Ukrainian Canadian businesses pivot to provide aid to a country devastated by war

Eager to save Ukraine, several Ukrainian-Canadian businesses have pivoted their operations to fund or deliver humanitarian aid, putting profits aside in the process.

Companies tied to Ukraine shifting to humanitarian aid, putting profit aside

Iryna Kisil of the shipping company Meest Global stands in a Toronto warehouse packed with donations from Canadians. Since the Russian invasion began last month, Meest has pivoted to helping delivery aid to Ukraine. (Carlos Osorio/CBC)

Canadians have responded with a range of assistance for Ukraine as more than three million people have fled the country during the Russian invasion that's now in its fourth week.

There are community donation drives, fundraisers like perogies for peace, non-profit organizations supplying immediate needs in Ukraine, people buying gear for the Ukrainian army and even Canadians enlisting to fight on the front lines.

Also eager to help, several Ukrainian-Canadian businesses have pivoted their operations to fund or deliver humanitarian aid. Three businesses with ties to Toronto and Central Ukraine told CBC News they're putting profits aside to do so. 

"We're trying to do literally everything that we're able to do to help get aid into Ukraine," said Iryna Kisil, chief experience officer of Meest Group, a shipping company based in Toronto and Lviv, where shelling recently intensified. 

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In the first days of the war, which began Feb. 24, Meest switched from moving international packages for profit to delivering humanitarian aid at cost. 

There's an urgent need for help from all sectors. 

According to the International Red Cross, conditions in Ukraine have become "nothing short of a nightmare." 

From shipping company to crisis courier 

So far, Meest has flown 50,000 kilograms of clothing, food, medical supplies and military gear from Canada, and 280 000 kilograms of aid from the U.S. to Ukraine. 

As well, 30 containers are on the way by sea.   

Meest provides free shipping for medical aid and deep discounts on the rest through donations from the BCU Foundation, a charity created by Canada's largest Ukrainian-Canadian credit union

A worker at the Meest warehouse in Lviv, Ukraine, checks a load of humanitarian aid. In the first days of war, the company switched from shipping packages for profit to delivering the humanitarian aid at cost. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC )

Founded in 1989 in Toronto by Kisil's father, Rostyslav, the company was created to connect the Ukrainian diaspora in North America to the homeland. 

Its name comes from the Ukrainian word for bridge. 

Meest has grown to serve over 40 countries, but 75 per cent of its business was still delivering packages and online purchases to Ukrainian customers. 

After the attack, it changed gears to become the country's crisis courier.   

"It is our responsibility that we feel to help Ukraine," Rostyslav Kisil told CBC News through a translator over a video call from Lviv.     

The new business plan is to break even and keep the doors open. 

Some employees missing, others work free 

The warehouse of Meest's Ukrainian headquarters is stacked with supplies after they landed in Poland.

Up to 350 drivers are on the road daily, taking aid anywhere it's safe to deliver.  

Before the war, Meest had 2,500 employees in Ukraine. It's been unable to locate 420 of its workers in Russian-occupied areas, like the ravaged city of Mariupol.   

The company is moving staff to safe areas and out of the country. 

Ukrainian Canadian company pivots to humanitarian aid amid war

1 year ago
Duration 1:13
Rostyslav Kisil of Meest Global describes how his Canadian company is delivering aid in Ukraine, despite being unable to locate 420 of his own workers in combat areas in the country.

Many of those staying are working free.   

With company revenue way down, employees closest to the front lines are paid first. 

Looking ahead for the business, Rostyslav Kisil said, "Two months for sure we can survive." 

Online notices from DHL, FedEx and UPS show the giants have suspended operations in Ukraine. 

Iryna Kisil hopes to convince one of them to ship aid into border countries, and then Meest would carry it to Ukraine.   

"It would be such an amazing story in partnership, where the big guy helped the little guy make a difference."

Meest is also trying to contact big retailers like Canadian Tire, Costco, Loblaws and Walmart to donate supplies and shipping costs. 

Hotel houses people fleeing Eastern Ukraine 

Another Toronto connection with Lviv can be found at the Hotel Wien.   

The boutique hotel and café in the heart of the city have been in the Mandyuk family for three decades.

Daughter Olha Mandyuk lives in Toronto, but worked at the hotel until she finished university. 

