NGO chief to MPs: You want to help the children of Ukraine? Send weapons

NGO Slava Ukraini CEO Johanna-Maria Lehtme responding to questions from MPs following a speech delivered to the Riigikogu on Tuesday. April 12, 2022.
NGO Slava Ukraini CEO Johanna-Maria Lehtme responding to questions from MPs following a speech delivered to the Riigikogu on Tuesday. April 12, 2022. Source: Riigikogu/Youtube

If Estonia want to help Ukraine, then they have to listen to and send exactly what Ukrainians themselves are requesting — including weapons and money, NGO Slava Ukraini CEO Johanna-Maria Lehtme told MPs on Tuesday.

Johanna-Maria Lehtme: Distinguished members of the Riigikogu! Before I begin, I have to wonder — we're discussing a matter of national importance — I flew back from Ukraine last night to come give this speech — and the [Session Hall] is empty. I know that it's one of your fellow MP's birthday. I sincerely hope that people aren't eating cake somewhere in their offices.

As the majority of you have no idea whatsoever who I am, then I'll start from the very beginning. My name is Johanna-Maria Lehtme. I am the mother of three-year-old Sume, and I am the wife of a Ukrainian citizen, and I am the CEO of the nonprofit Slava Ukraini. My home is in Central Tallinn here. My home is on Khreschatyk Street in Kyiv, opposite the mayor's building. On the 24th [of February], I got a phone call from my husband: "War broke out, we're fleeing." Then the call cut out. The next phone call was on the 27th, and the question asked of me was, "Johanna, can you find me an ambulance?" I didn't even think to question why we would need one; instead, I called the right person, and three hours later, the NGO Slava Ukraini and Rotarians' first joint project, an ambulance, had been purchased thanks to the Tallinn International Rotary Club and the Toompea District of the Estonian Defense League. I can safely say that this ambulance saved not only my life, but the lives of very many Ukrainian citizens as well. To date, we have dispatched 41 ambulances — that is the speed at which the NGO Slava Ukraini operates.

Our working practices are actually quite simple. We are sent notices from Ukrainian hospitals or the military's medical battalions about exactly what they need. We get sent a list, we get sent amounts. We gather these things up, load them onto a car and this aid gets sent directly to Ukraine, directly to the address from which it was ordered. If we are asked for tourniquets or air braces, we don't send them instant noodles. We're not throwing money out of an airplane; we're providing specific aid. We have focused our attention right now, as everyone else, on the east. But glancing at my phone right now, I'd just like to say that if you think it is safe in the [western part of Ukraine], then that is not true. Six minutes ago — Zakarpattia Oblast: take cover. Twelve minutes ago — Ternopil in Ternopil Oblast, Volyn Oblast, Lviv in Lviv Oblast,  Ivano-Frankivsk in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, Rivne in Rivne Oblast, Kyiv in Kyiv Oblast: take cover. The war is not only in the east; the war is in all of Ukraine.

We can say that we've given very effective aid, but we wouldn't have been able to do it without our partners. I can say that we've raised more than €600,000 together with the Estonian Rotary Club. Our partners have paid more than €281,000. €148,000 in goods have been issued by companies. Slava Ukraini itself has received €789,215 in donations from the people and businesses of Estonia. That's a total of some €1.9 million. Slava Ukraini was founded as an NGO on March 7. If our new project, in which we'll have the chance to buy 10,000 new tourniquets, succeeds, after that we'll have a budget of €2.1 million. We've been helped by partners. We've involved businesses from Estonia — Bolt, Krimelte, Xolo, Merko Ehitus, G4S, Nordecon Betoon, Hansabuss, Plaat Detail and other smaller companies.

Three weeks ago, we bought 9,000 tourniquets together with our partners, the National Defence Promotion Foundation and the Ukrainian Cultural Center. When I called the military medics, when I called the military battalions, and  said that I was coming, they asked me, "This is very embarrassing, but could you bring me ten tourniquets?" I said, "Anton, I get there on Thursday, and I'm bringing 2,600. How's that sound?" He couldn't believe it until I actually showed up with the tourniquets. The greater was their joy. My nickname in Lviv now is Johanna-CAT, after what the tourniquets are called — because the tourniquets are seventh-generation CATs.

Contributing goods, services and knowledge in our warehouse on a daily basis are several hospitals, including East Tallinn Central Hospital (ITK) and Tallinn Children's Hospital, Chemi-Pharm, Euronics, OneMed, Semetron, Neste — there are so many that I wasn't even able to list them all. We should evidently be most grateful to the people of Estonia, who entrusted us with a very large sum of money via a charity concert, which allowed us to get aid precisely to where it was needed — and the exact aid that was needed.

I was thinking yesterday, that if Slava Ukraini were an online store, then our most popular products would be ambulances, tourniquets, chest seals with and without valves, the highest absorbency bandages, bandages for phosphorus burns, burn dressings, burn gels, ambus, resuscitation devices, first aid kits, syringes, skin staplers, surgical kits, cannulas, including for preemies, fusion systems both with and without heating elements, sodium chloride, Ringer's solution and body bags. In the immortal words of President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy — "I need weapons, not a ride!"

