Ukraine War Gives Freight Firm a New Purpose: ‘I’m Fighting This Way’

PORT READING, N.J. — A blue dot on a box means nonperishable food, ready for shipping. A red dot means first-aid items for hospitals still standing. A green dot means supplies for Ukrainians taking up arms: boots and kneepads, socks and gloves, thermal underwear and camouflage-patterned clothing.

And in this cavernous warehouse, at the back end of an industrial park in central New Jersey, green dots are everywhere — emerald signals that Ukrainian Americans stand behind Ukrainian civilians who are defending their homeland with their lives.

Just three weeks ago, the warehouse hummed with the business of Meest-America Inc., a freight-delivery service that specializes in shipping goods to Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, including Russia. “Meest” is Ukrainian for bridge.

But on Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, the native country for most of Meest-America’s 108 workers, and business all but stopped. The company was unable to ship to Ukraine, and it could not in good conscience continue shipping to Russia and Belarus.

“Once we saw the images of bombing, it was an easy decision,” said Natalia Brandafi, the company’s chief operating officer.

Natalia Brandafi of Meest-America spends her days fielding calls from people either offering help or begging for it.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Overnight, the New Jersey warehouse became a Ukrainian outpost. The lobby was decorated with a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag, and the phone system modified to play the Ukrainian national anthem for callers on hold. The entire business model was changed to a single purpose:

Help Ukraine.

As raw images and reports of war’s life-shattering toll spread online, Ukrainian American organizations pleaded for donations to help the wounded and displaced. But they also sought aid for those who were setting aside pens and shovels to pick up guns. The response, organizers said, has been overwhelming.

A glimpse could be found in the modest basement of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Holy Ascension in Maplewood, where the wintry backdrop of the Christmas pageant still adorns the small stage. Boxes of donated items covered the tiled floor, and handwritten signs of organization — “diapers + baby care” — were taped to the wood-paneled walls.

But the desired “priority items” listed on a church leaflet more directly reflected the carnage of war. Abdominal bandages. Water-gel burn dressing. IV starter kits. Emergency compression dressings that stem the bleeding from hemorrhagic wounds.

On Wednesday afternoon, Dan and Lynne Gulak, married retirees and church members who had been volunteering since the outbreak of war, were taping and labeling boxes in the basement when the telephone rang. It was the Maplewood Fire Department.

Mr. Gulak listened to the caller, said that words could not express his thanks, hung up — and briefly lost his composure. Removing his glasses to wipe his eyes with a handkerchief, he explained in a quavering voice that the department would be dropping off several dozen boxes of medical supplies. It had also collected $5,000 in donations, and more money was coming.

As he spoke, the red of Engine 32 and the white of a pickup truck, both packed with boxes, flashed past the high basement window. A fire official called to say that the delivery was here.

“Be right up,” Mr. Gulak said, voice breaking once again.

Meest workers like Lesya Tenderyak, in green jacket, stay long after their usual shifts end to help sort, pack and label the donations that have poured in.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Many donations like the one delivered to the church in Maplewood are being trucked to Meest-America’s massive warehouse, where evidence of the company’s interrupted business could be seen in one corner of the 92,000-square-foot space. There, on row after row, sat thousands of packages whose delivery to Eastern Europe had been halted by war: books, clothes and household items, many in Amazon and Target and Walmart boxes.

Among them was a box containing a hedge trimmer, evoking dashed hopes of peaceful gardening in the Ukrainian spring.

Deeper into the building, Meest-America workers, dwarfed by towers of boxed donations, had stayed hours after their day shifts to join the volunteers who were unpacking, examining, sorting and repacking the material coming in.

Lesya Tenderyak, who works in accounts payable, paused to explain why she had been sorting and packing seven days a week. She said she comes from Chervonohrad, in western Ukraine. She said she has family there. She said she would take up arms if she could.

“I’m fighting this way,” Ms. Tenderyak said.

No music as people work; no chitchat. Just the chirp of forklifts, the rattle of pallet lifts, the thump of box upon box.

Some of the donations coming in, items often requiring special paperwork for shipment, help to explain the serious mood: civilian drones, satellite phones, walkie-talkies.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know

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On the ground. Russian forces, battered by the local resistance, have stepped up their bombardment across Ukraine, targeting locations far from the front lines. Satellite imagery of a convoy north of Kyiv suggests that Russia is repositioning its forces for a renewed assault there.

A punishing measure. In a move to escalate the economic pain on Russia, President Biden called on Congress to suspend normal trade with the country, in a coordinated move with the Group of 7 and the E.U. The change that would raise tariffs for many Russian products.

Iran nuclear deal. A European Union official said that talks on reviving the 2015 deal had paused following the invasion. Russia, a signatory to the accord, has tried to use final approval of the deal as leverage to soften sanctions imposed because of the war.

Disinformation push. Russia falsely claimed that the Pentagon was financing biological weapons labs in Ukraine — a lie repeated by Chinese diplomats. The Biden administration called out both countries, saying the United States might provide cover for a potential biological or chemical weapons attack on Ukrainians by Russia.

The somberness deepened a few days ago when a volunteer received a cellphone call. News from the city of Sumy in northeastern Ukraine: Her nephew, who had joined a civilian defense unit, had been killed.

“She collapsed in her chair, crying,” Ms. Brandafi said of the volunteer, whom she has known for years. “And she kept crying.”

Many of the donated items come with cards, drawings or notes for their Ukrainian the recipients, many of whom have joined the fighting.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Such scenes have unfolded while some Russian customers have been calling to berate and complain, leading to raised voices at the reception desk. “They yell at our employees and blame the war on Ukrainians,” she said.

Ms. Brandafi, 51, exuded exhaustion as she sat in her warehouse office late Wednesday afternoon. On a table, her lunch of tomato soup was growing cold in its unopened bag. On the wall, a painting of a moonlit street evoked small-town calm.

It often seemed that the days of routine telephone calls were over. One moment, a Boston tech investor was calling to donate $70,000 for shipping costs; the next, a longtime customer in eastern Ukraine was weeping in panic.

“Heartbreaking,” Ms. Brandafi said.

Warehouse workers the donated good onto trucks to be taken to the airport. From there, they are flown to western Europe and then driven into Ukraine on company trucks.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

She does not cry until after she has left the office at 10, driven the half-hour home and sat down to watch the latest news from her homeland. Then she may cry. But not at work; there’s no time.

Last week, she said, 120 tons of supplies in the warehouse were flown to western Europe and driven into Ukraine by company-owned trucks. And with more donations pouring in every day, the company is working with several nonprofit organizations — including Razom, NovaUkraine and Revived Soldiers Ukraine — to ship as much as possible as soon as possible.

“It can be overwhelming,” Ms. Brandafi acknowledged, as her phone rang and her cold soup sat untouched.

But that street-scene painting on her wall is of Rohatyn, her hometown in western Ukraine, which helps to explain why, on the other side of that wall, another truck was pulling into a bay, and more dots — blue, red and green — were being applied to wrapped bundles.

“These are the streets we used to walk on,” she said.

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