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Searching for Sasha: Ukrainian Grantees on the Front Lines

Those anxious days of searching for Sasha haunt Marina Lypovetska.

On March 10, 2022, exactly two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, four-year-old Sasha Zdanovych was on a boat with his grandmother and nine others, trying desperately to escape their Russian-occupied village by crossing the mighty River Dnieper.

He wore the only lifejacket. Temperatures hovered below freezing.

The boat never made it to the opposite shore. Shelled by Russian troops, it overturned in the icy water. The grandmother’s body was found the next day.

Sasha, though, was missing.

Image is of Sasha Zdanovych. (Photo courtesy of his mother, Anna Yakhno)

Sasha’s 25-year-old mother Anna Yakhno contacted Lypovetska, who leads the Center for Missing and Exploited Children at Magnolia, a Ukrainian non-profit founded in 2001.

“We believed someone rescued Sasha and took him home,” Lypovetska said. Perhaps he had even been carried across the border to safety; possible sightings were reported in Italy and Romania. “We started a huge campaign here and in Europe.”

Then on April 6, crushing news: Sasha’s body was found. The memory still makes Lypovetska emotional.

“It is very hard that such unfair things can happen in this world,” she said in an interview from Kiev.

Number of Missing Children Skyrockets

Despite the tragic outcome, the case signals the deep need right now for Magnolia, one of the nonprofits working in Ukraine that The Rockefeller Foundation helps support through a grant to the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF.) Implemented by GMF’s local office Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, the grant continues through September 2023.

Up until the Feb. 23, 2022, invasion, Magnolia had investigated about 2,300 cases of missing children in all its years of operations. In the months since the invasion, the number has eclipsed the prior total, reaching more than 2,600 cases in December 2022. Magnolia is a source of support for these families of the missing.

Magnolia team takes calls from families of missing children during a power outage in Kyiv. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia)

The Russian invasion brought other changes for the nonprofit. Originally strategically situated near the central train station in Kiev, Magnolia had to relocate after the area came under attack. It initially lost links to its hotline, so developed online chat tools.

“Online, we started to receive hundreds of requests, and then thousands,” said Lypovetska. “Most of the missing are linked to the military actions—for instance, two boys reported to us who were eventually identified as having died in the missile strike on the Kremenchuk shopping mall. Or the large number of children kidnapped and transported to Russia.”


Magnolia call center for missing children in action. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia)

The nonprofit, founded by a group of journalists in 2001, launched the missing children center in 2005, and joined Missing Children Europe in 2017, becoming part of a network that includes a hotline for all of Europe. It offers an avenue for families trying to locate children from whom they have become separated.

In all, GMF has awarded just under $1.5 million to 71 Ukraine-based civic organizations and independent media outlets since the invasion.

“Hope can be delivered immediately in the form of urgently needed humanitarian assistance,” said GMF President Heather A. Conley.  “But hope is most powerful when it delivers a better future. This is why GMF is focused on Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction and on providing civil society and local leaders with the tools they need to build a more secure and prosperous Ukraine, in the spirit of the Marshall Plan.”

The Rockefeller Foundation also awarded a grant to the Urgent Action Fund, a feminist fund that protects, strengthens, and sustains women and transgender human rights defenders at critical moments. Urgent Action Fund has rushed $2.8 million to 160 grantees since the invasion.

“Funding can sometimes move slowly and come with lots of requirements, but we receive applications 24/7 all year long, and try to respond within 72 hours,” said Theary Chan, the Fund’s Director of Partnerships. “We are developing a five-year strategy, but I wish we could write a 50-year strategy, because the impact of war creates intergenerational trauma.”

Eric Pelofsky, Vice President in the President’s Office for The Rockefeller Foundation, notes the agility and long-term thinking of both these grantees, even in the midst of a crisis, matches Foundation values.

