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Mission 2020: The Dive Industry’s Challenge to Eliminate Single-use Plastics

If you’ve been active in the dive industry over the last two years, and/or bought any of Fourth Element’s uber-divewear, you’ve no doubt heard of Mission 2020. Now quick, answer me this: What the heck is Mission 2020? Who’s behind it? What are they hoping to achieve? Ha! Thought so! Yes, it has something to do with conservation. Here InDepth editor Amanda White sits down with hyperbaric pied piper Fourth Element founder Paul Strike to get the deets. Hint: It’s all about the plastic, and the entire dive industry (well almost) has gotten involved.

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By Amanda White

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Almost two years after the announcement of the Mission 2020 Pledge, nearly 200 dive industry organizations and businesses have pledged to do their part to reduce their company’s impact on aquatic environments. 

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Mission 2020 is a collection of pledges from organizations in the diving industry to change their business practices in order to help protect and preserve our oceans for the future. The primary focus of the pledge is to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic before World Oceans Day in 2020. Plastic is an issue that is at the forefront of a lot of consumers minds.  Scientists from the nonprofit advocacy group “5 Gyres” found there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while almost four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. 

 Mission 2020 was founded by UK-based dive garment company, Fourth Element in hopes of combating their contribution to the growing plastic problem. We caught up with 4E co-founder Paul Strike who is in charge of product development to see what the state of Mission 2020 is now.

How did Mission 2020 come about?

Paul Strike:

Jim [Standing] and I had a number of conversations at the 2017 DEMA tradeshow about doing something for the environment. A couple of months later we were discussing it [Mission 2020]  again and came up with an idea: Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could actually encourage other people, other companies, to join us and do something that would make a difference? That’s how Mission 2020, as the industry knows it, was born.  It’s not about Fourth Element, but about developing an industry initiative that will allow all of us to speak with one voice.

Jim Standing (Left) Paul Strike (Right) founders of Fourth Element and Mission 2020. Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

So it would have more power than just a single company behind it?

Yes, that kind of combined effect of having a number of companies: actually, in fact, a whole range of people and businesses and brands, dive centers, and organizations involved in the scuba diving industry, all coming together with one common cause– to do something positive for the ocean. There are nearly 200 entities that have made a pledge to effect change under that Mission 2020 heading. We are an industry that enjoys the ocean and makes a living off of it, so it’s in our best interest not to screw up our playground.

A strong and powerful message is being presented by the diving industry through Mission 2020. It could be the only and is certainly the first industry in the world to take some kind of combined, unified stance on this, one that is sending a strong message to consumers and other businesses. 

Why did Fourth Element choose to focus on single-use plastics?

Well, think about how much plastic is involved in packaging a pair of scuba fins. And that’s a big, relatively heavy-duty plastic bag with a plastic carry handle that sometimes clips together. And I suppose it would be interesting to find out how many pairs of fins are sold in scuba diving. You know, that’s probably hundreds of thousands, isn’t it? And that’s just one product! It’s scary. That is just a huge amount of plastic. The magnitude of these plastic stats and of what’s going on globally is just… It’s mind-boggling. It’s so huge, the impact, it’s almost a bit like when people are talking about distant planets; it’s very difficult to get your head around it because it’s too big.

Thankfully, it’s something that so many people are talking about and obviously not just in the dive industry. You can’t seem to turn on the TV without there being something about plastic. Thankfully, there are lots and lots of companies changing things. But equally scarily, there are lots of companies that don’t seem to be making any changes. 

What are you changing in order to reach your Mission 2020 goals?

Jim and I are both equally committed to trying to achieve these goals. The whole company is behind this mission. From the people designing and creating the clothing to those packing and dispatching it everyone in the company is behind this. 

With hand on heart, we couldn’t promote an environmentally positive product, something that’s been made from recycled nylon, and then put it in a plastic bag. Obviously, on one hand, we were doing something that was in some way beneficial, while on the other hand, completely eradicating it. So that made us look more carefully at the packaging. And we have found various, or we have tried various means to package our Ocean Positive swimwear, ways that would be without the use of plastic right down to the Kimball tags and everything.

That’s your swimwear line made from recycled ghost finishing net right? 

Yes. 

Fishing net removeal. Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

[Note: In 2009 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that there were approximately 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing nets in the oceans, accounting for one-tenth of all marine litter.]

What is your timeframe?

Our deadline, our self-imposed deadline, is the World Oceans Day in 2020, by which time our ambition is to be single-use plastic-free from all of our packaging. And it will have taken us the better part of two years to get there. It’s not just a linear progression. We’ve made some leaps ahead, and we’ve changed quite a lot of things already. By the end of this year, we should be almost there, if not all the way there [single-use plastic free]. But I suspect we may have one or two little nuggety ones to solve in the early part of 2020. 

