SA’s global example of heroic humanitarian aid answered when Ukraine called – Gift of the Givers, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman

The Gift of the Givers Foundation is the largest disaster response NGO of African origin and its founder, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman has only one criterion when he considers whether he should go and help: he serves humanity. When he got the call from Nataliya Venter, the Ukrainian wife of South African De Villiers Venter, Gift of the Givers sprang into action to help Ukraine. Since the start of their Ukrainian intervention, Dr Sooliman and his team have partnered with Ukrainian and Romanian aid organisations and have expanded their operations to reach deep into the war-torn country to help co-ordinate aid efforts, supply fuel, save dogs and make sure elderly people who are trapped can be fed. Dr Sooliman told BizNews about his venture into Ukraine and how the foundation has never stopped feeding the hungry in South Africa. He is a man on a mission and his rapid-fire lists of the efforts they are involved in is a glowing testimony to this incredible organisation, which as heroic as the people of Ukraine who stood up to the aggression by their much more powerful neighbour. – Linda van Tilburg

This is not the first time that Gift of the Givers provided aid in the West

It’s nothing new. We have actually helped Europe three times previously. We were first involved in Bosnia in 1992; in 1999, were involved in Albania and helping with Kosovo during the Kosovo war and then, a few years later, there were big floods on Madeira Island in Portugal and we assisted the island. We sent in a team, boats, supplies and we helped 2,000 or something people many years ago. Besides that, we have [assisted during) the earthquake in Haiti, the earthquake in Nepal and the typhoon in the Philippines (to name just a few).

Helping Ukraine after a call for help from Saffer De Villiers Venter

He called and said he knows we work in these kinds of situations. Can he help us or can we help them? So, on 5 March, I phoned him and said yes. His wife’s name is Nataliya. I said to tell Nataliya we will get involved in Ukraine and she needs to find any shop in the area; we want to support Ukrainians from inside, not from outside. When I say from outside, I mean, to buy stuff inside Ukraine to support the local businesses. She found a shop that same day and started purchasing. We guided them in what to do. The next day, they looked for bigger shops and spoke to the mayor and businesspeople to find warehouses where there was surplus goods. And, so we started purchasing inside. We sent money on a daily basis from South Africa through the husband to Nataliya. There she gathered a group of friends. While they were in the area, people from the east started coming in. There were orphans and old people. People wanted simple things – bottled water, food, sanitary pads, diapers and warm clothes – because it was freezing in the area and in the east, of course, the gas, electricity, everything was cut, so people were freezing.

Partnering with local Ukrainian charities and young volunteers

We received a call from an organisation called Smart Angels. They were getting stuff from Europe, but there were two problems: sometimes there was no fuel. There was no money to pay for the fuel for a truck coming from Europe and when it arrived at the Ukrainian border, there were 70 vehicles, minibuses and all types of vehicles. They were unable to fill them to deliver aid to different parts of the country. So, I said I would find 20 000 litres of fuel immediately. So, we partnered with them and started funding their vehicles and I said we would expand it as we go along. With that, we increased the network and the reach. In every area they went to, the young people are starting to stand up. So, more and more people are putting their hands up to volunteer. When stuff comes from Smart Angels, volunteers take responsibility and deliver to the people immediately, so it doesn’t wait in warehouses. It is delivered instantly. We started off with the four volunteers and are trying to get into all the hotspot areas.

Local shops gave discounts; the network of people on the ground was expanded

Then orphanages came and said, “Look, the kids are here.” They needed blankets, warm clothes, mattresses, bottled water, and asked us to arrange. They found a factory that produces mattresses and blankets, and I must compliment the Ukrainian people. In war situations, businesspeople normally double or triple their prices. Here, people are dropping their prices and giving us 50%, 65%, 80% discount. It has been incredible. We then found a farm and bought 27 tonnes of potatoes. Smart Angels has a storage facility and they are supplying to all the different areas. So, it’s a really good combination of our people on the inside in Ukraine working with Smart Angels, which has the warehousing in Poland and Ukraine. They take it to warehouses that we set up. Then our volunteers and their teams expand the network.  Seventy-two hours ago, another organisation called us; they are Ukrainians operating from Romania. Smart Angels is delivering from the west of the country, and this other organisation is delivering from the south of the country, which means we have a bigger reach. I asked what they needed. They said they want us to do the same thing for them that we are doing for Smart Angels. Could we give them fuel? I said, “No problem. I’ll fund you for fuel.” So, now we have deliveries from the west and the south, and the network has just expanded exponentially. We can get to more and more people inside.

Ukraine is the 45th country that Gift of the Givers is helping

We help all of mankind, irrespective of race, religion, colour, class, culture, geographical location or political affiliation; we help everyone, unconditionally and expect nothing in return. Ukraine is the 45th country we have helped. In South African money, we’ve delivered R4bn in aid to millions of people in all these countries, including South Africa. Disaster intervention is our speciality. We are probably the most complete disaster organisation in the world because some people do primary health; some people do trauma intervention, some do post-op rehab; some do trauma counselling. Some people do rescue; some people help dogs; some people put up hospitals; some people bring tents, blankets and medicines. Others may help agriculture in a war situation or a food situation. We do all of the above, every single aspect. We hire planes, send our own.

Hunger is a huge problem in South Africa, not only during the Covid-19 pandemic

Besides disaster intervention, during Covid-19 in South Africa, we were very big, we were the biggest. We were involved in supporting 210 hospitals and are busy with hospital infrastructure upgrades. We drilled 420 boreholes in the last 24 months in drought areas in South Africa. We support farmers with fodder for their animals to try to save the sheep and cattle. We provided 600,000 food parcels during the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal, Covid-19 job losses and hunger. We supported over 100 soup kitchens; we donate blankets, new clothing and wheelchairs. We support schools with infrastructure. We are now busy with catch-up surgery. We just put up R5m to start catch-up surgery at Groote Schuur Hospital. We are doing cataract catch-up in Eersterivier and are intervening at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital that was closed from April last year after a fire. The project is going to cost us R35m and we are now intervening to start fixing parts of the hospital.

Hunger is a huge problem in South Africa. It’s there underneath, silent. We have spent a lot of money supporting hunger projects. But, of course, what the country really needs is a huge increase in jobs for people to become self-sufficient and not dependent on grants or handouts.

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