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Supporting the War Effort in Ukraine One Loaf of Bread at a Time

March 23, 2022
by Christopher Gardner

Irina Esterlis, PhD, felt a range of emotions after war broke out in her homeland of Ukraine, where she still has family.

Anger and helplessness were replaced by sadness and despair over the loss of life and destruction of cities and villages. She put her work on pause. For days all she could do was cry.

“And then I was like I need to do something,” said Esterlis, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. “And what do I do best?”

She bakes.

“If I was there (in Ukraine) I’d be making bombs. That’s my personality. I wouldn’t just sit there and do nothing,” she said. “So, if I can’t make bombs, I’m going to make bread.”

Not just any bread, but a special Ukrainian stuffed poppyseed roll that Esterlis remembers eating – but not necessarily enjoying – when she was child growing up in Ukraine, where she lived in Kyiv until she moved with her family to the United States in 1989. Now this treat has become a much-coveted staple that she and her family enjoy.

Baking from scratch gave Esterlis relief from the stress of watching the news and seeing her homeland being erased by Russian bombs.

Then she had a thought: What if she offered to bake this special bread for people in exchange for them donating to charities that are providing humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian people and paying for equipment to help soldiers fight against the Russians?

She set the minimum donation at $100 and emailed co-workers and friends. Her husband, Donald, put a post on social media. Immediately donations began coming in, and Esterlis got out her rolling pin and began baking. Before long she had raised over $6,000 for the cause.

“I’m not seeking attention. This is what I could do to help,” she said. “Imagine if where you grew up was getting leveled and everybody was getting killed. All I want is for the war to stop.”

Esterlis came to the U.S. from Ukraine 33 years ago. She went to high school in America, received her undergraduate degree from the University of Buffalo, then did her master’s and doctoral work at the University of Connecticut.

She came to Yale in 2004 for her internship and postdoc work and then joined the faculty in the Yale Department of Psychiatry, where she works as a researcher.

If I was there (in Ukraine) I’d be making bombs. That’s my personality. I wouldn’t just sit there and do nothing. So, if I can’t make bombs, I’m going to make bread.

Irina Esterlis, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine

Esterlis is not alone. There are many professionals at Yale with ties to Ukraine. Esterlis and colleagues from Internal Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics, Pediatrics, and others formed a group, “United for Ukraine.” They are raising awareness about the war. They are fundraising to support established charities and to deliver medical supplies to Ukrainian hospitals where life-saving equipment is running short. All are working for Ukraine’s survival since Russia’s invasion.

Esterlis still has family and lifetime friends in Ukraine, the Kyiv and Odessa regions, but also has family in Moscow. "I don't know who I'm more scared for," she said, adding that she worries for people in both countries.

Baking has been a distraction since the war broke out. It has always been a form of stress relief for Esterlis, who said she used to enjoy art and dancing before her schedule got too busy.

"To me it's about being active," she said. "If I sit and relax my brain is churning but I'm doing nothing. (Baking) is active, working with your hands where you're doing stuff and thinking I will bring pleasure to someone who is eating it, knowing they will enjoy it."

She is well equipped to handle the expected influx or orders for her bread, which she creates from her own recipe with inspiration from authentic Ukrainian recipes she has found online.

Last year for Mother's Day she got a professional mixer, and she has two ovens at home. She found a good source for flour and is enjoying creating homemade breads knowing that the money they are generating is making a difference in Ukraine.

Esterlis created an email address to take bread orders: so people can donate to her directly.

Money sent to Esterlis will be used to buy, among other things, bulletproof vests, helmets, and other military equipment for Ukrainian volunteer fighters at the war front, she said. Proceeds will also fund medical equipment and medication supplies to military hospitals across Ukraine, from Lviv in the West, Kyiv at the heart and Kharkiv in the East of the country.

The work has consumed Esterlis for a few weeks and has helped her manage the helplessness felt by so many people who just want the war to end.

“Just having more things to do and finding more people to help gives you purpose,” she said. “All you want to do is help.”

Submitted by Christopher Gardner on March 23, 2022

A Letter from Members of 'United for Ukraine' to the Yale Community

We, Yale professionals with Ukrainian roots, thank you for supporting Ukraine during Russia’s devastating war. Since February 24, thousands have died, 1 in 5 Ukrainians have been displaced, and entire cities have been razed. Yet, Ukraine lives on, despite Putin’s declaration that there is no Ukraine.

The courage and determination of Ukrainian people inspires us. As Timothy Snyder, Yale’s Professor of Eastern European history, reflects, “… they are keeping on, doing what needs to be done amidst the death and the destruction. Every day they act is one when we can reflect, and hope. People do have values. The world is not empty.”

The Yale community and beyond expresses willingness and need to do more for Ukraine and a world with values. We are grateful. The shelling and bombing are now more murderous and destructive. People in Ukraine need help and they need it now.

Below are a few ways you can help. These are reliable programs with a proven record of immediate impact. This is our chance to provide food, shelter, and medications to the women, children and elderly who fled their homes. Our chance to support those in the west of Ukraine and Eastern Europe who care and console millions who flee. Our chance to help the survival and healing of Ukrainian soldiers. Our chance to support local news outlets devoted to conscientious reporting.

The Yale community has always been true to the University’s mission: “…to improve the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”

We implore you to continue to lead. This time, through giving. Give what you can, even a little can make a difference. Some of you can give more than a little. Please do.

Our actions can alleviate the suffering and kindle the hope among the Ukrainian people.

Razom (Together). A U.S.-based and registered 501c3 non-profit organization that delivers medical and humanitarian supplies to cities across Ukraine and developing evacuation systems for children and children with disabilities.

Association Homo Faber: Provides food, transport and financial support for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. It also provides legal, psychological, and medical help for refugees. On the website, scroll down to view the page in English.

Come Back Alive: The organization’s mission includes supplying technology, training, and accessories to help save lives of Ukrainians and help soldiers defend Ukraine. It does not use funds for purchasing arms.

Meduza: Based in Riga, Latvia, Meduza has excellent commentators and reporters, and you can sign up for its bulletin. Meduza cannot really advertise, since in Russia it is treated as a "foreign agent," so it depends on donations. Meduza is one of the few ways the truth about Ukraine can reach Russians.