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Former refugee returns to Ukraine’s border on a solo humanitarian mission

 Gene Litvin unpacks a suitcase with tampons and pads to distribute to Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
Gene Litvin
Gene Litvin unpacks a suitcase with tampons and pads to distribute to Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

When he was 16, Gene Litvin left the Soviet Union and came to America.

Technically, he was from Ukraine. But to Americans who didn’t understand the geography, he was called Russian. Now, as the Russian assault on his home country dominates headlines, Americans understand his nationality much more readily.

Litvin and his family left the dissolving Soviet Union in 1992 as Jewish refugees, fleeing religious oppression and knowing little English.

“The only phrase I knew was, ‘Do you like such a nice weather?’” Litvin recalled on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

He built a life in St. Louis, married and established a family. But when Russia attacked Ukraine, Litvin couldn’t look away. He watched as Russia targeted cities he visited as a kid. He watched as Russian President Vladimir Putin called Ukrainian leaders “Nazis.” He watched as family members in Russia believed Putin’s propaganda.

Gene Litvin shares how he raised $20,000 to aid Ukraine

“I felt like my childhood’s getting destroyed,” he said.

After deliberation, he decided to go on a solo humanitarian mission to the Poland-Ukraine border — delivering four suitcases of pads, tampons and diapers (some donated by his employer, Edgewell, which owns Playtex and other brands) and $20,000 in Venmo donations from family, friends and coworkers.

“My hands got tired of thanking people on Venmo,” he said.

Through Facebook, Litvin was able to connect with Polish volunteers on the ground and find a couch to sleep on. His wife reluctantly supported his trip — but made him promise he wouldn’t cross the border into Ukraine.

"She basically says I didn't give her a choice,” Litvin said. “I just basically showed her a ticket."

Litvin came back from Lublin, Poland, earlier this month after eight days there. Lublin is around 60 miles from the Ukrainian border. Running on pure adrenaline, Litvin slept only around four hours a day. He spent all $20,000 in donations on basic goods and medicine for refugees flooding the country — emptying grocery store shelves every time he visited and giving himself the nickname “the flying wallet.”

He gained new friends, served as a translator and helped connect Ukrainians to Polish citizens who could help them flee their country. He also helped fund a new “store” in a Polish mall for Ukrainian refugees. Though the items are mostly donated, the owners wanted to make it feel like shopping instead of charity.

“Your Ukrainian passport is your credit card,” he said. “You don’t have to pay.”

To Litvin, his actions were nothing extraordinary, but rather a basic duty fulfilled. During his time in Poland, he livestreamed updates to let his donors see how their money was being used.

Money is needed more than donations, Litvin said, because it’s expensive to ship supplies and more effective to buy goods in Poland — especially because refugee needs change hourly.

In Poland, Litvin said he mostly saw everyday citizens making herculean efforts to resettle 2 million refugees — who all arrived in the country in just over a month. Besides relaxing immigration and visa requirements, the Polish government is not helping that much, Litvin said. He suspects political leaders do not want to provoke Putin.

He praised the Polish people for stepping up, even though he said the needs continue to compound.

“They were sending volunteers away the first week,” he said. “Week 2, it became harder. Week 3, they're asking people to volunteer now. So the goodwill is there, but it's running out.” He said Poland does not have enough schools, jobs or housing to accommodate all the refugees.

Even so, Litvin said the energy in Poland is electric and intense. They know the stakes are high; after all, Germany’s invasion of Poland triggered World War II.

He urged listeners not to blame Russians for the actions of Putin.

“Polish people deserve all the kudos. Ukrainian people, we are with you,” he said. “But the Russian people just need to stand up to the dictator. That's the only thing we need to do. History should not repeat itself.”

How to help: Litvin is partnering with Ukraine TrustChain, which was started by Ukrainian immigrants in Chicago. The organization connects with volunteers in Ukraine and Poland and helps evacuate Ukrainians out of their country and delivers food to battle zones. 

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
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