A location correction of Zan’s heritage was made to the previous script.
LVIV, Ukraine (KFOR) – Burning buildings. Bodies lining a tunnel in Mariupol. Families being separated at train stations.
For many Americans, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been viewed through brief images on a television screen or a website.
Even though the glimpses of war are devastating, it is relatively easy for most to separate our daily lives from the bombings, shootings, and food shortages in Ukraine.
That’s not the case for Oklahoman Caleb Germany.
As each day passes, Germany waits for news from Eastern Europe and his friend, Jason Zan.
When Russian troops began marching through Ukraine in late February, Germany and Zan realized that everything was changing.
“I could see the fire growing in Jason, maybe even before he did. His family survived genocide, so watching it unfold became this force for him,” Germany told KFOR in a message.
Zan is proud of his heritage, and grew up hearing stories about his family in Asia. Those stories about overcoming the struggles they faced due to war shaped his view of the world around him.
“My grandparents had an unstoppable positive attitude that somehow allowed them to process years of trauma at formative times in their lives and come out being healthy, positive, constructive and loving people. They turned that experience into a force for good which, for me, culminated in guiding the person I wanted to be,” Zan said.
As they witnessed the invasion play out on television screens in Oklahoma, Zan and Germany began to form a plan.
“He began making connections in Poland and Ukraine, sending me walls of text of how we could help them. He was so frantic, I couldn’t keep up,” Germany said.
“I started looking for ways to help from the start – monetarily, sharing information, or in person,” said Zan.
In the end, Zan decided to fly to the other side of the world to try and make a difference in person.
He learned about aid groups and grassroots organizations that were doing everything they could but needed manpower.
He soon found out that many of the organizations were struggling to get the necessary supplies and resources to the hardest hit areas of the country.
When KFOR communicated with him, Zan was in Lviv and had purchased a vehicle to help get supplies to hard-hit areas.
After that, his goal was to help get refugees out.
“He connected with even more organizations. He has wheels. He bought and delivered fresh food to a refugee camp that was on its last potato. And now he’s back on track,” Germany said.
As he’s working to help Ukrainians in their own country, Germany has been busy at work, helping Zan.
“I’m in Jason’s support department. If he needs something, I find it or offer an alternative. When he moves, I make sure someone’s nearby who can help if something goes south. He can do all this stuff on his own, but hopefully I’m taking some of the processing power off his brain so he can focus on finding dinner and a warm bed,” Germany said.
As bombs continue to fall in communities across Ukraine, Zan is seeing the devastation and the impacts of the war firsthand.
“The situation is heartbreaking,” Zan said.
Thousands of civilians have been killed in the invasion so far, and even more have had to flee their homes with nothing but what they could carry.
According to Ukrainian officials, the Russian attack on Mariupol killed over 20,000 civilians. During the siege, Russian forces launched lethal airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken shelter.
Reports suggest that close to 600 people may have been killed at the theater alone.
While Mariupol has seen much of the fighting over the past few months, the war has impacted citizens from across Ukraine.
Zan told KFOR of a man called Elijah, who is trying to work toward a future in the midst of a warzone.
“That’s not his Ukrainian name, but he found a job for a church that converted its entire building to housing and feeding refugees. The Americans he works with call him Elijah, like the Bible character, and he likes it,” he said.
Like many others, Elijah was forced to flee his hometown of Irpin at the beginning of the invasion.
His home that he shared with his wife and children was just a few miles from Hostomel Airport. Now, most of the city has been reduced to rubble.
Zan says Elijah is like many of the people he is encountering; at a loss for what has happened to them and struggling to figure out what’s next.
At this point, Elijah is trying to start life over, but knows he will never go back to Irpin.
“There is nothing there for me now,” Elijah told Zan.
Elijah’s wife and children are safe in Germany, but the distance is wearing on him.
To make matters worse, he has been called up for a medical exam to determine if he is fit enough to serve as a Ukrainian fighter.
“I am a musician. I know nothing about war and do not want to. Helping people, humanitarian volunteer, that is what I am good at and where my heart is. Some people really want to fight. I do not want to fight,” Elijah told Zan.
When the war broke out in Ukraine, the government mandated that men between the ages of 18 and 60 remain in the country to fight.
As a result, many families have been torn apart as women and children flee to nearby safe havens.
The day the war started, Olha and Sofia saw both of their partners called up for combat duty.
Although they were heartbroken and in shock, they knew they had a choice; they could either flee to another country or stay and help any way they could.
They chose the latter.
Zan tells KFOR that they converted their business into a refugee shelter and storage space for humanitarian aid. They are also working to contact their colleagues in cities that are currently under siege in order to get them to safety.
