Shavkat Ismailov is one of more than a dozen American Red Cross emergency responders deployed to Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis. Based in Moldova—a country neighboring Ukraine to the south—Shavkat is using his language skills and experience in humanitarian crises to aid families impacted by the conflict.
Originally from Tajikistan, Shavkat speaks four languages—including Tajik and Russian—and has a long history of working with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to aid people in need. Here, he speaks to us about the unfolding crisis in Ukraine and neighboring countries.
Q. How long have you been with the Red Cross?
A. I’ve spent 17 years with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. I started out as a volunteer with the Tajikistan Red Crescent in my own country—helping with activities such as reconnecting separated family members (Restoring Family Links), managing relief and development programs, crisis response and disaster mapping—and eventually moved on to work for the International Federation of Red cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
I joined the American Red Cross in 2010 and have since deployed to emergencies around the globe, including in response to the Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, the Nepal earthquake, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The United States is certainly not immune to disasters, so I’ve also been able to deploy with response teams to Houston and support response efforts in Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands after hurricanes there.
Q. Can you talk to us about what you’re seeing in Moldova?
A. More than 400,000 people fleeing Ukraine have entered Moldova. Many continue traveling to other countries in Europe, but tens of thousands of people remain here.
At the very start of the crisis, people arriving just needed simple help: food, water, diapers, hygiene items, and information about where to find a place to sleep and how to navigate the roads. Language was—and continues to be—a challenge, so I was relieved to use my language skills to make people feel more comfortable and find aid. It was freezing. We all had multiple layers of socks on. Two pairs of pants. But we stuck with it. To be able to put a tiny smile on the face of kids who’ve gone through so much. That’s a big way we could help.
Q. How is the Red Cross helping refugees in Moldova?
A. The Moldova Red Cross has been around for many years – it’s a small, but active, national society. Since day one of this crisis, Red Cross teams have been welcoming families from Ukraine with aid and information. Because they’ve been active for decades, they were able to get aid to remote border crossings and they were trusted by people crossing.
Aid includes things like food, water, hygiene items, baby formula and SIM cards. There are lots of mothers and young children crossing, so items for babies—like diapers and strollers—have been important. I witnessed the generosity of people across the border in Romania and in Moldova, their volunteering in helping in this crisis was so outstanding and visible. The Red Cross has also been staffing the group shelters where families are staying in order to provide child-safe places for kids to play and to take stress off of parents, at least for a bit.
Q. What’s your role in this crisis?
A. My role here as an Emergency Response Operations Manager is to help the Moldovan Red Cross scale up its capacity and its response as this crisis continues. I’m ensuring that they connect with the funds and structures of our wider Red Cross Red Crescent network, build its team to meet the urgent needs, and scale the type of relief it can deliver to those most vulnerable.
Q. Have you met anyone you’re still thinking about?
A. In early March, I walked into my hotel after a long day and there were three women from Ukraine, traveling with six kids. They just needed a place to rest their heads. We were able to get them a hotel and they were just so relieved. We were helping others in the lobby any way we could. Another woman I met—a pregnant mom—was staying at one of the reception centers with her kids. Her son, he just wanted a bit of normalcy: He asked for mashed potatoes. It just reminded me of how much kids need stability and how these kids don’t have it right now.
Mental health support and gender protection and inclusion are going to be so important to the Red Cross’ work as we continue responding to this crisis. Right now, my team is training up on these issues and hoping to bring these tools to volunteers so they can use skills at distributions.
Q. How does this mission make you feel?
A. I’m just really proud that I can bring my background, my culture and my language to help people really in need right now. I understand the context and I think that makes me really targeted and efficient. This is a hard situation, but being able to help in this way is really cool.
Q. What’s the best thing you packed in your luggage?
A. My Red Cross vest! People see the emblem and know they’re going to be safe. I wear it every day. The American Red Cross puts people first, and I was equipped with everything that could make my deployment efficient and easier – from work gloves and headlamps to phones, computers and as much PPE as I needed for my stay in Moldova. It’s really cool to be deployed with all these items, but we also procure things locally to invest in the local economy – which is so important. This is it! I am proud to be a Red Crosser and will continue to be inspired and motivated to do more.