Story #62. From Businessman to Volunteer

December 15, 2022
The story of Mykola Viknyanskyi from Odesa, who helps the Ukrainian army and refugees from war-torn regions. #UkraineWorldTestimony

Mykola Viknianskyi is an Odesa businessman and the founder of the Hostynna Khata volunteer center. At the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mykola decided to help the army by providing food and arranging logistics for the defenders of Odesa.

When, in the second month of the war, a large number of refugees from other regions began to arrive in Odesa, Mykola switched to helping civilians. First of all, from Mariupol and Mykolaiv.

One day, a woman with two children approached him and asked where she could get help. When Mykola clarified what kind of help she needed, she answered: "We are from Mariupol. What we are wearing now is all we have. We haven't eaten in a long time, we have nowhere to sleep, and nowhere to wash. We have nothing."

Every day, there were more and more people like this. Mykola decided that it was necessary to organize aid not only for the military, but also for civilians. He approached the mayor’s office with a proposal to create a city humanitarian headquarters.

Mykola became the mayor's adviser on humanitarian issues and began to write appeals to large international foundations, mayors of other cities, and various organizations. This allowed him to set up a process to help those in need.

"We have gotten help from dozens of Ukrainian cities, all of Europe, the USA, and some Asian countries," Mykola said. Based on the successes Mykola, his colleagues, and the city government had had providing aid, they set up a center to serve displaced people at city school 117. This is the school where Mykola's daughter studied, but because of the war, she is living in the Netherlands for now.

In the first months of the war, Mykola and his colleagues were worried that Russian troops could cut Odesa off from the rest of the country by passing north via Mykolayiv to Transnistria, leaving the city totally besieged.

Mykola began to prepare for this. At his volunteer center, he and his staff distributed all perishable food to refugees. They reserved the non-perishable food in different warehouses in case the city fell under siege.

The volunteer center in Odesa which Mykola organized and created has become the largest such center in Ukraine. Between 500 and 700 families receive help here every day, with peak days seeing as many as 900.

Now, during blackouts, the volunteer center works on generators and with Starlink. Mykola offered his own office to be used by UNICEF free of charge.

Currently, Mykola is helping refugee families, children, and Ukrainian military personnel, as well as maintaining dialogue with the international press. "I finally gave an interview to Forbes, although earlier I had expected to give it for another reason," Mykola says with a chuckle.

Many foreign journalists have asked Mykola Viknyanskyi why Odesa is not on the UNESCO Heritage list. In response, Mykola went to the city government with this issue and actually started the process of including Odesa’s downtown on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. Mykola hopes that this status can protect Odesa from Russian attacks.

This material was prepared with financial support from the International Renaissance Foundation.

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