Cash for Refugees

A pair of Boston Foundation donors drive a bold and nimble system to get help to those displaced by war

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost one year ago may not have surprised expert watchers of the region, but in bringing full-on war to Europe for the first time in 70+ years it startled and appalled most others.

Among those are members of the Boston Foundation’s community of donors. Natasha Dukach had studied violin in Ukraine, graduating from the Conservatory in Kharkiv and coming to love the country and its people. Horrified by what was happening, within days of the first bombardments she traveled from her home in Boston to the Romania-Ukraine border, where Ukrainian refugees were amassing. She desperately wanted to figure out how to help and needed to see the crisis with her own eyes. Today Dukach is an epidemiologist and from her experiences—especially during COVID—she knows some of the first steps in crisis response are to understand the demographics of people affected and observe their mindset and behavior. She was joined on the journey by her husband, Semyon Dukach, who is managing partner at One Way Ventures, a venture capital company that invests in immigrant-led startups, and who had established a Donor Advised Fund at the Boston Foundation in 2019 called the One Way Foundation.

At the border the couple met hundreds of women, children, elderly and disabled people who had fled homes in or near the battlefield. They’d had to leave fast. Photos incongruously show people who look like they’ve packed for a weekend getaway, with little more than a colorful carry-on suitcase and a diaper bag. Natasha Dukach praises the Romanians’ efforts to receive these sudden refugees—organizing shelters, medical clinics, food stations, heated tents, and the like. What they couldn’t really provide, and what people direly needed, was money. Most had fled with what little cash they had in the house and could not access their bank accounts. They were vulnerable without many choices. There were signs that human traffickers were taking advantage of the situation.

Cash For Refugees volunteer gives cash to Ukrainian mother with two kids at Romanian border
CFR began by giving cash to refugees at the border as they fled Ukraine.  (photo: CFR) 

Many refugees wished to travel to other points in Europe where they had family or friends, but the bus fare was more than they had. The Dukaches saw a way to help. They maxed out their own ATM withdrawals and began giving cash to everyone they met who had need—particularly mothers and grandmothers with small children. They found the average price of bus fare within the EU was $100–200 and started giving that sum. They asked for permission to stand closer to the checkpoint, where people already had their passports out, and where it was clear to see they were a displaced person. They would introduce themselves to people after their check-in and slip money right into their passports. “We are not solving their problem,” Natasha Dukach says, “but it is helping.”

Emotionally wrenching but gratifying, the Dukaches aimed to expand and systematize what they were doing. They posted photos on social media and people in their network and beyond wanted to help. Because Semyon had already established the One Way Foundation as a fund at TBF, they initially directed friends and colleagues to make charitable donations to the Boston Foundation to support the cause. The Boston Foundation thus served as a preliminary sponsor as the project zoomed into action, collecting CFR’s first 81 contributions which seeded the effort with more than $50,000.  

The Dukaches’ dedicated contact person in the Philanthropy Group at TBF then connected them to Fiscal Sponsor Allies to serve as fiscal sponsor while they were completing all the paperwork to register Cash For Refugees as a 501c3 charitable organization. (This process was complete in April 2022, and donors may now give tax-deductible donations to CFR directly.)   

Direct cash payment is an exciting and innovative method of providing aid. We are seeing it more locally (see TBF’s recent Food Fuel & Shelter Fund), nationally in guaranteed income experiments around the country, and internationally with this model. As the effort in Ukraine illustrates, the highly personal and local approach of direct payment can be nimble and expeditious. Dukach notes that some large NGOs have accumulated substantial funds for Ukraine, but they’re stymied by the situation—how to set up operations when local infrastructure is damaged, how to avoid corruption, and so on. “CFR has a generator and Starlink, so we bring our own heat, light, and internet,” says Dukach. CFR’s smaller grant size makes it less a target for corruption, too. So far, Dukach reports, in only one in a thousand cases have they been unable to confirm a proper transaction, where a phone goes unanswered or a card number has expired. They don’t know whether these people may have been killed.

Natasha and Semyon Dukach at laptops process direct assistance grants to displaced Ukrainians
Natasha and Semyon Dukach, at laptops, process direct grants to internally displaced Ukrainians. (photo: CFR )

After the first waves of refugees left Ukraine, civilians have still been on the move but more apt to remain “internally displaced persons” (IDPs), relocating to a safer area within Ukraine. That has allowed CFR to make electronic transfers of money into to people’s bank accounts, rather than hand them hard currency. 

Typically, CFR goes to a village and works with local administrators, so the team knows how many IDPs are there. For example, a team of CFR volunteers went to occupied Kherson—they knew there were about 4,000 people (1,500 families), which would mean about $235,000 disbursed for this “shift.” CFR does collect some data in the process, including a consent form and information on disability or special needs, which it keeps encrypted. “We still focus on IDPs—moms with kids and seniors. When they come to the village, they get a certificate that they were relocated…. Everyone who meets the criteria gets help. It’s clear. In small villages we can do this and the sense of fairness is maintained because all who meet the criteria will get something.” CFR gives $150 per family as a baseline, with add-ons when there are disabilities or special needs. “When they aren’t leaving the country, it’s less about bus tickets but more about affording fuel for the month or replacing a cistern,” says Dukach.

CFR volunteers pay their own way to go to Ukraine. The organization has one staff member in country, himself bombed out of his home and displaced, who receives a small salary and handles local logistics. The skills of organizing teams, watching and preventing burnout among volunteers, and assessing different situations on the ground are essential to making this effort work, and for these Dukach credits her training and experience in epidemiology and analytics during the pandemic from 2020 to 2022. “Without this relevant and invaluable knowledge and experience, I would not be able to pull off regularly organized in-person operations and interviews during this deadly war.”

An image of a demolished house in Ukraine.
What displaced people are leaving behind in Kherson and elsewhere in Ukraine. (photo: CFR)

Support comes to the organization through its volunteers, as well as individual donors. It received a significant grant from BlueCheck Ukraine, an organization co-founded by actor Liev Schreiber in March 2022 that identifies, vets, and fast-tracks financial support to NGOs and initiatives providing humanitarian work on the front lines. Even beyond funding, Jason Cone, who is on the BlueCheck leadership team and the former executive director of the US affiliate of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, met with Dukash to offer advice.

Their own network has come through too, explains Dukach. It connected them to Steven Pinker, who is headlining a fundraiser on February 22, 2023 with a talk on the significance of Ukraine. Says Dukach: “He—and so many of us—thought we were beyond the imperialistic ambitions and were moving forward.… This is for people who want to defend liberalism.”

An elderly Ukrainian refugee

As to how to keep people involved in helping, Dukach says, “Sorry to always return to COVID, but unfortunately we’ve reached ‘herd immunity’ on bad news from Ukraine. Now whatever bombings or atrocities that happen in Ukraine are just expected. Given that, I simply made a promise to myself: Any money we accumulate we deliver. If people lose interest to the point where there are no donors, well… I could do demographic research on the dataset we have. I could publish paper and maybe help that way. I still play the violin—I can go play on the street to collect money.”