Posted on Feb 08, 2023
Last week, a quick reschedule allowed us to hear a very topical issue – the story of how Tony and Natalie Sundermeier applied their shared talent and experience to create and manage a distribution hub in Romania that delivers humanitarian aid to the hardest hit areas in the Russian-Ukrainian war.
First, a short video introduced the staff at the warehouse and the changing focus of services, initially meals and evolving to include whatever was needed (think big like ambulances and generators).
Tony spoke first. The Tulcea (Romania) hub is located 2 miles from the Ukrainian border.  A map illustrated the lines of service and destinations of goods. The focus is the hardest hit areas in the east and south of the country – geographically far from the Ukrainian government distribution centers. The Tulcea Humanitarian Logistics Hub was started in February 2022 (soon after the invasion of Ukraine) when 3 Romanians met for coffee and decided “we have to do something”.  Tony was contacted by a friend seeking advice on how to set up an efficient distribution hub - shortly thereafter he flew to Romania and has been involved (mostly on the ground) ever since - he returns on February 24.
The next 2 slides showed the conversion of this former manufacturing warehouse into the efficient distribution center it is today. Tony’s work experience in logistics at Intel (and other major companies) was valuable as a functional distribution hub required the development of shipping systems, cold chain storage (for meds), flexible workflow amid changing needs, destination validation of shipments, etc. The result today is a 1000 pallet capacity and the only bonded humanitarian warehouse in Romania. The motto is “can  you ship this?” -answer - yes)
Donations come from almost everywhere in Europe, arriving by truck, train, barge or whatever. They leave by barge, train, truck or (even) bicycle!  Invoicing and verification of destination is managed by a low-tech QR code system (important because it does not allow Russian access).  Important shipments are guarded by an embedded team called the “Honey Badgers”, former US special forces operators.  So far, 3000 tons (over 500 trucks) have been shipped with an efficiency of 99.8%!   Examples of goods shipped - 6 million meals, 300 tons of medical supplies, 100’s of vehicles and generators.
The staff consist of 15 volunteers, mostly Ukrainians each with a personal connection (often a price paid) to the war. All the staff have nicknames (one of the several ways to keep the mood light and positive).  Igor, the warehouse manager, is a former Ukraine Rotary club president.  His Rotarian contacts throughout the distribution area have been essential to identify specific needs and developing ways to get them met.  Rotary’s role was further illustrated by a slide listing clubs throughout the world that have donated funds and goods. Tony’s last slide was a picture of a “sea” of Ukrainian flags - each representing a death related to the war.
Next Natalie took the mike. She shared her initial concerns about personal safety in a location so close to the war, but concluded in all the months she has spent there she has “never felt unsafe”.  Her background is HR and she is responsible (among other duties) for the staff and their morale in such a difficult place.  She shared how no 2 days are never the same.  Individuals from almost anywhere show up with a variety of donated goods.  Google Translate handles the language barrier. She introduced more of the staff and again emphasized how important Igor (“the Rock”) was to the operation.
There was limited time for questions given all the information they had to share.
Q: Are the hub staff developing skills that they can use postwar? A: yes, definitely for some whereas others are “retired” professionals from many fields
Q: Can this group help or see a way forward to end this war? A: The goal of Ukrainians is to get their country (all of it) back and as time and atrocities continue their resolve only hardens
We thank these 2 dedicated people for their job well done and reminding us how Rotarians can help and have helped. Most importantly we need to remember that this war is not over even when the newsrooms tell mostly negative stories and inevitably recognize the war as less interesting to the US public. We also thank Rajiv for rescheduling his talk.