Woman from Chattanooga area creates International Ukrainian Crisis Fund

Courtesy Photo by International Ukrainian Crisis Fund / A storehouse for the International Ukrainian Crisis Fund contains contributions.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin sent soldiers into Ukraine late last month, Vlada Galan was in her hotel room in Colombia, South America, where she was working on an election campaign as an international political consultant.

Born in Odesa, Ukraine, Galan moved to first California and then Collegedale, Tennessee, at age 8 with her mother Anjelika Riano, after her parents divorced.

These days, the 2008 Dalton High School graduate splits time between her home in Roswell, Georgia, and Odesa while traveling the world as a lobbyist for governments and politicians.

In late February, she was stuck in a hotel in Colombia.

"I felt utterly useless," she said, adding that she works with the Ukrainian government. "I got an email that said 'Don't come back.'"

Not one to sit and do nothing, Galan said she told her fiance she was going to fly back to Ukraine and put on a vest, grab a gun and join the fighting. After he calmed her down, she decided instead to use her expertise and contacts both in and outside of Ukraine and she started the International Ukrainian Crisis Fund to gather donations and supplies for her native country.

On the board of directors are former U.S. Ambassador Ned Siegel; former Congressman Toby Moffett, Wladimir Klitschko, a former world heavyweight champion boxer and the brother of Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko; former Sen. David Vitter and former Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Galan said it took her about 24 hours and a lot of phone calls to make it happen, but within 24 hours money was flowing in and relief aid was going into Ukraine.

"Between crying, I was asking people to help. Now. Not later," she said.

Kyiv Mayor Klitschko provided an impassioned plea for the aid, asking people to give to the crisis fund.

"Our citizens desperately need your help," he said in the video. "They need food, medicine and other basic items."

Galan is currently president and chairman of the fund and her mother, an expert on immigrant and refugee education and an employee with Hamilton County Department of Education, is part of the team, as well.

"I'm ready to help here with any education needs when Ukrainian immigrants start coming to this country," Riano said in a telephone interview.

She said she and her daughter left the Ukraine "with 25 cents in my pocket."

"[Galan] grew up in Chattanooga and this community invested a lot in us. We love Chattanooga," Riano said.

Other key players are her fiance, George Birnbaum and Nadya Hnatiuk, who helps coordinate purchasing supplies in Poland and shipping them into Ukraine, where they are distributed by Roma Orlov.

Galan said organizations must have proper credentials to move goods and money into Ukraine and that 100% of what the groups gathers goes directly to the people in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Galan still was in Colombia working the phones, including doing an early morning Zoom interview with the Times Free Press.

"I've already called several people and just said, 'Are you OK?' and then on to the next one,'" she said.

Galan's father is currently fighting in Odesa, Ukraine, and her 18-year-old brother lives in Lviv, Ukraine. Other family members live in the United States.

How to help

— Ringgold High School students will stage an encore presentation of “Catch Me If You Can,” to raise funds for Save the Children’s Ukraine Relief Effort at 7 p.m. March 28, in the Robin L. Christian Performing Arts Theater at the school. Tickets are $10.— The International Ukrainian Crisis Fund was started by former Chattanoogan Vlada Galan, a native of Odesa, Ukraine.— The Better Business Bureau has accredited the following charities that are providing relief to Ukrainians in need:Catholic Relief ServicesDirect ReliefGlobalGivingInternational Rescue CommitteeSave the Children

"I am a political consultant and work for a company called Actum," she said. "I have worked with Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko for a few years. When the war broke out, I started a nonprofit registered in Washington, D.C. I partnered with Mayor Klitschko's fund in Kyiv and other mayors to bring humanitarian aid into the country."

She said what is happening in Ukraine is difficult to watch but unfortunately not hard to explain.

"Everybody looks for a complicated answer, and it is really simple. Every generation has a Hitler, and now it is Putin," she said.

Galan said she actually had a lot of respect for him a few years ago because he was able to unite and keep happy lots of very different groups of people in a huge country

"But now he has overstayed his welcome. And, he won't stop at Ukraine. He felt emboldened and still feels that way," she said.

Galan said she believes Putin views the Ukrainian people as "khokhol," a derogatory slur that paints Ukrainians as simple and unsophisticated, or even "redneck," to use an American term. She said the reality is that in the last 15 or 20 years, the citizens have worked hard to rebuild their country and plan to keep it.

"The Klitschko brothers came back," she said. "I, who left at age 8, came back. In fact, I just put down a deposit on a new place to live a week before the fighting started."

She said several factors have led to the situation, including the human desire to "believe what they want to believe" and Russia's skill at propaganda and false information. She points to Crimea in Ukraine as an example.

When Russia "invaded" it almost a decade ago, Galan said the Russian government sent in lots of money to influence people, and the citizens there didn't want to lose their lives, or their homes, so Russian soldiers, some of whom were dressed in Ukrainian uniforms, simply walked in and took over.

"Crimea is why he thought this invasion would go the way he wanted," Galan said. "When he came in, people were like, 'Just don't hurt us.'"

She said she believes Putin thought he would find a similar response to his latest actions, but the Ukrainian people have fought back.

She is adamant that they will continue to do so.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354. Follow him on Twitter @BarryJC.