And I think again, that’s the sort of message I’d like to put out there to everyone: as much as we all need to change our behavior to reduce the waste of single-use plastic, I think it’s unrealistic to expect individuals and/or companies to change everything overnight and some immediate changes may not be the perfect solution, but steps along the way to achieving a perfect solution and a necessary part of the process.  

What are some of the difficulties 4E faced in achieving their plastic-free goals?

I mean there are so many variations, there are so many things to consider in this process. Everybody will have their own challenges, ones that are specific to their company structure and their supply chain. So it’s a multilayered, multi-complex challenge and a huge problem to resolve.

For us, it’s time-consuming, it’s expensive, it’s challenging. Unfortunately, the plastic bag is so good at what it does in terms of protecting a product. It’s clear; you can see the product through the bag. It’s cheap. It’s waterproof, just to name some of the beneficial characteristics of a plastic bag. And it’s incredibly good at doing what you actually want it to do. 

The major downfall is that it stays around for hundreds and hundreds of years afterwards. And of course, we’ve seen the result of that in waterways around the world and horrible wildlife footage where you see whales that have been cut open with thousands of these bags inside of them. So trying to find a product, or safe products, that actually replicate the plastic bag is challenging.

What kind of replacements have you found so far?

One of the ways 4E is packaging their merchandise. Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

We have investigated and used bags that are made from vegetable-based or plant-based material. And that works pretty well for a lot of products, for a lot of situations. But it has some limitations. And unfortunately, it’s not a kind of one-stop-shop of going, “oh great, we’ve got a replacement for the plastic bag! However, we do have a plastic bag type thing made from plant material which biodegrades, and it actually will break down in the water, and it can be eaten by a turtle and it doesn’t kill them. It can be digested by sea life. But unfortunately, it has its challenges with temperature, and it can get brittle, and sometimes it can crack. So it doesn’t achieve all of what we need it to achieve. 

We’ve used paper bags, we are increasingly using paper bags for our T-shirts, which we then need to label very clearly. And so then, of course, we need to look at a paper-based sticker that is using a glue that is non-toxic. And that’s another little problem to solve.

Paper packaging for t-shirts from 4E. Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

Every step of the way there seems to be another step or two related to it which is something that needs to be resolved or something that needs to be overcome; whereas your plastic bag is so damn simple. And that is the fundamental problem. 

So are there companies working on these problems?

There are companies that are taking the technology a bit further, there are better solutions every day. We are constantly looking at these because we haven’t found the ultimate solution, and they work for some products and not others. Sometimes there are size limitations to what’s possible and sometimes there are cost limitations to what is possible as well. So there are magnitudes of scale and economy like that, which can get quite scary from a cost point of view.

The other challenge is sifting through the actual science, the real science, behind the bags. Because a lot of the bags that are coming out, or at least some, will biodegrade. But they don’t necessarily biodegrade into biomaterial. They biodegrade into small particles of plastic, which is not what we want. The bag ceases to become a bag and it breaks down into little bits of plastic, but that really doesn’t solve the problem at all. 

So, not every solution you’ve found solves the problem?

That one solves some element of the problem, that it’s less of a hazard to marine life. But the little bits of plastic will end up getting into the water table and will get into rivers and then end up being flushed out to the ocean. It’s the same way that the microfilaments that washed out of your fabric or your garments when you put them through a domestic washing machine, you’ve got the same fundamental problem there. These little microfilaments of plastic. So it’s pointless replacing a plastic bag with a bag that just breaks down into tiny bits of plastic. So you have got to be careful with regard to what types of solutions you find.

Tags for 4E shirts in stores. Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

There are some real challenges, and they all take time. But we are getting there. And I think what is really encouraging, and we’re not saying that we’ve solved this problem, but the more little steps that we all take toward achieving the sort of endgame of eliminating single-use plastic, the more solutions that become apparent in the process.

Nice! How do you feel about industry participation in Mission 2020? Has it been well received by the dive industry?

I looked through the list again today to see who has signed up. And I feel really heartened by the fact that a significant number of brands and companies have jumped on board with it and made their commitment to do something different in order to benefit the ocean environment. Obviously, we make quite a few competitive products to some of the brands but it’s really been encouraging to see who has come on board. It’s fantastic that they are seeing the bigger picture.

We’ve got PADI. It was fantastic to get PADI on board. They exert so much influence in the world of diving generally, and they’ve encouraged a lot of their dive centers throughout the world to consider getting involved. GUE has already signed up and is doing the same. It’s fantastic to get major training agencies on board. That creates a great deal of influence amongst the diving industry, the diving market, and people who are involved in diving. 