  • The Foundation aims to meet the moment boldly and support the immediate needs of those who are overlooked, while simultaneously focusing on enduring impact. The wide toll of this brutal and senseless invasion demands action, and we felt compelled to meet the crisis in both the short- and long-term.
    Eric Pelofsky
    Vice President, President’s Office, Rockefeller Foundation

Classes in Underground Bunkers, Online, and From Battlefronts

Another Rockefeller Foundation sub grantee that had to refine its mission is EdCamp Ukraine. Registered with the global EdCamp organization on Dec. 29, 2015, the Ukrainian branch represents more than 40,000 educators—about 10 percent of the country’s total—and supports their professional growth.

Today, Ukrainian educators are battling on a frontline of their own, trying to support children in wartime.

Of the around 7 million Ukrainian children, at least 1.2 million are currently displaced within the country, UNICEF estimated in December 2022.

Olexandr Elkin, himself displaced, works on EdCamp from Kyiv. (Photo courtesy of EdCamp Ukraine)

And as of December, 2,619 schools in Ukraine were damaged, with 15 percent of those completely destroyed, noted Olexandr Elkin, who led the formation of EdCamp Ukraine, and is himself a third-generator educator.

Yet classes for young Ukrainians go on – in underground bunkers, metro stations where locals gathered to shelter from shelling at the start of the war, and even from the battlefield via Internet. Now teachers hold lessons at cafes and on the street itself during power outages. And EdCamp works to provide support for its challenged teachers via a consistent online community.

In occupied areas, teachers have been targeted by Russian troops for teaching Ukrainian language or history, and even teaching online is not necessarily safe.

“An outsider can log in under the student’s name… not all parents of students have a pro-Ukrainian position. It is dangerous,” Svitlana Stelmakh, who was teaching civics and Ukrainian history in occupied Kherson in eastern Ukraine, wrote as part of an EdCamp Ukraine-created  initiative “My War: The Lessons,” to share 27 educators’ wartime experiences. Sadly, Stelmakh has since passed away and these were her last published words.

Svitlana Stelmakh, teacher from Kherson. (Photo courtesy of EdCamp Ukraine)

Olena Trybko, teacher from Pomichna. (Photo courtesy of EdCamp Ukraine)

Olena Trybko, a mathematics and computer science teacher in Pomichna south of Kiev, recalled a day when one of her teenage students, sheltering with her sister in their basement, panicked and began weeping at the sound of air sirens.

“She became hysterical, so I called her,” Trybko wrote for the initiative. “Together we began to do breathing exercises; then we talked and laughed until the all-clear signal sounded.” Trybko used exercises from an Ed-Camp Ukraine program.

Missing months of vital education is just one of the ways war impacts children. “Toxic stress,” caused by protracted periods of violence, can lead to lasting trauma and even alter brain structures, shaping the rest of a child’s life.

Needed Now More Than Ever

Lypovetska recalls another case that sticks with her—that of a 15-year-old girl abducted after Russian soldiers shot and killed both her parents and wounded the girl in her leg. Her younger sister was set free.

The older sister, though, is still being held. “I’m worrying very much what they will do, because she is a witness to a war crime,” Lypovetska said.

But there are also successes, Lypovetska notes, underscoring that “we are needed now more than ever.”

She recounts the case of 16-year-old Vlad Buryak, son of a high-ranking government leader in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, who was abducted by Russian soldiers when he was in a car trying to evacuate Melitopol. Russian troops tried to blackmail the father.

Magnolia helped bring international pressure to bear, and the boy was released after three months. “I received this news on the 8th of July and my birthday is on the 9th so you can imagine how happy I was,” Lypovetsky says.

Marina Lypovetska of Magnolia. (Photo courtesy of Magnolia)

Unfortunately, no end to the work is in sight, Lypovetsky notes, and she hopes the funds will hold up, recognizing there are competing priorities as the war enters its second year.

“Children are so vulnerable,” Lypovetsky said. “We have resources to keep going until March. After that, we don’t know. But no matter what happens, we will be here. I believe very much in our victory, because you can’t believe in a world where a dictatorship destroys civilization.”