Listen to what Ukrainians are requesting from you. There is no point in sending clothes, toys or pillows to Ukraine. Believe me, there is no shortage of them in that country. I went there; I have lived in Ukraine before, and I will be going back to Ukraine to live. We have not run out of these things. Ukraine needs food, fuel, weapons, bulletproof vests, ballistic helmets, medical supplies, medicine. This isn't actually an endless list; this is a very specific list.

I'd like to know how many of you have gone to Ukraine since the new war has broken out. How many of you have visited Kramatorsk Railway Station? Lvov Railway Station? Dnipro Railway Station? Dnipro, by the way, is starting to be evacuated right now. A warning to do so was issued a couple of days ago already, but women and children won't evacuate until the first bomb is dropped. The smell at Lviv Railway Station is incredible; I can't even begin to describe it. I can't even begin to describe what's happening on the platforms when trains arrive from Kharkiv. Go see for yourselves.

If you feel like the worst is behind us, then you are dead wrong. [Russian] forces have retreated from around Kyiv, yes. If the images we've been seeing come in from Bucha, Irpin, Chernihiv, Kramatorsk have been that repulsive for you, just wait until they're able to access Mariupol, Kharkiv and Luhansk. I'll be honest with you — we've ordered body bags; we've ordered shovels. How about you?

I'd like to acknowledge the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here for their willingness and desire to cooperate with us. New or old organizations, that makes no difference here. I'd like to thank the [Estonian Tax and Customs Board], which has created a so-called tax break "superlist" that makes it easier to donate. But the current reality is that the [Estonian] Refugee Council, the Rescue Association, Mondo, Slava Ukraini and other volunteer organizations have managed to respond to the situation much faster and much more flexibly than the state.

We don't need your help in crossing the border; we can cross it faster ourselves. We don't need help filling out customs declarations; they're pre-filled for us. We don't need contacts in higher state agencies; they're just a phone call away for us. We have all the contacts, experience, and everything we need for delivering targeted and efficient humanitarian aid. It's understandable, of course, that the state as a whole can't possibly be as flexible as small and independent units. That is understandable. But we should have operational trust between us, just as fiscal trust was established with the creation of the so-called tax break superlist.

I sincerely believe that together, in cooperation with the state, we can actually do more. We little NGOs, we're like ants in springtime — we can climb through every hole, we can reach everywhere without you even noticing. Let us help. Our need is quite simple — we need financial resources in order to operate. If the financial resources run out, then all of the contacts, networks, knowledge, competences we've generated will be useless.

Listen to what Ukrainians are asking you for! Help us help! I'll repeat: help us help, and by cooperating we can do things more efficiently and help more efficiently. Slava Ukraini! Heroiam slava! Thank you!

From the Q&A session to follow

MP Signe Kivi (Reform): I understand your question at the beginning of your speech. February 24 is and was the birthday of the Republic of Estonia. It's actually my own birthday too. But I'd like to never, ever wake up again feeling like that, with that kind of morning, with those kinds of images. So we understand you. My question is based on the fact that we really do want to help you help too. And constant and long-term help is very important. I have wanted to become a support person for a Ukrainian family here in Estonia. And I have informed the Refugee Council of this as well. But I understand that they are overburdened. And days go by, and I want to help. Who would you recommend turning to — what network should I be turning to? I know that there are NGOs in local governments, but perhaps you could advise us, many people, here in the Session Hall.

Johanna-Maria Lehtme: I flew back together with Eero Janson from the Refugee Center. I sincerely recommend — you can find his phone number online. I'm putting him on the spot here now, but he will answer your call. If you find you aren't gaining opportunities for self-realization or helping there, then you are always welcome to our warehouse at the T1 [Mall of Tallinn].

MP Peeter Ernits (EKRE): A good and clear speech, for the first time in a long time! My respect for your activities over the past month. But I've been struggling for several weeks with this one small thing — but an important thing. Estonian men decided to send their precision weapons — not many, five together with ammunition — to their colleagues near Kyiv.

And now they're in trouble. They called me again today, saying they'd handed the weapons over to the police and were promised they'd be sent to Ukraine, near Kyiv, but [the weapons] still haven't arrived. Our two ministers, the minister of the interior and the minister of defense, have been handling it for some time already, but perhaps you could help somehow? We're talking about five... a couple of snipers and weapons and thousands of bullets, which are waiting — rather, these men are waiting, near Kyiv. But they still haven't moved out of Tallinn, see.

Johanna-Maria Lehtme: Slava Ukraini is a humanitarian organization, and our goal is to send medical supplies to hospitals and military medics on ambulances. We can't help you with this issue as that is military aid.

