The first days after the Russians attacked Ukraine, Mike Ilani simply shut down. Through many friends and family, the Ukrainian native heard of the roads he used to come and go that were now spotted by Russian landmines, his friend’s recently opened flower shop destroyed by bombs , the father of his cousin’s best friend killed in the violence.
“When you see the building you walked through for 20 years destroyed and you’re so far away, it’s a horrible feeling. People are getting killed. People are losing their homes. They are real people,” says Ilani Poets&Quants. “Understanding that this is someone’s home, this is someone’s life – and not just someone’s, is that what six or eight million people have been led astray? It was paralyzing. »
Like so many across the country, Mike and her husband, Jon Ilani, were almost frozen in those early days by the shock of what they were seeing. Both are full-time students – Mike is studying to become a beautician while Jon is a first-year MBA candidate at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. They didn’t understand how they were supposed to go to class and meetings when Mike’s country was under attack.
So the couple, who live in Baltimore, Maryland, got to work. Through the evolution of their aid efforts, which they call Ukrainian Alliance, they connect everyday Ukrainians suffering from war with people in this country and beyond who are desperate to help. Their mission is to help on an individual level – teachers, students, shop owners, grandparents – people with an immediate and specific need that other larger aid organizations may miss. Like this mother of seven who needed money right away to buy food for her children. Or the village volunteer who needed a bulletproof vest to protect himself while on patrol or delivering food to the bomb shelters. Or the woman who needed thyroid medication after it disappeared from store shelves.
While their efforts began with their own friends and Mike’s family still in Ukraine, they have since expanded to others with specific needs, either via Instagram, word of mouth or via the website they established. The couple have raised $30,000 so far and helped coordinate hundreds and hundreds of humanitarian aid boxes through a network of volunteers helping them from Poland as well as Lviv, Kyiv and Brovary in Ukraine. They also put Ukrainians in direct contact with donors.
“I think it gives us a sense of stability on the surface, like we’re somehow in control, which we’re not. But we are able to help at least some of those who are crying out for help,” says Mike.
In the first weeks after the invasion, Poets&Quants reports countless responses from business schools. For example, Stanford MBA collected millions of medical supplies, Ivey Business School of Canada announced plans to bring 10 Ukrainian MBA students to join its current cohort, and Ukrainian MBAs studying abroad urged the world to galvanize around their home country. Now that the war has been going on for over 50 days, more news is beginning to make headlines.
“I think our biggest message to people now is that it’s not over. We know you’re tired, but so are Ukrainians. So are volunteers, so are soldiers, so are mothers, but it’s not over. isn’t over yet. They still need your help. They still need your rallies and your attention,” said Jon P&Q. “We also want people to know that every little bit counts. People hear on the news that $50 million has been sent to Ukraine and they think, “Well, what can I do?” But, when I get an entire day worth of $5 donations, it adds up.
At the end of last week, Poets&Quants got to sit down with Mike and Jon to talk about the Ukrainian Alliance and their efforts to help ordinary people still reeling from war. Since we spoke, Russia has intensified its attacks in eastern Ukraine and launched missiles at the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Reports of civilian casualties continue to rise.
Our conversation, featured below, has been edited for length and clarity.
Mike, tell us about your childhood in Ukraine. Do you still have family there?
Mike: I grew up in the suburbs of kyiv, the capital, about 20 minutes away. My grandparents live in the capital, so it was always a very easy drive. I grew up in a family with a brother, my younger brother and my parents who unfortunately are no longer with us.
How are your brother and your grandparents doing now? Your friends? What kind of contact did you have?
Mike: Thank goodness for the connection and service they still have. It’s really a blessing because every hour I am in contact with my grandparents, my brother, my cousins, my uncles, my aunts. I am constantly on the phone with someone.
Jon: But some of them lost connection for a while.
Mike: Some of them, yes, did indeed disappear, but we just hoped they were okay because they were in the cities that are being destroyed right now, like surrounding kyiv on the Belarusian side. So we were just praying they were okay. It was like the first, second week of war.
Jon: It was really scary. It’s like his best friend who he talks to every day. Still. Like, on FaceTime all day, and then all of a sudden there was no service, and he had no way of knowing how she was doing. It was very scary.
Next page: Connecting with Grandparents in a Warzone + Starting the Ukrainian Alliance