Bay Area residents fly to Eastern Europe to help Ukrainians

Since Russian troops invaded Ukraine last month, several Bay Area residents were quick to fly to Eastern Europe to support Ukrainian refugees and help family members reach safety.

Alex Furman, a San Francisco co-founder of a biotech company, and a volunteer with the newly formed organization, Cash for Refugees, returned to the Bay Area Sunday after a week spent on the border of Ukraine and Romania giving money to families moments after they crossed the border.

Furman, along with four other Cash For Refugees volunteers, handed out the equivalent of $100 in Romanian Leu to each family, enough for them to buy train tickets to another part of Europe, or repair their car to get them further on their journey.

"In some cases the money that we provided allowed them to travel quickly and safely to their next destination," Furman said,"

Though under vastly different circumstances, without the threat of bombing or gunfire, Furman recalls when his family fled Moscow as Jewish refugees in 1991.

"I really know what it feels like to go from zero money, absolute helplessness, to having some money in your pocket," Furman said, noting that his family was supported by generous neighbors when they immigrated to Boston. 

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Now, the pool of volunteers for Cash for Refugees is growing and donations have exceeded half a million dollars. Cash For Refugees is working to soon send additional teams to other border crossings along Ukraine to put more money in people's pockets.

He plans to return to the region soon to continue the humanitarian support efforts. 

In San Jose, Val Khomchenko, a Ukrainian American father of two, is considering a return trip to Ukraine as well. He flew there on February 27 to help his wife and five-year-old son, Martin evacuate Odessa, where Martin was getting specialized care for autism.

They fled in the middle of the night. Khomchenko drove for hours, at times over a bumpy, dangerous road, until they were able to safely cross the border into Moldova, and then into Romania.

The family is home in San Jose, but Khomchenko, an Apple employee and coach for the Junior Sharks, is considering returning to Ukraine to fight in the armed forces.

"I'm still thinking about it," he said, noting that family members have concerns with him going off to fight.

As the decision weighs heavily, Khomchenko says he's donating to a number of humanitarian aid groups.

"I don't know if that's enough," he said.

With a number of aid groups stationed along Ukraine's borders providing meals, toys, medicine, and transportation for refugees, Furman recommends those who want to donate to support Ukraine, consider donations to multiple organizations. 

"Now is not the time to hold back," Furman said, noting that the refugee crisis is only getting more dire by the day. "If there's ever a time to set up, it's now."