I understand why it's being held up there. This aid is needed, but I belive that the particular aid you mentioned needs to move through the proper channels and receive the proper approvals. I agree, yes, that it should get there faster. But in this case, our ambulances don't have even a centimeter of spare space for absolutely anything else.

MP Toomas Kivimägi (Reform): I happened to watch "Ringvaade" yesterday, and you certainly were much more cheerful on there. But seeing that energy, that will, that passion — I'll be honest with you, watching that interview with you there brought a tear to my eye yesterday.

But I have two sort of peculiar questions for you. What trait of the Ukrainian people is it — and do Estonians have it too — that helps them survive amid what, by the numbers, is mission: impossible? What is it that has ensured that Ukrainians have been capable of enduring? And we all hope and believe that they will win this war.

And my second peculiar question is this — we have a little discussion underway regarding which schools the children of Ukrainian refugees should be attending. Do you believe they should be in Estonian-language schools, or should there be more options?

Johanna-Maria Lehtme: When the war broke out, then every morning and every night we Facetimed with our friends. And the joke was always who had the fanciest bomb shelter. There are jokes making the rounds online — these aren't jokes, this is the reality right now — about tractors towing tanks away. I think that one thing that actually — when I was just there in person, one thing that actually — since we're sending fewer weapons and less aid than we could be — then I believe that what is keeping them alive, honestly, is humor.

You go to Ukraine. There is a different kind of freedom there. To be quite frank, I honestly feel more free in Ukraine than I do here. It is something different. The will, the strength, actually the synergy that has developed there — no matter what city you go to, or what oblast — it makes no difference. Their resolve is so great. "This is our country. We're going to defend it. To the death." And they do defend it to the death.

On the subject of schools — I'll be perfectly honest with you: I have something like 20-hour workdays. Sometimes 22-hour. I spend at best 40 minutes a day with my child. I haven't even had time to think about things like this. I'm being perfectly honest.

Based on our family's example — our nanny's family came here together with the father of my child, and that family has a 5- and a 7-year-old. To even my surprise — and I didn't help, this was all their doing — Jaroslav now attends Tallinn French School. I haven't had the chance yet to ask him how he's doing there, but he came home and had written down "tere," "head aega," and "aitäh." And then I asked him what they meant. And he replied, "I have absolutely no idea!" And I said okay, let's learn them together. And they do want to learn. But what they most want, actually, is to go back home.

MP Andres Metsoja (Isamaa): We know indeed that the world rests on the shoulders of strong women. And you in the [Session] Hall here today are a good example of this. Please forgive those MPs who may be listening to you and me via the TV instead; it's easier that way. Having to face this truth, and ask, is much more difficult. I agree that the fear and the worst is yet to come. And the fact that when the war broke out, not a single European leader dared cross the Ukrainian border.

And yet countries indeed continue to exist thanks to their citizens and partnerships and international ties. How, in your opinion, could Estonia contribute more, and be a strong partner? What should we change — what should we do? Because it just isn't possible to substitute civil society in this respect.

Johanna-Maria Lehtme: First of all, I'll say it again — listen to what the Ukrainians are asking for. Send what they ask for. Don't deal with distractions — there's no need for that — there's no time for that.

My friend and her child died last night. I don't have any time with them anymore. Send the help you are being asked for — and send it now!

MP Õnne Pillak (Reform): You are right — we don't comprehend what Ukrainians are experiencing in their homeland, because we are much safer here. And I must say that, for me personally, when I look at these pictures, when I read [about what is happening in Ukraine], I'm just left feeling helpless. Because you see — you're seeing what women, children, the elderly are experiencing there, and you really can't just make it go away. Or offer them the security that they need.

And I am likewise in agreement that the biggest help right now is money, because you know where and exactly how to send this aid. Which is why I am asking you that if someone wants to help the children of Ukraine specifically, for example, who are currently seeing and experiencing things that no children should ever have to experience, then what is the best channel — or how could one best help them?

Johanna-Maria Lehtme: Do you mean those that are here [in Estonia] or there [in Ukraine]? You're asking what the best way is to help children who have suffered in the war?

Send weapons. Send fuel. Send food. Everything that Ukraine has asked you for. That is what is needed.

MP Paul Puustusmaa (EKRE): First of all, my condolences, and sincerely. But I have a question that I hope doesn't come across as very trivial, although it seems to me as though questions related to Ukraine can't even really be very trivial. But basically, help can be given in two different ways — one is to help them there, and the other, which is inevitable, is to help them here. And of course we have thousands of children who have arrived here from Ukraine, and they are going to go to school. And we've had political discussions regarding whether we should be teaching children from Ukraine in Estonian, Ukrainian, Russian or English. You are in pretty close contact with these circles. Could you tell us what the Ukrainians themselves think — what language should they be taught in?

Johanna-Maria Lehtme: I hope this doesn't come across as an insult, but go ask them yourselves.

Click here to watch Lehtme's speech to the Riigikogu and Q&A session in full (video in Estonian).


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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