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The influencers who founded a refugee network in Ukraine

War can hit harder when you have experienced one before. This explains the quick reaction of Martina Kojić Reiter, 28, born in Dubrovnik during the Croatian War of Independence. Just hours after Putin’s bombs first hit Ukraine, Martina had organized a shelter in Lviv and a bus to take those fleeing to Austria; two months later, she has helped provide safe passage for more than 5,500 women and children.

Martina Kojić Reiter with a family from Kharkiv in the refugee center in Vienna © Irina Gavrich and Alexia Mavroleon

A boy in the center.  The refugees were placed in houses and hostels in Vienna, as well as in Frankfurt, Munich and Düsseldorf

Refugees have been placed in houses and hostels in Vienna, as well as in Frankfurt, Munich and Düsseldorf © Irina Gavrich and Alexia Mavroleon

Martina, whose father served in the special forces as a trauma surgeon during the war in Bosnia, works to provide refugees with housing, clothing, food, money and therapy – and has spent more than €200,000 of his own money in the process. Today, she has a registered charity, Mademoiselle Martina, to expand her efforts. “Most people don’t understand the seriousness of what’s going on,” she said. “I get messages like: ‘We’re running out of water, we drank boiled snow, but now the snow is melting and what’s left is covered in blood’; “I’m trying to get to the border with my two children, my neighbour’s children and a baby I found on the street”; or “I need help, we’re driving over dead bodies to escape Mariupol.”

A boy dressed in Ukrainian colors in the center, where children await long-term accommodation

A boy dressed in Ukrainian colors in the centre, where children await long-term accommodation © Irina Gavrich and Alexia Mavroleon

To reach those looking for safe passage, Martina uses her network of over 6,000 followers on Instagram, which was previously used as a fashion blog. At first, it was difficult to involve women; Reports of people posing as aid workers and disappearances at borders are frequent. “I had to ask a psychologist to go on screen and speak in Ukrainian to reassure them,” she says.

Martina quickly met other like-minded women to create a network through which they can provide more effective help. Ekaterina Malysheva was trying to evacuate a group of 70 orphans from kyiv when she first spoke to Martina. Born in Russia, she is married to Prince Ernst August of Hanover and hosts four families in her homes in Germany and Austria. “We are cousins,” she says of the impulse to help Ukrainians. “We share the same language, the same culture. I feel very responsible for what is happening.

Seven ways to help the Ukrainian people

Miss Martin, @mademoisellemartina

Elizabeth Edelman and Ekaterina Malysheva @lizandekatukraine

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Disaster Emergency Committee

Accommodation for Ukraine

International Committee of the Red Cross

International Rescue Committee

A week after their introduction, Ekaterina welcomed a full bus to Vienna, using her contacts in the arts and fashion industries to gain more support. “A lot of them came on board, and brands like Stella McCartney and Aquazzura sent supplies,” she says. The biggest help came from Elizabeth Edelman, co-founder of the creative agency Triadic, whose grandfather was a lawyer during the Nuremberg trials. Together, the two women placed more than 150 refugees across Europe. “These are small numbers compared to the number of people who need help,” says Elizabeth. “We decided we could better serve the [people] we were working with if we focused on smaller groups with sustainable, long-term solutions – like settling them in their new homes with jobs, schools and medical support.

Many refugees are sick and traumatized. “A boy was so terrified when he arrived in Vienna that he jumped off the bus and ran away,” said Martina, who has a one-year-old child of her own. “We found him a few blocks away, covering his ears with the sound of police sirens. We need to minimize the horror that these people experience.

Ekaterina Malysheva helps evacuate and accommodate refugees from Ukraine

Ekaterina Malysheva helps evacuate and accommodate refugees from Ukraine © Alexia Mavroleon

The children's corner in the center of Vienna

The children’s corner in the center of Vienna © Irina Gavrich and Alexia Mavroleon

To help in these cases, Martina has a team of Ukrainian psychologists and also receives help from centers specializing in more serious trauma. “So far, the most needed support is from rape victims,” she says. “We are currently filming an informative workshop-style interview with our in-house psychologist and will post it to our Instagram and website. We believe this is the best way to approach women as it allows them to get informed without being exposed.

Elizabeth Edelman:

Elizabeth Edelman: “We are focused on supporting small groups with sustainable, long-term solutions” © Alexia Mavroleon

For many refugees, this is the first time they have left Ukraine. “They travel for days without food, water, toilets or a place to sit,” says Ekaterina. “In Hannover we now have three women in wheelchairs, an almost blind mother and daughter and people with illnesses that have not even been diagnosed. Fortunately, we can offer medical help.

Some of those who can work seek jobs as cooks, gardeners and dog walkers – but the ultimate goal is to return to Ukraine as soon as the war is over. “They are all grateful to have been accommodated, but continue to ask for a return ticket,” says Martina. She placed most of the refugees in houses and hostels in Vienna, but also in Frankfurt, Munich and Düsseldorf. The next few thousand will be sent to the Netherlands and Graz, the Austrian city where her husband and former Airbnb international operations manager Martin Reiter was born. With three other entrepreneurs, she also set up OneUkraine, an NGO that deals with the evacuation of refugees, humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of the country. Martina estimates that she has collected around 5 million euros in donations since the start of the war.

In September – war permitting – Martina plans to celebrate her wedding. One thing is certain: she will wear a Milla Nova wedding dress, the Ukrainian fashion house whose owner Ulyana Kyrychuk is now one of the network’s friends. “Ulyana has decided to leave Poland [where Milla Nova is currently producing military vests for the Ukrainians] and return to Lviv to help us – she brings food to our shelter every day,” says Martina. It is comforting to see that out of the chaos, friendships are forged.