A lot of dive centers have also become involved. We’ve got dive centers that have signed up from Bali to the USA to the UK, virtually globally, and have made a commitment to doing things differently. I’m not exactly sure of the density in the areas that are the most significantly represented, but I was really quite encouraged by how widespread this has actually become. 

What challenges do you face with improving the sustainability of your products? 

The neoprene that we use in our wetsuits contains between 15 to 20% recycled material from car tires. So it’s an effective recycling process of car tires where 85 % of the car tire is recycled, and the black rubber material is integrated, or is used in the production of the neoprene and accounts for between 15 and 20% of the neoprene that is used in our suits. So again, it’s not the end game, but it’s a step in the right direction. 

There is a huge amount of investment going into the reuse and recycle-ability of neoprene. And it may be that the endgame or the ambition of recycling neoprene wetsuits to make more neoprene wetsuits is probably a long, long way off because of the nature of the neoprene once it’s been laminated with the linings inside and out and stitched together etc. And then in order to recycle that material, that suit, there are many processes involved.

And that is one of the biggest impediments and a huge challenge to any recycling process, for when you have mixed materials and mixed construction, it becomes much more challenging to recycle that product. It’s almost impossible to separate different forms of plastic because they have different properties. So that is something, again, in this whole manufacturing process that we’re thinking more about. Like, what we can do to make the product easier to recycle at the end of its life? That’s another thing, going back to wetsuits, I think it’s much more realistic to think of neoprene wetsuits getting recycled for repurposing not as neoprene wetsuits anymore but something else that perhaps requires material similar to neoprene. 

How about with your clothing? 

Well, basically certain garments shed little microfibers more than others. And it often depends upon how tight-knit that fabric is. And you have a traditional fleece, and the fluffy surface is created by brushing loops, knotted loops of polyester, usually, and breaking them and splitting them and fluffing them up, shall we say. Now that obviously damages these loops and it breaks them and consequently, that is then more susceptible to little fragments breaking off in the washing process. So if you had a garment with the same composition but it’s tightly knitted and hasn’t been brushed, then it sheds fewer filaments. 

So a rash guard and swimwear, by the nature of their construction, will shed many, many fewer filaments than a fleece that has been brushed significantly to create a fluffy, soft-feeling texture. Also, there is some evidence that at least suggests that the better the quality of the knit or the better the quality of the fabric, by and large, there is a reduction in the number of filaments that are lost because the knitting process is  higher-quality, is a more secure knitting and in effect the garment doesn’t shed its yarn quite as easily. I’m afraid I’ve become a self-confessed fabric geek. I know more about fabric and knitting than I ever wished to know really.

What are the future plans after Mission 2020 has “ended”?

Obviously continued commitment to do what we can do, and hopefully, we will have eliminated single-use plastic from our packaging. I’m pretty confident that we will have achieved that. And part of the Mission 2020 statement is also about our continued quest for using recycled materials in our product range and looking for alternatives to harmful plastics. Some of our products use waterproofing technology which is less chemically toxic. The water runoff is cleaner. 

We are actively working with fabric producing fabric knitters that are investing in more sustainable processes in their business. So, basically we will continue to choose a supply chain that minimizes environmental impact over ones that are carrying on as normal, shall we say. It’s about the plastic, in effect, but it’s also about the bigger picture. Therefore, we will continue to invest in and develop less impactful processes in the supply chain and production of our products.

Do you have hope for the future? 

Obviously as we are all very aware, elimination of the single-use plastic is a global issue and I’m excited by going online and finding that there’s been a new breakthrough with this or somebody’s investigating this or come up with a technology that may not be the end game, but it’s improving and it’s making progress. We shouldn’t feel like we’ve failed because we haven’t gotten to the end game straightaway.

And what the great thing about all these things is that the more that companies actually look for these products, the more there are manufacturers and companies starting up, creating and selling products to replace plastics. When we started, there seemed to be only one viable option available. I’m sure it wasn’t one, but we found there were very few options in terms of getting something that was like a plastic bag, but not plastic. And now there seem to be more and more alternatives springing up every month.

What about consumers? There are an estimated 500 billion single-use plastic bags used each year by shoppers. 

Photo courtesy of Paul Strike.

Ultimately, it comes down to consumers because they are one of the most powerful drivers, from a company’s perspective, as we all know. The movement depends on them. Once consumers become aware, take a stand, and actually change their behavior, companies will have to come around. If a company experiences a decline in the sale of a product because aware consumers see little to no effort toward reducing or ending single-use plastic, the company will have to make changes. 

And I suppose this is almost a kind of plea or mandate to consumers to think about your choices. Of course, if it costs more to buy the environmental product. And some people may be lucky enough to be able to do that, but many people aren’t. However, we are finding that the price difference between an environmentally friendlier product, whether it’s the way it’s packaged or the way the materials are used, is getting narrower.

