The influencers who founded a refugee network in Ukraine
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War can hit harder when you’ve lived through one before. It explains the prompt reaction of 28-year-old Martina Kojić Reiter, who was born in Dubrovnik during the Croatian War of Independence. Just a few hours after Putin’s bombs first hit Ukraine, Martina had organised a shelter in Lviv and a bus to take those fleeing to Austria; two months later, she’s helped grant safe passage to more than 5,500 women and children.
Martina, whose father served in the Special Forces in Croatia as a trauma surgeon, works to provide refugees with housing, clothes, food, cash and therapy – and has spent more than €200,000 of her own money in the process. Today she has a registered charity, Mademoiselle Martina, to extend her efforts. “Most people don’t understand the severity of what’s going on,” she says. “I receive messages such as, ‘We’re running out of water, we’ve been drinking boiled snow but now the snow is melting and what’s left is covered in blood’; ‘I’m trying to get to the border with my two children, my neighbour’s children and a baby I found on the street’; or ‘I need help, we’re driving over corpses to escape Mariupol.’”
To reach those in search of safe passage, Martina uses her network of more than 6,000 followers on Instagram, which was previously used as a fashion blog. At first it was difficult to get women on board; reports of people posing as humanitarian workers and disappearances at the borders are common. “I had to ask a psychologist to go on screen and speak in Ukrainian to reassure them,” she says.
Martina has quickly met up with other like-minded women to create a network via which they can more efficiently provide help. Ekaterina Malysheva was trying to evacuate a group of 70 orphans from Kyiv when she first spoke to Martina. Born in Russia, she is married to Prince Ernst August of Hanover and is hosting four families at her homes in Germany and Austria. “We are cousins,” she says of the impetus to help Ukrainians. “We share the same language, the same culture. I feel very responsible for what is happening.”
Seven ways to help the Ukrainian people
Mademoiselle Martina mademoisellemartina.org, @mademoisellemartina_org
Elizabeth Edelman and Ekaterina Malysheva @lizandekatukraine
Choose Love chooselove.org
Disasters Emergency Committee dec.org.uk
Homes for Ukraine homesforukraine.org.uk
International Committee of the Red Cross icrc.org
International Rescue Committee rescue-uk.org
A week after their introduction, Ekaterina welcomed a full bus to Vienna, using her contacts across the arts and fashion industries to garner more support. “So many of them came onboard, and brands such as Stella McCartney and Aquazzura sent supplies,” she says. The biggest help came from Elizabeth Edelman, co-founder of creative agency Triadic, whose grandfather was a lawyer in the Nuremberg trials. Together the two women have placed more than 150 refugees around Europe. “These are low numbers compared to how many people are in need of support,” says Elizabeth. “We decided that we could better serve the [people] we were working with if we focused on smaller groups with sustainable and long-term solutions – like getting them set up in their new homes with jobs, schools and medical support.”
Many of the refugees are sick and traumatised. “One boy was so terrified when he arrived in Vienna that he jumped out of the bus and fled,” says Martina, who has a one-year-old child of her own. “We found him blocks away, covering his ears from the noise of police sirens. We have to minimise the horror these people are going through.”
To help with these cases, Martina has a team of Ukrainian psychologists and also gets help from centres that are specialised in more severe trauma. “So far the most needed support is for rape victims,” she says. “We are now filming an informative workshop-style interview with our in-house psychologist and will post it on our Instagram and website. We believe this is the best way to approach women as it allows them to inform themselves without being exposed.”
For many refugees, it’s the first time they’ve left Ukraine. “They travel for days with no food, no water, no bathroom and nowhere to sit,” says Ekaterina. “In Hanover, we now have three ladies in wheelchairs, a mother and a daughter nearly blind and people with conditions not even diagnosed. Luckily, we can offer medical help.”
Some of those who can work are looking for jobs as chefs, gardeners and dog walkers – but the ultimate goal is to return to Ukraine as soon as the war ends. “They are all grateful for being hosted, but keep asking for a ticket home,” says Martina. She has placed most refugees in homes and hostels in Vienna, but also in Frankfurt, Munich and Düsseldorf. The next few thousand will be sent to the Netherlands and Graz, the Austrian city where her husband and former Airbnb head of international operations Martin Reiter was born. With three other entrepreneurs, she has also built OneUkraine, an NGO tackling refugee evacuation, humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of the country. Martina estimates that she has raised around €5mn in donations since the war began.
In September – war permitting – Martina plans to celebrate her wedding. One thing is certain: she will wear a wedding dress by Milla Nova, the Ukrainian fashion house whose owner Ulyana Kyrychuk is now one of the network’s friends. “Ulyana has decided to leave Poland [where Milla Nova is currently producing military vests for the Ukrainians] and go back to Lviv to help us – she is bringing food to our shelter every day,” says Martina. It is comforting to see that out of chaos, friendships are being forged.