Jason Jones has a saying he often repeats to his staff at the humanitarian organization he founded, the Vulnerable People Project.
“The vulnerable are not weak people,” he says. “They're strong people that have been placed in impossible situations.”
The Vulnerable People Project (VPP), which Jones describes as a Catholic apostolate animated by Catholic social teaching, was launched last year to respond to one such “impossible” situation: the humanitarian crisis that erupted after the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan, which quickly fell to the Taliban.
Now VPP is helping people escape another dire emergency: the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We're seeing the people of Ukraine stuck between these two powerful actors, the same way the people of Afghanistan were trapped between the United States and Taliban,” Jones, a Catholic film producer, speaker, author and activist, told CNA.
VPP is still helping to evacuate Christians and other minorities from Afghanistan every week, Jones said.
Now the organization is doing similar work in Ukraine, where Jones says it has transported thousands of people away from the fighting and destruction.
Many of them have Aleksi Voronin to thank for that.
The 35-year-old native of Kyiv manages a team of drivers, himself among them, who voluntarily take residents of Kyiv and Kharkiv, major Ukrainian cities now in the crosshairs of Russian forces, to the relative safety of western Ukraine or across the border into Poland.
The drivers are mostly driving vans but some passenger vehicles, as well. With the vans, Voronin said, up to a dozen passengers can be evacuated. He told CNA he’s working on getting a bus which could evacuate 50 people.
The vans are tightly packed, but Voronin says that he tries to provide the people with blankets to at least give them “minimal comfort.” He estimates that he's helped evacuate more than 200 people, so far.
“I cannot find the right words to explain the condition of people when I pick them up,” Voronin told CNA, fighting back tears.
Because of VPP’s success in Afghanistan, a Ukrainian friend of Jones asked him to help rescue some family members from the Ukraine following the invasion. As a result, VPP’s newest humanitarian effort, Hope for Ukraine, was born.
Jones doesn’t speak Ukrainian, though. So getting in touch with Ukrainians on the ground posed difficulties, he said.
But as providence would have it, one of Jones’ friends is Los Angeles comedian Irina Skaya, a Ukrainian-born American.
“Jason said, ‘Look, we've been working with Afghanistan, but now this is a crisis.’ So he knew that I was super connected in Ukraine on the ground and we started evacuations,” Skaya, who is leading Hope for Ukraine, told CNA.
Skaya, who speaks Russian, Ukrainian, and English fluently, has about 200 relatives in Ukraine. Through her contacts, she was put in touch with Voronin.
Skaya had a comedy show planned in Kyiv Feb. 25-26, but that was canceled due to the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. She was supposed to be the opening act for Louis C.K. a popular American comedian.
Skaya said she always thought her purpose in life was to do comedy.
“Comedy is great. I love comedy. And when this is over, I'm gonna perform in Ukraine and try to bring as many American comedians into Ukraine as I can,” she said.
But war has reordered her priorities. "My absolute life purpose now," she said, "is to defend my country, to save my country, to save my people.”
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Jones says that Hope for Ukraine has about 100 Ukrainian volunteers, with other volunteers coming from Poland, Ireland, the United States, and elsewhere.
Even a volunteer-driven humanitarian effort is expensive, however. Keeping Aleksi Voronin’s passenger vans and other vehicles on the road gets more costly by the day, due to rapidly rising fuel prices.
Jones told CNA that VPP has raised $15,000 for Hope for Ukraine, but has spent about $50,000 buying resources.
The organization’s response to the invasion will soon include an ambulance and a trauma team of four Emergency Medical Technicians, or EMTs, one critical care paramedic, and two ambulance drivers.
Leading the team will be Andrew Hamilton, 23, a Virginia resident who has worked as an EMT at a construction site and has served as a combat medic while he volunteered with Kurdish military units in northern Syria.
Hamilton, a devout Christian, told CNA his mission is to support the Ukrainian people and if a wounded person needs his care, “they’ll receive the best medical treatment possible.”
Donations to VPP's Hope for Ukraine initiative can be made online at TheGreatCampaign.org. Jones said he has secured a $200,000 matching gift grant, if the organization can raise $200,000 on its own.
Somehow, Jones said, VPP will meet that goal. “We seek to stand with those who have been abandoned because it's dangerous to serve them, or because it comes at a social cost,” he said. “When everyone else flees, that’s when we show up.”
Joseph Bukuras is a journalist at the Catholic News Agency. Joe has prior experience working in state and federal government, in non-profits, and Catholic education. He has contributed to an array of publications and his reporting has been cited by leading news sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America. He is based out of the Boston area.
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