As for Mission 2020, it would be great to see the dive industry as a whole adopt this challenge. 
Global Underwater Explorers has made a Mission 2020 pledge. At GUE, we pledge to launch an annual GUE Cleanup Event. We feel we can have the greatest impact by utilizing our network of divers in a worldwide cleanup of our waters. We hope to power our office with solar in the near future, will continue to recycle, and eliminate any single-use plastic from our products.


Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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Divers Helping Divers: Next Stop Ukraine

What can one diver do to change the world? Ask tech diver and fitness instructor Kenzie Potter Stephens, who is completing her undergraduate studies at KIT in Germany. Kenzie and her impassioned team reached out with open hearts to help fellow Ukrainian divers. The results? They conducted ten 1500km car caravan trips, ferrying supplies to the embattled country. They also bravely rescued and found homes for nearly 200 Ukrainians. Divers make a difference!

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Text and images by Kenzie Potter Stephens. Lead image created by Rico Besserdich.

Divers Helping Divers

As divers, we often speak of community, teamwork, the effective use of energy, and applying a holistic approach to both our dives as well as our lives. I would have easily said I knew why these principles were so important; however, it is only recently, when under fire, their true meaning became clear to me.

News of the war in Ukraine is a constant in our lives. We are inundated with images of unimaginable crimes against humanity and are horrified to witness mass genocide in this country. In Europe, massive crowds of refugees needing help is a common topic of concern. It is exhausting to be confronted daily with our own fragility and mortality and to be disturbed in our own little worlds with our own little problems—problems that pale in comparison to those of those refugees.

I can fully understand anyone who is overwhelmed or even annoyed by the constant coverage. When the war first broke out, I found myself glued to my phone in utter and complete shock. I had trouble sleeping and would even awake at night to check the current death toll. Nowadays I, too, flinch as soon as I hear news concerning Ukraine, and my first instinct is to turn off the radio. So what changed?

Two months ago, feeling nervous on the morning of my last final exam for the winter semester, I was brushing my teeth when I realized I could no longer ignore the misery that surrounded me. I had grown up in the US Army; both parents served in one way or another. My father had done a few tours in Kuwait. My childhood had been spent with reminders of war—harrowing tales of tragedies, traumas, and heroism were part of my life’s narrative.

In spite of, or perhaps because of this upbringing, I had avoided both war movies as well as political discussions about “right” and “wrong.” But this was different. This war was within driving distance for me. This invasion was happening to people who shopped at the same stores I and my friends did, visited the same cities, and worked in the same businesses. This was personal.

Setting The Wave Into Motion

In a series of events that now seem surreal to me, I was able to set up a small team via social media (including platforms like Craigslist) consisting of equally motivated individuals within a 100-mile radius of my town. My husband and I canceled the much-needed vacation that was planned to bring us stress relief from our busy, safe lives, and I spread the word. I couldn’t quite place it at that moment, but something about shouting my mission out into the world seemed so daunting at that moment. Like a loose area of snow you somehow know is going to send off an avalanche that will change everything. And change everything it did.

Within a single day, hundreds of people reached out, made donations, sent well wishes, and our hallway began to fill with boxes–supplies and sleeping bags. The response was overwhelming, and I canceled my fin-swimming training in order to process and sort the sheer volume of donations. As a dive instructor in training, I am generally in close contact with other diving instructors, and one has become a great mentor to me. Immediately, he connected me with a dive colleague of ours, Igor Siryk, located in Poltava, Ukraine. Within minutes we had aligned our missions and created a joint plan on how to get him humanitarian aid. My thrown-together team asked me if I knew him personally, to which I said: “The world is full of divers who are close friends that you just haven’t met yet”.

The financial support following my shout out was so massive that I made two of the largest in-person purchases I had ever made in my life (aside from my drysuit). Never would I have imagined myself walking into a German army shop and plainly stating, “I need to equip an army with protective gear. Here is $2000.” After loading up on boots, camouflage nets, propane stoves, backpacks, binoculars, and such, I headed over to an electrical shop and bought every single external battery pack and heavy duty flashlight I could find, amounting to around $1500.

Both shops gave a 5% discount and wished us good luck. Still, the final stop to the grocery store in the same building for food for the next few days was what really touched me. As I pushed my cart full of electrical supplies past the cashier, I was prompted to produce a receipt. In doing so, I explained the mission and on the spot, the cashier opened her wallet and with tears in her eyes, handed me the last 10 Euro she had. 

The next day, our team packed their cars and finally met for the first time. Rolling up to the tee: The managing director of “Carbon-Scooter,” who was also part of our local diving community, whose daughter had photographed my wedding, and who now had a bus load of valuable medical supplies for our new friend, Igor Siryk. 

