Adam Oake was one of millions of Canadians who watched the news from home in disbelief as Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
As the largest military mobilization in Europe since the Second World War unfolded before his eyes, and the civil consequence began to grow, the destructive, deadly scenes spurred a visceral reaction from the Torontonian. “I couldn’t sit on the couch knowing that there’s something I can do to help make a difference,” says Oake.
A devout, lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan, he decided to liquidate his massive collection of Leafs memorabilia in an effort to raise money so he could travel into a war zone.
“I had a lot of signed pictures from way back in the day to recent signed photos, jerseys, you name it. Unfortunately I only got $2,000 which is a lot less than what I spent (on the collectables), but that covered my flight.”
Oake took the rest of his savings, put out a call to friends and family for donations, packed his bags and headed across the Atlantic in March. His plan was to join the foreign legion but when he arrived in Poland he was assigned to volunteer with a Norwegian Crisis Response volunteer organization called Paracrew.
For the last five months he’s been risking his life driving food and aid to an area where most organizations no longer go – within the hot zone, near the front lines in Eastern Ukraine. Oake believes that aid agencies are marked by Russian forces as targets.
“We’re anywhere from 20 to 30 kilometers from the front line,” notes the 33-year-old. “When you’re that close and you’re moving you become a target.”
This week the Torontonian and the volunteers he’s working with are driving into Kharkiv and Kramatorsk. He says there’s “shelling continuously around us, it’s a matter of make the delivery, get into the city and get out.”
As dangerous as the aid deliveries are, Oake says more recently they’ve been left disappointed because those drives are becoming less and less frequent. Public donations have dropped off since the start of the war. Shelves of sleeping bags, hygiene items and medical supplies will be empty by this weekend. Paracrew’s last load of food was sent out earlier this week and they’re unsure when they’ll be able to pick up more. The food they did have enough to feed about 100 civilians.
However, Oake points out that they have “about 50,000 plus (civilians) in Kharkiv who need assistance, and about 30,000 plus in Kramatorsk that need food and aid.”
Paracrew estimates that they’ve experienced a 40 per cent dip in medical aid, a 60 per cent decrease in food deliveries for civilians in need and a 70 per cent drop in public dollars.
Oake tells CTV News that he and the team he’s working with have a saying: “Empty shelves are a good sign, because that means aid is getting out to people who need it, but now those shelves are empty because there’s nothing to replenish it with .” He adds, “We generally like to see our shelves empty at the end of the day but full in the morning.” Suffice it to say, that isn’t happening.
To save money, Oake and other volunteers are sleeping on cots in a warehouse in central Ukraine. Personally Oake admits he’s just scrapping by with enough money from friends and family to buy food for himself. His personal savings, and Maple Leaf memorabilia money vanished months ago.
A contractor by trade, Oake used to spend his time working to renovate homes in the Toronto area, now he’s plying his trade in rural regions of Ukraine helping repair the few damaged homes that are worth salvaging in the north after Russian forces pulled out of that region.
“I helped a woman repair her ceiling entirely that a tank had fired two shells into and 150 rounds of ammo into her walls. We’ve also helped a man who had a tank drive through his house, just to temporarily board it up so he can continue living in the house.”
Over the months, as Oake has driven across Ukraine, he’s had a chilling front row seat to the horrors of the Russian invasion. Speaking with CTV News from his makeshift bedroom in Ukraine, he shares that while he’s on the road he’s “constantly thinking about the fact that the next time you drive through a town, the places that you pass will no longer be there.”
That’s certainly the case in Kramatorsk. “I passed a village just outside of the city where I used to see women and children out enjoying the day or as much as they could, and when I’ve driven through there the next time, their homes are completely gone.”
As the cold hard reality of the Russian invasion drags on, and public donations become more and more sparse, Oake is sending out this plea to Canadians.
“There’s a lot of families here that are in dire need and they don’t know where to turn. Put yourself in their shoes, imagine your home is destroyed and you’re put in a shelter with bombs constantly going off.”
His plan is to spend at least three years in Ukraine, with the hopes that the war will end and he can help rebuild homes for families, instead of simply patching them up with whatever he can find.
But he feels global attention to the invasion is waning, as is support for those on the ground trying desperately to help.
“There’s been concerns that Paracrew and other NGOs won’t be able to last in Ukraine,” Oake concedes, unsure of what tomorrow will bring. “There’s an overhead cost to having a warehouse, to having vehicles on the road, without the supplies coming in, sometimes it almost feels like a waste of time. You don’t want to sit around too long, because you know what the situation is like in the east and in the south. If I had a full vehicle of supplies I’d be driving them to people in need.”