Erik Schäfer decides where at the moment where help is most urgent: in central Ukraine. When Russia declared war on Ukraine at the beginning of the year and millions of people became victims of the war, the student teacher limited without further ado vacation and drove his van directly to the crisis area to provide on-site support. In the interview, he talks about his motivation, his impressions of Ukraine and how you can help.
You have a club at the beginning of the year HOPE Founded. What is it for?
Our main task is to evacuate people from eastern Ukraine. If necessary, we go to Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kyiv. At the same time, we also bring relief supplies such as medicine, food and sleeping bags from Germany to the war zone. A total of about 600 people have been evacuated so far. Most trips are carefully planned, we work on specific requirements. But when the station in Kramatorsk was bombed, we spontaneously went out with school buses and ambulances and evacuated more than 400 people in two days.
How do you recognize people who want to be evacuated?
It is a misconception to assume that everyone wants to be evacuated. Many fear people smuggling. You can’t just drive into a crisis area, open the car door and say, “Hey guys, get in.” That’s why we usually have more capacity than demand. Trust is very important. We work closely with the government, humanitarian organizations and local people. Together we published many articles in local newspapers offering rides to the West. Most trips are organized through acquaintances, so the conversation goes quickly.
How do people in Ukraine react to your help?
The gratitude of the people can hardly be described. You usually don’t get to know something like that. I had an accident with a van when we were loading medicine to Kiev. The car was quickly repaired in the workshop until midnight. After that I was on my way again. Ukraine has a curfew from 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM. A young soldier stopped and checked me at a checkpoint. At first he was a suspect. But when I explained to him what I was doing and where I was going, he fell into my arms with tears in his eyes.
You will bring refugees to safe areas. How are they doing?
We bring many people to Germany and we are in contact with most of them even after the evacuation. However, some do not want to leave the country at all for various reasons. We therefore established a network with churches in Ukraine in order to organize the stay in the country to be as safe as possible.
How do you cope with bad impressions and fates that you experience firsthand?
I am a very pragmatic person. The experience I gather in Ukraine does not drag me down in the long term. My negative impressions outweigh the positives. The difference from everyday life lies in the extremes, meaning that bad is very bad and good is very good. For example, the suffering one witnesses is incredibly tragic, but the gratitude one experiences as a helper is extraordinary. I don’t fight with fear for myself, rather with fear for my fellow man.
It looks like you are exactly the right person for the job.
Because of my love for climbing, I traveled abroad a lot and I always liked to reach out to people. I am an extrovert. My outgoing nature helps me immensely in the work I do today. I’m not afraid to reach out to strangers and offer my help.
what drives you
Until the summer of 2021, I had a full-time job at the school in addition to my teaching course. I really like being a teacher, I really enjoy my job. But the chances of change as a teacher in your environment are limited. You can do good, but only in the school context, not outside of it. When I realized what I could achieve for Ukraine with my help, I didn’t want to do anything else.
How can all those who cannot help in crisis areas help?
I recommend monetary donations, not in-kind donations. With money, local activists are more flexible and can buy exactly what is most needed. We shop mostly in supermarkets on the Polish border with Ukraine, so we have shorter transport routes and less effort. However, many feel more comfortable with in-kind gifts. Therefore, we received lists of what is currently missing from Ukrainian cities. We regularly add them to our website. People from Germany can buy what they need and hand it over to collection points. From there we bring humanitarian supplies to Ukraine.
what do you wish for the future?
Unequivocally: peace for Ukraine so that everyone can live in safety. I see great potential for our club to help in other countries as well, for example in India or South America. The need for help in the world will certainly never be exhausted.