Manna Dablokhar: "I don’t believe in neutrality when people are suffering".
On Feb 24th, the Russian Federation started the bloodiest war on the European continent after WWII. Its troops invaded Ukraine and brought tremendous suffering to ordinary people living in Ukraine. Millions of country residents have left their houses, and thousands were killed, raped, captured and deported to the territory of the invaders.
The whole civilized world has united its efforts to help Ukraine and its people. Manna Dablokhar, CEO at Gift Global Initiative, Global Envoy for the Royal Family Pvt. Offices could not stay aside from what was happening in Ukraine.
I met Manna first time on LinkedIn when I saw her post about the preparation taken before the first visit to Ukraine. Manna and her colleague, Mr Amb Keith L. Kirkwood, have planned a trip to Ukraine to witness what was happening to Ukrainian people on the ground and set up the right connections here for further humanitarian support.
After Manna's travel to Ukraine, I asked her questions about what she saw in the war-torn country and how her organization would support Ukraine further. The interview with Manna is published here and will be republished later by Ukrainian media.
Could you please tell and a few words about you and GIFT Global Initiative?
GIFT Global Initiative is a Humanitarian Diplomacy organization that alleviates human suffering through Social Impact Initiatives by bringing governments and world leaders together, mobilizing the power of volunteers, and engaging the generosity of donors. We implement empowerment programs for families in about 17 countries and work with over 10000 children a year on important issues such as Education, Medical Care, Sports & Clean Energy, Water, Jobs Creation. During time of disasters, our disaster management team functions as a liaison between governments, corporate partners and families impacted by the disaster to channel and distribute humanitarian aid in the most efficient way possible.
Packing humanitarian aid for the people of Ukraine
I currently serve as the CEO of GIFT Global Initiative, Global Envoy for the Royal Family Pvt. Offices, Gulf Region, Global Goodwill Ambassador for the US, and CEO of the Conscious Leadership Institute advocating for and providing mental health coaching and leadership development. I worked with the American Red Cross as their Director of Operations and Director for Round It Up America® (RIUA), a partnership between the Red Cross and the Restaurant industry to eradicate hunger. I have also served as a Human Rights Commissioner on the esteemed Sybil Brand Commission for Institutional Inspections in the US.
What was your first thought when you heard about the start of the war?
Having been to several disaster-affected areas and war zones, when I heard the word war, I thought about the pain and suffering that would be inflicted on innocent families. Imagine living your life peacefully with your loved ones, and one night, strangers show up to your doorstep and give you 10 minutes to pack anything you could, demand that you leave all your belongings behind and evacuate. They claim its for your safety and perhaps it is.
I don’t believe we can fathom how it must feel to leave behind the house and community you lived in all your life, leave behind family members, friends, separating from elders who couldn’t leave, pets who couldn’t be brought, and not know what’s to come, when you may see them again, or perhaps not see them again.
I thought about all those men and women who have no control over what their leaders chose, and yet having to live the consequences of their decisions. And I thought if the world will just stand by once again and see a civilization being run to the ground like so many times before in human history. I thought about the children, the pregnant women, the elderly, the disabled, the pets and the hatred and psychological trauma that will be left behind, as remnants of a war which was not by their choice or in their power to stop.
Why did you decide to help Ukrainians and come to Ukraine? What was the aim of your first visit?
To be honest, when 2022 started, Ukraine was not on the list of places to expand any of our programs. However, that quickly shifted the first week of the war. I found myself staying up at night, feeling restless and deeply drawn to support what was the right thing to do.
I learnt early on from my father, the best way not to feel hopeless is to get up and do something. If you believe an act of injustice is being done, then watching from the sidelines makes you a part of the injustice. I don’t believe in neutrality when people are suffering. You are either on the side of justice or you are part of the reason why injustice could prevail.
We decided to implement our Disaster Aid policy, which starts with a needs assessment. We travel to ground zero, meet with people impacted by the disaster as well as the ones who are in the field helping, government and non-government entities, corporate entities, and other stakeholders.
This is an important step, because often what is being reported out isn’t how things are on the ground. It allows our team to gather firsthand data and set up what we believe is the best infrastructure to distribute the humanitarian aid/services to the families impacted by the disaster.
In course of doing the needs assessment, we get to see who is sitting on the side lines and who is really involved in the process of aiding and helping. In our visit to Ukraine, we went to L’viv, Rivne, Kharkiv and many other important areas and met with different stakeholders.
Both you and Mr Amb Keith L. Kirkwood have visited Kharkiv, the second-largest city of Ukraine, which has been heavily shelled since the first day of the war. On LinkedIn, you said you have no words to express what is happening there. Could you please find at least some words to share your feelings and experience?
For weeks, Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, near the border with Russia, has been under a constant artillery barrage. We went there to locate certain families and couldn’t.
The city looks like frozen in time, like a story of destruction was written which is standing still for the world to see. I don’t think we have yet come to terms with the horrors that lay within these rubbles, bombed-out buildings with windows gutted out, the desolate streets and quiet parks once filled with happy laughter and giggling children running around, free as birds.
As we drove through the desolate streets, very so often I would look outside the window at the cafes, bars, restaurants, and the memories these places must hold. Most of the buildings and homes are destroyed and I thought about what will happen after the war has ended.
The people who lived in these buildings and homes have no place to come back to. And perhaps the buildings, hospitals, schools could be repaired and put back together but how will we put back together the psychological damage left behind by this war.
