For Semyon Dukach, pulling up to Boston’s Logan Airport last Friday with $5,000 in cash, bound for the Ukrainian border, wasn’t completely out of the ordinary. Dukach, a Soviet refugee-turned MIT blackjack player-turned venture capitalist, is used to hustling — and dealing with large sums of money.
But it’s been a pretty wild ride.
Last week, while consuming a torrent of news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said he felt “useless.” His wife Natasha, who identifies as Ukrainian, was trying to secure housing for refugees fleeing the country, but he decided they could do more. The next day, they were on a flight from Boston to Romania via Munich, with cash in hand and a simple plan in mind: try to help refugees who need it.
After landing in Romania, they drove six hours to the country’s border town of Siret, near the southwest of Ukraine. There, they found a depressing scene: women and children waiting in long lines to cross into Romania, bundled in the cold, being dropped off by their husbands and fathers, who bid them goodbye. (Around 660,000 Ukrainians have fled their country, recent UN estimates show.)
They started out trying to secure housing for refugees crossing the border. But soon, they realized many bed and breakfasts in the area were already offering free housing, and nonprofits were providing food, blankets, and transportation.
“What we realized,” Dukach said in a phone interview from Romania, “was that what women and children really needed was some money.”
At that point, they decided to focus solely on handing out cash to those fleeing the country. Natasha, who met Semyon years ago on a train from Odessa to Kyiv, would approach people while Semyon photographed the interaction, he said. People were skeptical, he added, but soon they warmed up.
The couple started by handing out $200, which dropped to $100 or less when they started running low on cash. Less than two days later, they ran out of money, and scrambled to other ATMs in Romania, maxing out their withdrawal limits until they could get another $2,000.
“Women were crying. I started crying … it’s a very emotional thing,” said Dukach, a Moscow native who fled the Soviet Union as a kid with his parents and sister.
Ultimately, he said, they handed out $7,000 to roughly 100 women at the border in two days, seemingly a modest impact. Now, they’re heading back to Boston to regroup and expand their efforts.
He said dozens of coworkers and friends have contacted him wanting to donate money, and aid workers near the Ukrainian border said there isn’t anyone doing similar work. For Dukach, a Boston venture capitalist who invests in immigrant-owned tech companies, it signals a gap that must be addressed.
He is thinking about how to raise more money — potentially millions — and amass a group of volunteers to hand out cash to more border crossers. And he accepts that there are issues with scaling this effort. “There’s going to be some risk, some money’s going to get stolen. I think that’s fine,” he said. “You can make a really, really, really big impact here.”
But their efforts to decide who gets help, and who doesn’t, at this point are based on personal judgment of a refugee’s need, he said. That could lead to criticism, especially amid scrutiny European countries have received for treating African students trying to flee the country differently than Ukrainians, and for being less open to accepting refugees in years past from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
For those interested in helping, Dukach has created a website to accept donations. The money will get routed through his venture capital fund’s charitable arm.
“We really view it as an experiment,” he said. “This is a proof of concept.”