It seems unlikely that a ten-year-old would come up with the idea of sending regular humanitarian aid to hundreds of people in desperate need in Ukraine. But as Stuart Watkins tells it, it was his daughter who inspired his successful venture.
Stuart is the founder of Zenoo, a software company with offices in Lolworth (near Cambridge) and Prague. Zenoo’s work is typically creating programs to sign up or register people for businesses that are regulated — banks, lawyers, real estate companies. One of their biggest clients is NASA, which uses Zenoo products in dealings with all of their employees and subcontractors. Previously they could have done this face-to-face, but because of Covid there’s had to be a switch to online solutions.
And then Russia invaded Ukraine. Refugees fled into countries to the West, and had needs of all kinds, and stories of destitution in the places they had left. Stuart, with some prompting from his ten-year-old daughter, embarked on a plan to address part of the problem.
It was a shuttle service. Boxes of much-needed supplies – bought and packed in Prague – went east, and people came west. Stuart talked to me a few weeks later. The scheme’s now got into its stride.
SW: We load the boxes into buses, typically 1-2 buses a week, and drive to the Ukraine border. There we have about 15 old transit-van type cars with Ukrainian stickers and identifying things on them. A network of volunteers loads the boxes into the vans and drives them to the areas in Ukraine that are difficult to get to. We then fill up the bus with people seeking to get to the Czech Republic or further afield, and we give them a lift to a safe haven.
AB: What happens when you get to Prague?
SW: We have a group of contacts with hotels, hostels, summer camp-type locations for schools or for business getaways. We book that accommodation. In addition, we have connections into the networks in the Czech Republic, where people are offering their own accommodation or there are official channels to house people. On average about 70 percent of the people on the bus will have somewhere to go already, pre-arranged. That’s the best scenario. You drop a group of 15 people in a village and their relatives are waiting for them in the car park and they hug and they’re happy to see each other. It’s so much more rewarding than trying to get them into a hostel where they don’t know anybody. And then, hopefully, the authorities or one of the large agencies will take over.
AB: I was interested to see the contents list for your boxes. How did you reach that particular list?
SW: Two sources. One, our own volunteers in the country go to towns and villages that are currently blocked off or difficult to get to. Those volunteers tell us what’s needed this week. It changes weekly. Two, we put in each package a piece of paper that explains what it is and asks for feedback: did you get the box? was it closed? when did it arrive? They send us photos to show they received things, and they also alert us to what they need most.
We’ve done different classifications of boxes The family box has high nutrient meals, baby foods, toiletries, shower gels, toothpaste – things you’d typically get on a weekly shop. And then we do a children’s box.
That’s where it all started. My ten-year-old daughter, when the war broke out, she’s like ‘What can we do?’ And she said, ‘Why don’t we send them positivity boxes?’ During Covid she’d been sending boxes to her friends with toys and sweets if they had Covid. So we’ve got these children’s boxes, with games, colouring pads, reading books, notebooks, puppets, sweets. And letters from kids all around the world. They send these in to us and we send them on to the kids in Ukraine. It gives them a little bit of an uplift and some positivity.
AB: Where did your daughter get the idea?
SW: It was something she was doing off her own bat during Covid. I think she’d heard someone do something like it on the radio.
AB: Can you say something about that Ukraine-coloured board behind you?
SW: The beautiful thing around it is that the cards on it have a common theme. Absolutely amazing, considering that these come from kids five years old up to twelve. And it’s all around You can be brave. We love you. We’re in it with you. Be strong. It’s really beautiful to receive these letters in the office here.
AB: Where do you get donations from?
SW: All around the world. Colombia, United States, UK, France, Spain, Czech Republic, Germany. We’re not a charity, but it’s non-profit.
The way it works is that people buy (say) two family boxes and the bus ticket for five people online. We’ll pack the boxes, deliver them to the people that need them, and then fill the buses with refugees and bring them back.
We’ll take whoever we can. We’ll have people on the border to liaise with incoming folks; we don’t just walk up to the border and hold up a sign for Prague and have people gravitate around us. We normally know who’s coming to the border, so we organise it to say ‘On this day, at this time, there’ll be a bus to Prague.’ Now we’re looking to operate to the UK, Switzerland, France. The Czech market’s getting saturated and people have to go further.
A lot of it’s pre-arranged. There’ll be people on the border that need a lift. If we’ve got capacity we’ll take them. Donors buy in the region of 50-100 tickets a week. We’re making a little dent in the problem. It’s been a lot of people that need help getting from the border to safety.
AB: What border checks do you face?
SW: None. Poland, Czech Republic and Germany are all in the EU. Police at the Ukraine border will let us across to unload. But we only pick up passengers on the Polish side of the border, which is already in the EU. Driving to the UK might be different.
And we’ve built something called FreedomID, because one of the things we saw on the border, or heard rumours of early on, was human trafficking. I got really disturbed when I heard of this in mid-March.
We put together a team and built FreedomID in about a week. Its main objective is to identify people that are offering a lift to refugees on the border, and also people that are offering accommodation.
Where there’s no verification of those people, there’s no traceability, there’s no friction for anyone who’s looking to do a bad deed. Millions of people are getting matched by sites that were built on the charity of the developers, and they don’t have money to pay for expensive checks. We’ve launched FreedomID for those guys, to help reduce some of these issues we’re finding.”
So alongside its venture into logistics and passenger transport, Zenoo is also applying its core skill of software design to Ukraine’s sufferings, and bringing a new creation into the world.
Readers who’d like to help with the boxes and buses should go to https://www.freedom-boxes.com/ for further information.