Ukraine deserves more than our performative activism


Photo Courtesy of GoToVan on Flickr

Activists gather at a rally in Vancouver, Canada on Feb. 26 to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. In the three months since the war began, Russia has kickstarted the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, killed more than 2,700 civilians — a conservative estimate — and committed abhorrent war crimes in controlled territory.

In the first days of the Russian invasion, the horror was apparent. A world power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council was attempting to annex an independent, democratic nation of over 44 million people? Did this spell the return of Cold War-era proxy battles? Was our planet on the precipice of World War III?

Much like the intermediate aftermath of the capitol riot on Jan. 6, we wondered if the fundamental principles we took for granted – the triumph of peace, democracy, and the liberal world order — were at risk of toppling. We were scared, so we cared.

But after the initial shock of democracy in crisis — when we realized that everyday life was not at risk of imminent disruption — Kyiv began to feel even more than 6,140 miles from Burlingame. What was once legitimate concern about the humanitarian and democratic crisis in Ukraine became opportunistic, performative activism.

Just as Black Out Tuesday claimed the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and blocked access to information and updates from activists, the pro-Ukraine hearts, flags, and hashtags that we plaster on our social media pages today mask the extremity of the catastrophe on the ground. 

Performative activism is easy; apathy is easy; ignorance is easy. None of those behaviors will do anything to ameliorate the atrocities occurring in Ukraine; if anything, our indifference encourages Russia and other autocracies to continue to erode the pillars of democracy and human rights — country by country, innocent life by innocent life.

As we reconsider how the United States generally, and students in Burlingame specifically, can do their part to aid the Ukrainian crisis, it is important to establish the end goal. When asked by 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley to define what winning would look like, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that “the return of refugees is blood for the body of Ukraine. Without them, there’s nothing.”

That’s the question we should ask ourselves. “What can we do to support Ukrainian refugees, and how can we make Ukraine a safe place for those refugees to return to?” 

The answers are endless — literally. A Google search for how to support Ukrainian refugees yields 128,000,000 results, with solutions ranging from petitions and charities to protests and volunteer opportunities. 

Here’s one example: World Central Kitchen, a not-for-profit organization that provides meals after natural disasters and emergencies, put chefs on the ground in Poland, Germany, Spain, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova to feed the thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine. The organization has served over 12 million meals across eight countries.

Voices for Children is a Ukrainian-based organization that mobilized during the invasion to provide art therapy and psychological support to children traumatized by the war fought in front of them. 

These groups understand that everyone, not just soldiers and diplomats, can contribute in the midst of a humanitarian crisis — chefs, psychologists and artists included. Donating to these organizations is the opposite of performative activism; it is a thoughtful, meaningful contribution to those in need. 

It may be true that none of us can take military action, none of us can levy economic sanctions, and none of us can send ammunition and weapons to Ukrainian fighters. But we can still help beyond the confines of our Instagram page.