"We can't even imagine our life without it."   

Hotel Wien in Lviv during summer 2021. It's been housing refugees fleeing Eastern Ukraine since the start of the war. Owner Oleh Mandyuk has a Canadian passport and could leave, but believes it's his duty to stay and help. (Submitted by Olha Mandyuk)

She said the hotel has pivoted to housing people fleeing Eastern Ukraine in its 23 rooms. Some are even sleeping in hallways and are also at the family house. 

Mandyuk said her father, Oleh Mandyuk, cut room rates by more than 50 per cent, charging only what is needed to cover utilities and pay the staff.   

The restaurant has shifted to a simple break-even menu of comfort foods. 

The family isn't talking about how long the business can last this way. 

Mandyuk's father is 63, has a Canadian passport and could leave, but believes it's his duty to stay and help. 

"He said that he will stay until the end, no matter what, " she said.   

Saving Ukraine is a full family effort. 

Mandyuk's job at the Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce is focused on helping companies in Ukraine survive and collecting Canadian job opportunities for people from the country

One of her brothers lives in Poland, where he's helping refugees. The other joined Ukraine's army this month. 

Olha Mandyuk, on the left holding her daughter, Olha's parents Ivanna and Oleh, centre, and brothers Danylo and Kostyk, back right, have been working hard to help Ukraine. This 2018 photo of the family was taken in their hotel in Lviv. (Submitted by Olha Mandyuk)

Mandyuk's mother, Ivanna, would be working at the hotel if she hadn't come to Canada in February to help her granddaughter Melaniya recover from cancer surgery.  

Through translation by her daughter, Ivanna said war is frightening. She knows it's not safe to return, and along with worry, there's anger.       

"I always try to live by Christian values and commandments, but at this point I would take a gun and shoot." 

Vodka brand pours all profits into aid   

Zirkova Vodka was founded by Katherine and John Vellinga of Oakville, Ont., and sold at Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores. It's made under contract by a historic distillery in Zolotonosha, a town 2½ hours southeast of Kyiv.

When the invasion began, Zirkova announced 100 per cent of profits would go to humanitarian aid for Ukraine, through the Canada-Ukraine Foundation. 

"I'm not worried about myself right now; I'm worried about Ukraine," said Katherine, whose displaced Ukrainian parents immigrated to Canada in the 1950s. 

Chief executive officer Katherine Vellinga of Zirkova Vodka is shown inside a liquor store in downtown Toronto. Zirkova Vodka is made in Ukraine and donating all its profits to humanitarian aid to the country. (Carlos Osorio/CBC)

She's pivoted to full-time activism, helping families connected to the distillery get to safety and promoting Ukrainian aid organizations like Help Ukraine, which she said get donations quickly to the country. 

The area has been hit by shelling. Men have gone to fight and the distillery is making sanitizers for hospitals. 

She said "there is no plan B" for her business. 

It can't be moved as the brand is all about the country. The spirits, bottle, label — every part of Zirkova comes from Ukraine. She's worried about stock running out and the distillery being bombed. 

But country comes before company. 

"I can't go to defeat," Katherine said, "because Ukrainians aren't going there. Ukrainians are doing everything that they can."

A 'double burden' for businesses trying to help   

Before the war, Meest was growing rapidly. 

Now, Iryna Kisil wonders if Meest might have to become a contractor for non-governmental organizations delivering aid to survive, because current costs aren't sustainable.

She said it's a "double burden" for businesses that have lost revenue because of the war to keep operating and pay their staff, while also delivering or funding humanitarian aid.   

As crucial financial donations pour in for charities, she worries "Ukrainian businesses are getting lost." 

Business will be essential for supplying needs, employment and tax revenue to help Ukraine recover, say Kisil and Katherine Vellinga.   

"This is long term. This is ongoing, and we need partners to help us with this," said Kisil. 

Mariupol mostly destroyed by Russian forces, theatre rescue efforts ongoing

1 year ago
Duration 2:42
Officials in Mariupol, Ukraine, suggest as much as 90 per cent of the besieged city has been damaged or destroyed by relentless attacks from Russian forces, while reports emerge of survivors at a bombed theatre where hundreds of civilians had taken shelter.

With files from JF Bisson, Chris Brown, and Stephanie Jenzer

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