could take to the food warehouses,” said Sahno. “When the bombs started to hit we were prepared to start evacuating, we were waiting for the end.” 

Diana Ludchenko is the director of the Territorial Centre of Social Care in Brovary, who also stayed to help out members of the elderly and disabled community. “These are the people that require the most attention but ever since the war began the demand has skyrocketed in taking care of these individuals,” said Ludchenko. 

Bake4Ukraine supplied daily bread and soup servings for 10 people at the center along with around 4o people in the building, said Andriy, and is now distributing more than 1,500 loaves of bread and 2,000 servings of soup per day. 

“Having the volunteers working in the warehouse while hearing the sounds of bombs hitting the ground not knowing if we were next was really intense,” said Andriy. “Just the simple act of giving fresh bread and soup, coming together just to help each other in these times of crisis shows the world that we are still here fighting for the freedom of our people.”


This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.

 

Written by

Jordan Coll is a current M.S. candidate at the J-School and a freelance reporter.