Our convoy consisted of four cars with 16 free seats, seven drivers, and a ground crew that supported us from our starting point in Stuttgart, Germany. Despite being complete strangers, the meeting felt familiar and exciting, like old friends who were casually loading up buses to head off to a place no one had actually been before. Around 8 pm on Friday evening, about a week after the invasion of Ukraine, we were off.

The Helmet City

Twenty hours later we arrived in Chelm, (pronounced: Helm, literally meaning helmet–quite fitting to our mission) Poland, which was 10km/15 miles from the Ukrainian border. Igor had given us the contact information of a Polish logistics company that would bring our donations directly into Ukraine and to the cities needing it most. After finally finding the correct truck lot and office, we then engaged in a conversation between all parties in six different languages: Polish, German, English, Ukrainian, Russian.

The initial confusion and exhaustion from the road was so large that it even took us a full 15 minutes to understand that one man spoke only Dutch, and could not, in fact, understand a single word of the information we had translated into Polish for him. After a good laugh, the mission continued. One team unloaded the boxes, the next worked together to label each box in Ukrainian, and the last loaded it into the storage space where it would be held for the night, before getting driven to Poltava, Ukraine.

Seeing our boxes stacked up, ready to go, with a team full of strangers working together hand in hand was really quite moving. Finally, we had the feeling that we could actually make a difference. 

A List Of New Homes

Knowing we had to be exhausted, but unable to feel it, we jumped back in the car and headed over to the local refugee camp, where it had been suggested we would find refugees wanting to travel to Germany. The lobby of the converted gym was full of people with yellow vests, smiles, and rosy cheeks and, in contrast, those with exhausted eyes, small children, and trash bags and suitcases filled with the only belongings they could carry.

As soon as I stepped foot inside, my diver brain immediately shut down any feelings of panic and grief. This sight triggered my full task-solving mode. I, along with two other drivers, found our way to the head volunteers and stated our case. Anton, one of the only English speaking volunteers there, nodded and told us that borders were chaotic, the people were scared, and the realization that they were homeless had oftentimes not yet set in.

A new busload of people poured out into the parking lot and hurried in from the cold, and Anton made a list with 16 free seats. Seconds later, we were surrounded by a crowd of people all trying to “buy passage” to a new home. Ann, 17, spoke English and said she would take anything that got her and her mother somewhere safe. Lena had her six-year-old daughter’s hand clenched in hers as she desperately explained that two additional families would be arriving in the night. If we could only wait, they would go with us, she promised. Olena was a 40-something-year-old woman with a stern, calm face, who said she was alone and had no family to be tied to. She had only one question: “Is it safe?”.

Finally, there was one place left to offer. Lilly, a young mother who fought back tears and panic, had a four-year-old daughter and asked if we would take her child alone, that there was family waiting, and she needed to get her little girl 900 km/550 miles to Dresden, Germany. Unable to imagine allowing that child to travel all that way without her mother, the other mothers agreed to squeeze together in order to make room for one more.

Still more people had gathered around us, talking to Anton, or to me, or anyone who would listen, but our cars were more than full, and we were forced to turn them down. When our part was done, we spent a short night in an old barn that had been converted into guest rooms. Sitting together before bed, we all agreed this would not be our last trip. 

The next morning, we picked our 17 people up from the camp and set out on the journey “home” – 17 hours, 1500km/900 miles, away. At about halfway, we met up with Lilly’s brother-in-law. As soon as Lilly and her daughter got out of the car, the brother-in-law’s own daughter who couldn’t have been older than four herself, hugged the Ukrainian girl tight, stroked her hair and told her that everything would be okay, she was safe now. 

Before leaving with the other 15 Ukrainians, Lilly asked me via Google Translate if I could pick her up the next week on my way back to the border for the second trip. She explained that her son and husband were still over there, but that she needed to bring her daughter to safety. (Note from the present: Lilly ended up spending three days with her daughter and family before we brought her back to the border, where she got a ride with our truck driver back to her husband and son, where she remains to this day).

Finally, around 5 am on Monday morning, we arrived in Stuttgart and Karlsruhe, Germany, where friends and family of ours had previously offered to take in anyone needing a home. Despite the exhaustion, the Ukrainian families all perked up once more as they met their new families and realized for the first time that we were in fact helping them, free of cost, no strings attached. I was convinced I saw the mothers breathe for the first time in days, knowing their little ones would have a bed instead of a train floor to sleep on. Olena hugged me with teary eyes, before she gifted me her cloth bracelet in Ukrainian colors and hurried off into her new room.

After more than 50 hours of driving and little sleep, our team who started as strangers felt like a family that had always known one another. Without bureaucracy, more than two days of planning or meetings, we had changed 17 lives and had seen the worst and best of what this war meant. Finally, sinking into my safe, first world fluffy bed, the mission without “deco stops” fulfilled, I was able to decompress, sob, and realize what had happened.

A Status Update Grown Into A Full-Blown Operation

The week after our first tour to Poland was by far the hardest. There was a severe sense of some sort of culture shock or perhaps secondary shell shock from something so significantly different from the kind of life any of us had previously experienced. Everyone was certain that we needed to help more, better, and bigger.

Now that we had physically been there, had talked to people in the middle of it all, and had seen it with our own eyes, we knew there was work to be done. Any sign of government help had been missing in any and every place where it was obviously desperately needed. Thus, while the state heads were busy talking, we got to work planning and doing. 

Cars

One point was clear: driving private cars required a high investment of drivers and small capacity for those seeking refuge on the way back. We needed to obtain some minivans or small buses in order to maximize our ability to help. In Germany, a car license allows you to drive with a maximum of eight passengers, besides the driver, before a commercial license is required. Thus our team made it a priority to find nine-seater buses. 

Donations

Once we overcame our initial difficulties communicating with the logistics company, the head of the operation there – Anastasia – proved to be an absolute sweetheart and a real asset. Although we had no real proof yet that our donations would actually be arriving where they were needed most, we all shared the distinct gut feeling that they were on their way. We knew of the challenges even the largest organizations and governments faced in transporting goods into Ukraine, especially into the most affected cities. Our supply chain was certainly something special and unimaginably valuable. With a clear mission in mind, gathering donations continued. 

Return trip

I must preface this point by saying that our drivers accomplish a huge feat. The trip to Chelm (Helmet City) takes about 20 hours, one-way. It is extremely taxing. It is difficult to sleep, the mind is riled up, the car is uncomfortable, and being a good co-pilot is a serious task. Still, the trip is harder yet on our travel guests. These people have been traveling via any and every mode of transportation: on foot, in buses, overfilled trains, trucks, tanks and even inside the occasional trunk. We tried our absolute best to make the transit to their “final” destination as comfortable as possible, but arriving after 20 hours of driving at 5 am was simply no longer an option. Mainly, this gave our Ukrainian guests no time to get to know their host families before they had to entrust their children, grandchildren, friends and themselves to complete strangers in the dead of night. Additionally, we were forced to face the reality that our first tour was full of people that had mainly fled before the war. The next waves of refugees would consist of increasingly traumatized and sick families and individuals. 

By luck, chance, or perhaps fate, it just so happened that a fellow yoga teacher reached out to me. She had friends in Poland who wanted to help house the drivers or perhaps some of the refugees on our travels. These friends ended up having other friends, who had bought a house in need of renovation that was sitting empty until the craftsman shortage let up. Within just a few days, this group of friends rallied together and were able to come up with 30 cots, blankets, pillows, cribs, electrical heaters and children’s toys. They fixed the running water, and every weekend since then, the local kindergarten has supplied us with bucket loads of “Bigos,” a Polish national dish. Today, this place is proudly called “The Wroclaw Stop” (TWS) and is filled with memories from the travelers who have passed through.

Thanks to them, only one or two buses had to drive to Chelm to drop off donations to Anastasia’s firm “Magnolia Plus,” while the others drove to Wroclaw (Breslau), 600km/400 miles closer to home. Saturdays were spent gathering the Ukrainians, bringing them together in TWS, spending time with them, and creating a good foundation of trust and friendship. Sunday mornings at 8 o’clock, the TWS crew brought pancakes and toast, and the buses rolled out at 9 am. We arrived around 10 hours later with enough time for the Ukrainians to enjoy a warm meal with their hosts and get acquainted with their new surroundings before falling into their real beds.

Host families

A wonderful thing about placing Ukrainians with our friends and family is that their circles of friends and acquaintances witnessed the journeys of these desperate people, and they saw how they too could help. The circle widened. Today, we have an extensive list of hosts that we fall back on weekly. Many hosts reached out through the company “Bosch’s” intranet, others found us via news articles, our website, or Facebook. One of the saddest parts of many testimonies people give us when offering their homes is that they registered with their local city offices only to be told that creating a support network would take weeks. After more than ten weeks of experience, every single one of us can confidently say that the government had unfortunately failed in creating an effective network.

The application process for both sides is grueling. It’s slow, and almost impossible to understand. Private organizations have been more effective in helping many people out of refugee camps, off the streets, and into environments that actually allow integration. I myself took a group of our very first Ukrainians to register at the local city office where there was a serious lack of a clear plan on how to go about the registration process. Today, I am happy to say, many cities have been able to streamline the process, and welfare often arrives after just a few days or weeks. Unfortunately, the streamlined process is wholly unhelpful for thousands of people waiting in refugee camps unable to connect with host families due to government restrictions and bureaucratic red tape in Poland and Germany.

Refugees

Personally, I avoid this term wherever possible because I feel it is dehumanizing and strips these people of their personal identities —all of the experiences they’ve had, the skills and abilities they possess, as well as their unique opinions, beliefs, and feelings. Many of those who have traveled with us have since become great friends to whom I look up to, with whom I can enjoy a sunny day, or nonverbally share in their children’s most precious moments, without needing to share a language. These friendships motivate me to work toward making the trip easier for both sides. Nowadays we have many channels through which those seeking refuge can reach out to us and receive support.

Each week, the aim has been to get the full list of travelers by Thursday, generally amounting to something between 15 and 30 people. This allows time for us to find fitting host families. The assignment takes place on a basis of information such as the number of children, their ages, allergies, pets, stairs up to the rooms, medical conditions, personal needs such as peace and quiet vs. the opportunities that a bustling city offers, friends in proximity, level of assistance needed, and much more. Still, each week, no matter how much we planned and sorted, unexpected things happened. There was little left that would shock me at this point. Chaos has become a constant, and I have learned to live by the idea of “Plan the dive. Dive the backup plan x, y, and also z.” 

The result? As of today, we have made 10 tours to Poland and have helped almost 200 Ukrainians travel to Germany and find refuge in private guest families. Within the first few weeks, our team and operation gained so much traction, that we finally founded our own not-for-profit organization. This allowed us to prove our legitimacy toward Ukrainians and donors, to apply for special NGO offers, and to issue donation receipts needed by many companies.

We have been able to borrow buses from various clubs and organizations, as well as from private individuals. We have received many generous monetary donations, and the best part is that every single cent goes 100% to the mission. There are no administration fees, no salaries to be paid, no rerouting: every dollar that goes into our account, leaves our account to help Ukrainians. We buy medicine at reduced prices for Poltava, Ukraine, shoes and diapers, canned food, and even bought a birthday cake for Igor, as a little surprise, in the height of war. 

Season Tickets To The Hospital

Heartbreakingly, the war follows the people on their escape, and only one week of war was enough for us to feel the repercussions in Poland. Suddenly, almost every child we encountered seemed to be sick. By the time they arrived at TWS, their eyes had glassed over and their little bodies were hardly strong enough to hold the bucket in front of them, into which they threw up every ounce of fluid or solid food they consumed.

Our first experience was quite terrifying. A little boy could not even keep water down, and apparently hadn’t for a day. Upon asking, his mother admitted that they had been on a train for over 30 hours with no breaks. The small amount of food that was available on the train was soon gone. The children had thus been forced to live off chocolate and candy bars, their mothers thinking sugar being what they needed. In reality, their children were entering a dangerous state of malnourishment and their bodies were so out of balance, store-bought electrolytes had no effect. 

We spent the better part of the night at a small local hospital, and while the boy was wheeled from doctor to doctor, I simply collapsed onto the most uncomfortable hospital chair, feeling overwhelmed, sad, and scared. Thankfully, the cocktail of vitamins, salts and other good stuff was able to get every child back to their strength. We have since become regulars at the hospital and often end up leaving families with sick children in Poland, and picking them up a week later, when the little ones had their strength back. What a sad thing to be in the habit of doing.

WARNING: The following text contains graphic and potentially upsetting information.

The Hardest Stories

A few weeks into our operation, I received a call from a stranger who had gotten my phone number from who-knows-where. This was normal by now and no surprise. I spent hours on my phone every single day communicating with Ukrainian people, hosts, drivers, companies, team members, and donors. The woman on the other line was Olga, who had married a German years ago and lived an hour or two away. She called requesting help to get her friend who was still in Charkiw, one of the hotspot cities on the eastern front of the war. The friend, Julie (not her real name), and her husband had decided to stay in Charkiw with their two children, one and four, in order to help cook for and feed the military.

One day, a Russian invasion group hit their building. Julie’s husband immediately grabbed the children and his wife and ran with them to a nearby bomb shelter, always staying a little behind and shielding them from the bullets. Just a few yards from the life saving shelter, Julie’s husband was shot dead while his children watched him collapse. In the shelter, Julie had to be put under sedation and was not responsive for days. By the time we picked her up from the border, we could hardly recognize her from the photos we had previously received of her. The children were fine. As far as they knew, their Daddy was in the hospital waiting to get better and would follow later. Today Julie lives with her children in Germany and is learning to cope. 

Another call we received two weeks ago was from Igor. In general, Igor is a very sturdy, big guy. He doesn’t show much emotion, and he is lucky enough that his wife and children are also living in Germany with extended family. Igor has been in Ukraine since the beginning of the war and coordinates the humanitarian aid that we, and others, send to his organization “Humanist Poltava.” Every few days we receive short status updates from Igor mainly consisting of what is needed. The most recent have been tourniquets used to stop the bleeding with severed limbs and open wounds as well as a recent call with Igor close to tears, begging us for food, any kind, as the people are starving. 

We have had fathers who were diagnosed with cancer in Ukraine, which prompted their wives to return with their children to spend the last days with them. We have had mothers who were so confused and scared by the unfamiliar language they returned to Ukraine in search of doctors that could help with simple medical conditions. Anna (not her real name) is also a mother of two with various problems that had already been serious before the war. She was left with two children born of situations beyond her control, leaving her to earn money by any means possible, and eventually using substances to cope, all the while loving her children and her country. The war has forced her to flee her home for the sake of her children, but her innate wish to fight for her country has left her confused and unstable. She had been passed around multiple homes and brought the best of people to their maximum helping capacity. The system has no place for people like Anna.

She is not in an abusive relationship which is “required” for many support offers; rehab would cause her to lose her children, refugee camps add horrific amounts of stress, and she has not been stable enough to register, so child services cannot work with her. How many more Annas have fallen through the cracks? Angela (name changed) is another gentle soul. She quickly became great friends with her host and the pair of them went through their days together as if they had known each other for years. The family dog loved her, the friends of Angela’s host loved her and her German skills had significantly improved in the past months.

A few days ago, she received an email from her work: she must return immediately or lose any rights to her job. With two dogs, a sister and a nephew relying on her to pay off the house, she was forced to pack her bags and take the next bus. Angela’s mother, who we had previously retrieved for her, remains in Germany, and Angela’s host communicates with her daily, their lives forever intertwined from now on. 

NOTE: End of potentially triggering content. Please read on for the heartwarming part.

The Silver Linings

As I said at the beginning of this article, yes, I flinch when the news mentions Ukraine. I turn off the radio when they report where the troops have moved and how many civilians are left unevacuated. It does not make me, or anyone else who avoids the topic, a bad person. The reality is traumatizing and it can be suffocating to a point where daily chores feel difficult. But the reason we do it is for the beautiful moments. Seeing four-year-old girls consoling one another; knowing Angela and her mother have been reunited on German soil after weeks of fear, watching Anthony, the eight-year-old son of the family I look after in Karlsruhe racing to the German ice cream parlor on his new bike, reading Igor’s messages about how great a difference we make for Ukrainians’ lives, and having a picnic with all the Karlsruhe Ukrainians on a warm, summer day with only clouds in the skies. There are many more memorable, heart-warming experiences. 

Our mission truly attracts the kindest-hearted people who give all they can with their entire heart and soul and who radiate genuine love. Today, we have been able to personally help almost 200 Ukrainians. But even if that number was only one, it would have been worth it. I have had the honor of meeting people who will inspire me for the rest of my life. Olga, Julie’s friend, has become a guardian angel who is just a phone call away from anyone I am struggling to communicate with or help. Dorota, Marek, Zu and the rest of the TWS crew have become partners. Ann, the 17-year old daughter from our first tour has become a great friend. I truly believe she is the strongest person I have ever met, and seeing her flinch in pain at loud noises and planes, breaks my heart. 

Together we will win this war. We will stand together, help one another with every last penny we have and when this is all over, we will take a long trip through Ukraine, and let all of our new friends-for-life show us their life and culture. Slava Ukraini, and may the skies over your heads always be clear. 

In Ukrainian: Разом ми переможемо в цій війні. Ми вистоємо разом, допомагаючи один одному останнім пенні, що в нас є і коли все це закінчиться, ми будемо довго мандрувати по Україні і наші нові друзі покажуть нам своє життя і свою культуру. Слава Україні і мирного неба Вам.

Additional Resources

The team’s website is here: Süd-West Sonne für die Ukraine e.V. (South-West Sun for the Ukraine e.V)

Follow us on Instagram: @Suedwestsonne

Follow us on Facebook: Suedwestsonnefuerukr


Kenzie Potter Stephens is a production artist for InDepth as well as part of the GUE marketing team. She is currently working on two BS degrees in Industrial Engineering and Marketing, as well as Biochemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany.
In addition to her activities as a yoga teacher and an underwater rugby trainer, she has completed her GUE Tech 1 and Cave 1 training and is on her way to becoming a GUE instructor. As a scientist, she is currently working within the Phreatic Organisation based in Cala Gonone, Sardinia, to research and protect the extensive cave system in the Gulf of Orosei.

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