Through all the sadness and confusion, they have become a major part of the community and still hold on to hope for the future.
“We will win. Bring your family to visit next summer. We will show them how beautiful our country is in peace,” they told Zan.
Ivan Podolian knows what it takes to make a difference in the lives of those around him. He founded the Cherkasy Urban Institute in 2015 to support locals who are changing the future.
When the war started, Podolian immediately reevaluated what his nonprofit could do to help his country’s chance of survival.
He started ordering items like sleeping bags, tourniquets, and individual first aid kits. Then, he began working to help small businesses trapped in active combat zones move to safety.
Zan says Podolian was able to convert an abandoned kindergarten into a refugee shelter, while also putting together drone pilot courses for the local military that could help them survive on the battlefield.
The Cherkasy Urban Institute usually runs on donations, which have dwindled since the war began in February. Even though the team at the institute have had to make sacrifices, the staff members have all decided to stay.
Instead of leaving, they took on second jobs to make-ends-meet so they could continue helping those in need at the institute.
Maxim is one of the people benefitting from Podolian’s efforts.
“Before the war, we all thought Russia was our brother country- our friend. We speak Russian, we have family in Russia. But with the war, we saw Russia’s dark side and we learned they are not like us the same as we thought. We learned also who our true friends in the world are,” Maxim said.
As Maxim and his family work to survive in Ukraine, he says his relatives in Russia refuse to believe what he and his parents are seeing at home.
“They believe in Ukraine that Bandera is running around and eating children. How can they believe such things but not trust the word of their family? Can propaganda really be so effective?” he asked.
Despite the struggles he is going through, he still has hope for the future of Ukraine.
“We believe in our president, we believe in our military, we believe in our friends and in our allies. We will win and we will build a better future for ourselves,” Maxim said.
Zan says that while many parts of Ukraine were supportive of Russia in the past, the war has changed all of that.
He says native Russian speakers are now working to learn and speak Ukrainian, and are changing the way they are perceived, and how they perceive themselves.
“Before 2014, and even after, lots of people still felt like Russia was a brother country. Even up until the invasion, there were numerous supporters of Russia here or people with close ties there. But after the invasion, it caused a huge shift in perspective. People who were pro-Russia were being killed just the same as those who were anti-Russia. They saw their homes and kids being bombed, and for what? They see these Russians do not care, they just take what they want,” said Podlian.
While many Ukrainians have drastically changed their way of life to support the war efforts, Oleg and Boris knew they had a set of skills that could be useful on the battlefield.
The cost and the time it takes to get critical supplies into the country is extremely inefficient. Instead, the pair is using their engineering skills to create much-needed items quickly.
They have already developed an inexpensive tourniquet that is already in the hands of paramedics and soldiers on the front lines.
But they’re not the only ones doing their part for the war effort.
Volunteers have taken over an old auditorium in Lviv to create Sitka, a camouflage netting that is used to cover vehicles and equipment on the battlefield.
“I like weaving Sitka- it is like meditating, I think about things. I like to feel I can do something for the front, for the soldiers,” said Iryna.
She says when the war first began, the building was filled with volunteers who wove nets across two separate floors.
“I think people needed to not be alone. To be together and sing patriotic songs. To have something to do,” she told Zan.
As Zan and the volunteers were weaving nets, air raid sirens began to sound. The group moved to the basement, but even a potential bombing wouldn’t stop their work.
Elana is just one of the volunteers, trying to do anything that might make a difference for soldiers on the front lines.
For her, the work is personal.
Her older son is now serving in the Ukrainian Army.
As Zan works to help more refugees, Germany and Zan’s family wait for him to come home.
“Jason can’t fix Ukraine. He can’t undo what happened to his family in Burma. He can’t unlive the trauma associated with anything he’s experiencing right now. Nor can those kids. It’s hard to know these people’s struggles- the people at home and the people in Ukraine- and admit I can’t fix that. But I can be here with you. We can have community around this. And that’s more important right now,” Germany said.
As the world watches, many people are working to help those still in the country.
The Ukrainian National Bank is accepting online donations that directly support the government. There are also organizations like ArmySOS, SaveALife, or Come Back Alive that are working to get equipment to the armed forces in Ukraine.
To help with humanitarian efforts, World Central Kitchen is feeding Ukrainian refugees who have lost everything. People in Need is providing humanitarian aid in the form of basic necessities to humanitarians, while UNICEF is repairing schools damaged by the bombings.
The Guthrie Free Methodist Church is also helping Zan raise funds for the volunteer teams in Ukraine. To make a tax-deductible donation, click here.
“Suffering. It’s universal. But people choosing to take care of each other and help share the load is the only thing that can change it,” Zan said.