In Lviv, the city in the West of Ukraine, which is now the hub for humanitarian help coming to Ukraine, you met with the Lviv city administration. Could you please tell us more about what was agreed?
As part of our needs assessment, we visited Refugee Centers as well as Volunteer Centers in the City of Lviv under the direction of and guidance of the Region’s Administration.
Manna and Keith speaking to Lviv Governor
We were able to see the incredible infrastructure that has been put together by and under the leadership of the Governor of Lviv in such a short time. We also visited the Refugee Centers which are temp housing facilities for internally displaced families and individuals who are coming to Lviv from areas such as Kharkiv, Donbass, etc. These refugee centers saw a spike in civilian aid donations and volunteers in the first few weeks of the war.
However, as the war drags on, people are checking out and these centers are beginning to see a shortage of necessary supplies like medicines, surgical supplies, food, clothing, blankets, beds, pet food, etc. The volunteer numbers have fallen. I don’t think people understand how much the Region of Lviv had to buckle up and provide in such a short time.
It’s important for us to educate donors and channel civilian aid donations to Lviv, which is also much safer to store aid now as compared to transporting and storing in Kiev and elsewhere.
Russian propaganda is trying to dehumanise Ukrainians and our authorities. You had a chance to meet several people here: volunteers, Ukraine Government officials, and ordinary Ukrainians seeking aid and peace. What can you say about Ukrainians? Have you seen a small piece of that said by propaganda?
Absolutely not. What we experienced was a country proud of their identity, people who identify as Ukrainian. Hardworking, proud, peace-loving people who just want to go back to their lives. There was anxiety and exhaustion from the war.
Amid news of routinized brutality and air sirens, they were all trying to be the best hosts they could be to us, grateful for us visiting and standing by them, trying to fashion some semblance of normal existence. But you realize as the air sirens go off, and as the Russian military unleashes the full force of its arsenal, any pretense of normalcy is quickly ripped away. Even though we stayed in Rivne for about 3 days, as we left, we could feel a general sense of sadness in the people who dropped us off in Lviv.
What I find most remarkable is the resilience and pride of the people there. I’ve been in many places, rough areas where people are going through incredible trauma. They would reach out to us for money, for help, to get them out. But with Ukrainians, and with some of the many hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced, no one—not one—has asked us for anything.
They were happy to host us, show us around, the only thing they wanted was for the war to end and for them to return to whatever is left of their life from before the war.
They have lost people, seen people wounded terribly, seen their streets obliterated and yet we didn’t experience hate, resentment. They simply want the world to stand by them on its commitment to peace.
Now, when you get back home and have more information about the needs of people in Ukraine, what is your plan?
The work isn’t compartmentalized into needs assessment, education, raising the aid and delivering it. It all happens simultaneously. Now that we are back in the US, our primary goal is to tell the story of Ukraine, the story that has not been communicated outside. The story of everyday heroes.
Manna and Keith speaking about their visit to Ukraine: source.
Heroes aren’t special or set apart, but these heroes compel us because of their ordinariness, not despite it. And in educating the world to see what normal people can do under extreme duress, we want to challenge the world to new acts of courage. The volunteers who have been putting in 24 hours 7 days a week preparing aid kits, going into the heart of the war to deliver these supplies, the two individuals we met who are driving all alone to Kharkhiv to rescue pets, the Member of Parliament piling up boxes of aid, shoulder to shoulder with young men and women in an underground warehouse, the drivers, the photographers, the nurses, the trauma unit doctors, every regular person we met who compelled us to feel the pain they feel for their country under attack, are all heroes.
The primary goal is tell these stories and raise awareness, financial and non-financial aid and channel it through the network we have set up inside Ukraine to the families who need it the most.
How can businesspeople and authorities join your initiative?
We are simplying channels of communication within GIFT for Ukraine. Anyone interested in direct impact, meaning making sure that the money and supplies they want to contribute is used in the best, most efficient way, can reach us directly via email to Kim@ggiusa.org.
If the entity is within Ukraine, then supplies are welcome. If the entity is overseas, monetary donations are important. It costs way more to ship products through international borders into a war zone than it does to buy locally, support Ukraine’s economy by doing so and distribute the aid to areas impacted by the war.
Manna Dabholkar, before the visit to Ukraine and after: how this war has changed you?
We have spent years in war-torn countries, witnessing first-hand the impact of war on people's identity. You witness children who no longer laugh, mothers so sad and brutalized that they forget to take care of their children, and men who come back home, only to realize there is no home left to come back to. In refugee camps around the world, we have people who were unable to claim any sort of identity. And then we met people who decided that, with everything lost, while they were still alive, they will recreate their identity through service to others.
We never know who we are going to be until we are tested, but perhaps we can begin to test ourselves by standing up for the ones who are being tested and create an identity for ourselves which goes beyond the things we own and the people we love. Perhaps by standing up for people impacted by such tests of times, we can create a stronger identity, a deep energy imprint that will hold us up even when everything else falls away, and we are long gone.
War Day 91, 25.05.2022
Get in touch with Manna Dablokhar on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/manna-dabholkar-bba7591b3/
Would you like to support Gift Global Initiative? Send your request to Kim@ggiusa.org
Support the author of the interview via PayPal: email@example.com (all money shall be used to equip the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine)