Mariam Lambert, volunteer from the Netherlands
We have no right to be tired of the war
06.04.2023 15:26

The Ukrainian soldiers call Mariam Lambert “Cinderella”. And they do that for a reason: as if by magic, she gets drones, night vision devices, cars, medicine, generators, Starlinks, and she helps civilians. During the first year of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, she helped deliver 67,660 chemical weapons antidotes, 24 tonnes of winter clothing, 85 tonnes of medical supplies (including necessary anti-cancer drugs, flu vaccines, and medical kits), and 31 tonnes of food.

Mariam Lambert is the founder of the Dutch charitable organization Orphans Feeding Foundation. Before the full-scale war in Ukraine, her foundation was providing humanitarian aid around the world, including many initiatives in Kenya, Zanzibar, Nepal, Morocco, Romania, but never in a war zone.

Mariam had never visited Ukraine before the war. But she was so shocked by Russia’s illegal, criminal, and unprovoked full-scale invasion of peaceful Ukrainian cities, by the number of people killed and injured during Russia’s attacks, that she could not stay away. As a mother of three she has a great compassion for women who tried to take their children abroad in order to save them from the Russian beast, and so Mariam had organized her first mission to Ukraine in March 2022.

In the first weeks of the full-scale war, her team evacuated 51 people to Amsterdam, all of them women and children. Then she evacuated 100 civilians from the de-occupied districts of Kharkiv, and provided assistance to the evacuees from Azovstal. After that, Cinderella regularly traveled to Ukraine and, together with her team, she continued to help civilians and Ukrainian soldiers.

At the end of March, she and her team went back to Ukraine again. This time, Cinderella brought 33 drones, 30 night vision devices, 10 Starlink devices, 10 military radio systems and 13 vehicles for the Ukrainian military, through her other organisation, Angels of Ukraine, a Kyiv-based NGO focusing on supporting the military units of the front line.

In an interview with Ukrinform, the volunteer told us about her first charitable missions to Ukraine, why she decided to help Ukraine and how Ukrainian doctors saved her life.


- We met for the first time in early March 2022, when you were organizing your first trip to Ukraine. At the time, I thought that you did not fully realize that a full-scale war had broken out in Ukraine and how dangerous it could be there. How did you explain to your children where you were going? And what did your charitable organization do before the full-scale war in Ukraine?

- In 2011, together with my husband, we started to create a non-governmental organization (further referred as NGO). We knew this was our path, the path we were ready to take. At that time, we had just got our permanent jobs as civil servants and realized that we wanted to give back. We provided a lot of humanitarian aid all over the world, but never in a war zone. So, we started in 2011, we built an orphanage in Kenya, in a town near Kisumu. When we completed building the orphanage, we decided to move forward, so we went to Nepal. Then we’ve been to Romania, Morocco, and Belgium. Yes, in Belgium too, because, believe it or not, but also in Europe there are kids living in abject poverty. So this is what we are trying to do: simply help those children. This is where the raised funds have been directed to, as well as to support vulnerable groups of society.

Before the full-scale war in Ukraine, we started a new project in Zanzibar, because we were there with our children. And for the first time we showed them what it meant to help people and how important it could be. Together with our children we visited some orphanages in order for them to realize where to help and how to contribute to the improvement of the world. This was the first time they helped us with our initiatives, in particular with the distribution of toys in orphanages in Zanzibar. And we arranged everything to build a school there. It was in July 2021.

When Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, we realized what was happening. And coming back to your question - how we explained it to our children, we said that this was not just about Ukraine, it was about democracy, freedom, and independence. Iryna, your people had everything before the war. They had a family, a house, a normal life, they were grateful for what they had built in their country, because your country was built by your people. But one day everything was taken away from you. And this is what I keep explaining to my children. It's not just about Ukraine, it's about all of us. It's about Europe, about freedom, about democracy. And if you don’t do anything, you indirectly support this invasion, you agree that Russians are allowed to take away those values from people. First it will be Ukraine, and then there will be other countries. And this is exactly what we are fighting for. It’s a fight for the next generation, for our children.

After the Second World War, we said: never again. But today it is happening again, and we are witnessing it. And we don't want it to happen again. So there’s absolutely no way for us to stay home and just watch our future to be completely destroyed. The more we talked about it with our children, the more they understood why we were doing that, whom we were helping, because they were just the same age as the children in Ukraine. I told them that when I was crossing the border for the first time, I saw a boy. He was 3 years old, he was cold. It was -8 degrees outside. And he was carrying the luggage of his mother, who was carrying a baby. So there’s absolutely no way that I would just sit without doing anything, because this boy could have been my child. He is almost the same age as my son. This is what we are trying to explain to our children.

I am also very lucky. I have a fantastic husband who is absolutely supportive. We have been together for 19 years, and every time we start an initiative, we are doing it together. Even when you see me all the time in Ukraine, he is the one who solves many organizational issues. Also, when I go there, he takes care of the children. I remember when I just came back to the Netherlands from Kharkiv, and my children learned by heart the Ukrainian song ‘Oh, the red viburnum in the meadow’ to welcome me. It's incredible, isn’t it? And this is how far they understand the situation. Even my almost 4-year-old son, always asks me: ‘Do children in Ukraine play with my toys?’ because he would like those children to play with them. And then you know that they realize that they should appreciate what they have and help others. Sorry for such a long answer. And yes, when I went there for the first time, I did not fully realize what a full-scale war meant.

- How did the war in Ukraine change your life?

- It was like a tsunami... It’s the first time actually that someone asked me this question. Usually they ask about what we do, about people, and I'm happy to talk about that, but I don't like to talk about my emotions. However, I must admit that people sometimes do not realize that being a volunteer also has a very big impact on your life, also your family and your children; when you sacrifice your time with your children and friends. The career too. Of course, every choice has its consequences. And we decided on that when the war broke out.

For me, it wasn't even a choice, it was an obvious decision, but of course it had huge consequences. It changed the meaning of my life. We used to talk about  job promotions and rewards, about careers. But when I heard from a person "you saved us from war", I felt that it was my reward. I feel useful and, of course, it has changed my attitude to how I want to spend my time in the future. Sometimes it is extremely difficult for us, but it also is extremely rewarding. Given the scale of the tragedy, I feel that we are not doing much, it is a drop in the ocean, but at least we are adding to it.

- The war in Ukraine has been going on for a year now. Are people getting tired of helping others? Do volunteers have enough energy?

- I think it would be obscene to say that I am tired. I have the privilege to come back home to the Netherlands after each mission, where the sky is peaceful, where I can see my family, see my children. But the people I work with in Ukraine, they never stop, they don't have holidays, they haven't seen their families for the entire year. So are we tired compared to the people who fight on the front line, tired compared to doctors who save lives every day? I think we have no right to be tired of the war.

Of course, we sometimes feel a bit exhausted. It's like running a race: you are not running 10 kilometers, you are not even running a half-marathon, you are running every day, today and tomorrow too. So it's not about the physical, but it's about the mental state, how strong you are. And now it's really about the people who are resilient, who are strong enough to go on. Because it's not over yet, and we don't know how long it will last. Hopefully, it will end soon, but that's why only after the war we are allowed to feel tired, we are allowed to show tears, and we are allowed to express emotions, because now we need to focus on people who need us.

Ukraine is now also my country. Ukrainian people are our people. Ukrainian children are our children. I like singing in Ukrainian just to stay strong in some tragic situations. Because we need to keep people motivated and just to go on.

But I also realize that my life will never be the same again. The horrific things I've seen: the constant bombing and shelling, the horrific sound of missiles, and the consequences when they strike, and the scream of people when they are identifying their beloved ones among the dead. So for sure, like everyone else who works in the war zone, we need some help afterwards. But now we have no time for that. My precious children and family give me strength to keep going.


- How many times have you been to Ukraine? And how long do you usually stay there as a volunteer?

- Something like 15 times. I usually go to Ukraine every 3 weeks. Sometimes I've stayed in Ukraine for 4-5 weeks, and sometimes for 2 weeks. It really depends on the situation. For example, I was supposed to stay in Kherson for 2 days. It was just three days after its liberation. But at the end we stayed there for 10 days because we saw how difficult the situation was there. So we decided to stay longer.

- How do you prepare for missions in Ukraine?

- Every time it is a targeted mission, when we know exactly what to do. We prepare a mission here in the Netherlands with my husband, with volunteers, and with our partners. And once it is ready, we make an action plan. And even if you have a plan, you realize that it can go wrong, because this is a war where everything can change within seconds. But we always prepare the mission fully and we assess its duration. So initially I went there for 5 days. And then, as the needs were growing, I was staying there longer. And I think every time it was at least for 5 days, and then for 10 days. And I even had some missions of almost 5 weeks, because we were far from the central cities. So we were helping more remote districts, which were difficult to reach. So sometimes it takes us 2 days to reach the area, and then we help people, victims and the military directly.

- Tell me about your first mission. You returned with a bus of evacuated Ukrainians, who are still incredibly grateful to you.

- It all started with a Ukrainian named Natalia. She was the first person I contacted and asked how we could help. At the time, we did not have any network in Ukraine. Natalia and I had a common friend, and then we added each other as friends on Facebook. I contacted her and asked: ‘How can we help?’ She told me about people who were staying in Lutsk at the time and needed some help. It was my birthday when I went to Ukraine for the first time. But, of course, before that we had prepared a mission. My birthday is March 11th, the day that we went there with a mission to evacuate people. We didn't have many buses. We just had one bus and 51 people to bring back to the Netherlands.

But we approached this challenge with big responsibility. First of all, before departing, we contacted the Ukrainian Embassy in the Netherlands. We also found accommodation. You know, we called many hotels, and we tried to convince them to help us. And only one person responded, when we needed a real miracle. And that person is the owner of the Marriott Hotel in Amsterdam. We agreed that when we will have brought evacuated people, he would give them 2 months of free accommodation and meals. And that’s exactly what we needed in order to have the time to help Ukrainians settle down. I don't like to call Ukrainian people refugees, because 90% of people, who live here, want to return home. So we took full responsibility and wanted to create the right conditions for them. Can you imagine the stress they had to go through? I know that people crossed the country, fled to Lviv region or to the mountains, they had to sleep in gyms and shelters. And the worst way to help them is to bring them here and put them back in a shelter. Of course, not everyone had a choice. But we tried to do it right.

So we had a hotel waiting for them, a medical checkup from GGD (the Public Health Service), the registration at the municipality. Everything was put in place before we picked them up. And, of course, we were not going there with an empty bus. We collected medical supplies, clothes for children and adults, basic essential items, and food. The supermarket Jumbo was our main sponsor, and it actually filled the bus with everything we needed.

- What was the hardest part of organizing your first trip?

- I remember receiving a call from a woman who said: ‘I heard that you might be coming to Ukraine, that you are a volunteer. I have cancer, I have leukemia, and I have no medicine. Please save me, because if I don't die from the war, I will die from cancer.’ And that was a wakeup call for me. So we decided to buy also those medicines, which were quite expensive for them and for us, but the most important thing was to get them. So I started to connect with all my friends, and they connected with their friends. Of course, my friends know me well, they know how crazy I can be. But they also know how important it is for me to help people. So we started to create teams. We had one team that was organizing the trip with me, another team was driving me to the border, and another team was delivering the medical supplies.

- As far as I know, during your first mission you had to change plans and to go to Lviv instead of Lutsk.

- The day before the trip, we had to change everything, because Lutsk, where we were supposed to go initially, was heavily attacked. So we decided to go to Lviv. We changed the plan and arranged everything within a day. We were traveling in a rented bus to Lviv with a plan to meet people and to bring them medicines, and then to evacuate Ukrainians. And suddenly the following happened: when we arrived at the border, they stopped us and explained that there was a war in Ukraine, and because this bus was rented, we did not have the right documents to cross the border with it. So the mission was over, they told us. But then I said no, it was not possible. I committed myself and I promised that person with cancer that I would come that day and bring her medicines for a full month of treatment. There was no way I could just turn back and say ‘sorry, we couldn't make it’.

At first, I was a little worried, but then I took my backpack, a box with medicines for the person with cancer, because it was urgent, and I crossed the border on foot. I did not know what would happen next. And as soon as I crossed the border, there was an explosion, it was horrific. I was so shocked, I did not know what to do. As it turned out, it happened to be the wrong border. And almost immediately there were explosions, just 20 kilometers away from where I was and I was there alone. I believe it was one of the scariest moments in my life because the situation was unknown. But in the end, everything worked out. I contacted the man who was supposed to meet me, and I was able to deliver the anti-cancer drugs to the person who needed it. It was one of the best feelings when you see that person and you think that you did it. You know that you did it.

After that I visited a military hospital in Lviv, where I saw people with no legs, no arms. They looked at me, and I dared to ask them: ‘How are you?’ because I didn't know what to say, how to behave. And they just replied to me: ‘We are not doing well obviously, but we hope that you can bring us some supplies in order for us to go back to the front line.’ It was then that I realized that the Ukrainian people are the greatest, the most resilient, the most courageous. On the first day, in the first hours of my stay in Ukraine, you meet people who are completely destroyed physically, but they look at you with a big smile. Then I started to connect with people as I realized that crossing the border is the most difficult part, especially if you are transporting medical supplies. So I spent a few days connecting with everyone who could help me cross the border next time. Because I already knew there would be a next time. It wasn't just one mission. I realized there would be many more to come.


- You used to build orphanages in Kenya. How did the war in Ukraine change your foundation? What projects are you realizing now?

- We are a non-governmental organization (NGO). Since the war has started, we have had different initiatives in Ukraine. The first of them was the evacuation of 51 people by bus to the Netherlands, as well as 5 people by plane through Romania. The second initiative, which unfortunately never took place, was the so-called dignity bags for prisoners with phones, new underwear, new clothes.

Another initiative was around helping orphanages, in particular, in Dnipro and Kharkiv, as well as in Kyiv through the Okhmatdyt children's hospital.

Another initiative was related to providing medical supplies directly to hospitals and patients. They had given us lists with their requirements, and we were delivering these items directly to those who need them. Unfortunately, we have experienced corruption in Ukraine, and that is why we work directly. But I want to note that corruption exists everywhere, in all countries. There are people trying to make money dishonestly everywhere. So this is why I’m back to Ukraine again and again, because our NGO has to give a guarantee to our donors that everything that has been donated would be given directly to the person in need.

We work with 58 different hospitals all over Ukraine to provide them with everything they need.

Another initiative was delivering anti-cancer drugs. We are providing free treatment to women with breast cancer. We have provided about 2,500 treatments all around the country, and this project is still ongoing. For this project we cooperate with the Association of Cancer Patients, oncologists, and cancer patients directly, because it is important for us to know that they have received treatment.

We also had another initiative, "Winter is Coming". We distributed a lot of food, stoves, blankets, and generators. Furthermore, we provided 16 tonnes of clothing, warm clothes, collected by different international schools in the Netherlands. This project was initiated by the British School in the Netherlands, where our children study. And it was a beautiful project, realized by children for children.

There is another project called the IEHK kits (Interagency Emergency Health Kits). We work with military medical points where doctors provide first line aid to the military.

There is another project for which we created another NGO. It is called Angels of Ukraine, which provides solely military supplies, because we didn't want to mix all the initiatives together. So, the Orphans Feeding Foundation has humanitarian focus, while Angels of Ukraine delivers cars, generators, night vision devices, i.e. everything that frontline military may need. This foundation was created in December in Ukraine together with two Ukrainian friends, my husband and I.

- Considering your first experience with crossing the border, how has the situation changed today? How are you currently delivering aid to Ukraine? 

- We do have a green corridor now. We have created a logistics network in Ukraine to be able to respond quickly and provide humanitarian aid on the ground. And also when big international pharmaceutical companies learned that we have a green corridor and that we are a reliable party, they trusted us to deliver medicines too. They wanted to help, but they were actually paralyzed by the bureaucratic processes and regulations. That's how we started getting trucks with medical supplies. We also help many patients with anti-cancer drugs. So in general, we are talking about tonnes of medicines and medical supplies.

We have built a network, trust and references - it didn't happen overnight, it took us six months to build it. For example, in July we met with the partner, that we are working with, and now they give us access to the medical supplies, that are needed in Ukraine. We have lists of requirements from hospitals, military hospitals, and cancer centers. Our partners have money, they have a budget that they can spend on medical supplies, but they don't know how it functions in Ukraine. There is too much bureaucracy for one pharmaceutical company to go through. So they rely on NGOs like ours, which work quickly and report on delivering everything that they give us, directly to the people in need.

This is the reason why I go to Ukraine all the time - to keep everything under control. All the donations that we receive are sent to a warehouse in the Netherlands. They are being packed in boxes, and then we deliver them by truck to Ukraine. Meanwhile I fly to Poland, from there I go to Kyiv, where we would wait for the truck. And from Kyiv we start delivering the aid. We also have another truck that goes to Mykolaiv, and from there the team delivers the aid to different destinations. I have all the documents, I have videos and pictures proving that the aid has been delivered. Also, the Ukrainian Embassy in the Netherlands provides all the necessary support, even when I come with some crazy ideas and give them a headache, I get the support of the embassy, because we have a common goal.

- I know that you also helped the evacuees from Azovstal.

- Yes, we met with people who were just evacuated from Azovstal, so the civilians. We were waiting for them, and it was an incredibly difficult moment. Because we were actually the first people they met after 2 months without light, without communication with the outside world. I spent a lot of time talking to them to understand their needs. We bought about 50 phones for those people, we bought about 150 pairs of shoes, clothes, hygiene products for women, deodorants, anything that could help them feel like normal people again. One girl, named Anya, was 24 years old, and when I met her, it was extremely difficult for me to control my emotions. She told me about what had happened there, how she had been staying with the same people for two months, and about how scared she was when it became clear that not everyone would come out. She told me that, unfortunately, her grandmother was also among those people. The whole situation was horrible, not only because they didn't know what was going to happen, but also because they didn't know what happened to their families who were still there. Luckily, later on, she reached out to me and informed me that her grandmother had joined her.


- What was the most terrifying thing for you during these missions?

- The stories of the injured civilians. They looked like ghosts. That was the most terrifying thing for me. They told us about the situations of rape, about how they had to share medicines for people with asthma.

Also, when there was a massive missile attack in Kharkiv. I had to sleep in the metro station because of the high risk of missiles. It was in August, people died, and I was there when it happened. I was just 10 minutes away. So we came to help the civilians who were injured. I saw a child of 11 years old lying on the floor. It was difficult for the family to recognize him. His body was burnt. It was extremely hard. After that, I tried to stay calm and to keep helping the victims, but in the evening I just screamed because it was unbearable.

- You and your team also help victims of sexual violence. Tell us more about these projects.

- Today we are working together with another organization on a project called Sunflower. One of the members is based in The Hague. I help by spreading the word about it. We inform people about the hotline where victims of rape can call, everywhere in Ukraine. We also distribute so-called dignity bags for these women. So we put in these bags flyers with the information about the hotline they can call. And we connect them with this NGO, which helps them to process further this situation. It's extremely difficult.

- What hotspots do you deliver aid to?

- We deliver to Bakhmut, Kherson, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia, we have even reached Oleksandrivka, which is a few kilometers from the Russian border, in fact, we deliver everywhere in Ukraine. But we are not doing this alone. We are not crazy. Of course, we have the full support of the Ukrainian army. They are helping us, they are providing us with all the safety measures so that we can do it in a safe way. So we are not on our own. Thus, when I said that I deliver aid personally, I meant that we have a team and a process in place and that we do it together with the military.


- What do the military call you? Do you have a nickname?

- Yes, it’s Cinderella. You know, it's difficult for me to understand that in situations like Bakhmut, of course there are fewer and fewer civilians staying there, but when I was there in December to help the civilians who stayed, it was difficult to persuade them to leave the city. We were distributing winter clothes, blankets, stoves, food and hygiene products to help them survive the winter, and this was done under the constant shelling. It was really hard, but unfortunately, you get used to it.

- What happened to you during one of your last missions? I know that you had surgery.

- I was lucky because I had just come back from Donbas and I was in Kyiv. One night I felt extremely sick. As it turned out, I had a very bad diagnosis, which I did not suspect, and I needed to undergo urgent surgery, because without that surgery I might not have survived. I had internal bleeding. It's very strange to realize that in this horrific situation, when I was about to die, it was the Ukrainian doctors ( whom I was helping throughout the year), who saved my life. After surgery, I had to stay in the hospital for a while, until I felt better. And then I came back home. And now I'm a woman with a lot of experience and a 20-centimeter scar on my body that will always remind me of the war.

- Do you remember how you felt when you heard about the full-scale war in Ukraine?

- I will always remember that. I was crying all the time when I watched the news. The civilians, the children. When it comes to children, I think it's the most awful tragedy you can imagine. They are being targeted for no reason. It's a crime, it's a genocide, right? We have to call it what it is. This is barbarism. When I saw this on TV, I wanted to help. And, of course, it was obvious, because we were helping children all the time, but not in a war zone. What we did not expect was all the other challenges around it.


- Tell me about these challenges.

- When crossing the border, when delivering medicines directly to a person in need, when it comes to bureaucracy. Also, when you are in Ukraine, you have to be vigilant all the time, you have to look around, because you don't know who is who. There are many bad people who are trying to use you, to set you up. This is a real war. And in a war situation, anything can happen.

- Are you referring now to the situation with the accusation of being allegedly involved in an attempt to organize a press conference for the Russian propagandist Marina Ovsyannikova?

- I don't know who the organizer was, and I have no other information about this event, except that it was rightfully canceled. I was very upset that they tried to use my name and that I had to spend time and energy on this instead of focusing on my volunteer work. But this is war, and war is war.

- Why do you love Ukraine? Because you only take such a risk, when you love it.

- Ukrainians are one of the unique nations in the world, who are not just fighting for a piece of land. People need to understand this: Ukrainians are not fighting, they are defending their land, but also their soul, their history, their culture, everything they have built over the years. These are very important values for them. Values that we all share, but we could never have imagined how many people would die defending them, until the Ukrainian people showed us that this is what we must do, otherwise we will lose everything - freedom, democracy, solidarity.

Ukraine is the only country in the world that shows that freedom is not free. And there is no other way than to defend it. And they are doing it for all of us, for people around the world. What I like about Ukraine is the people. It's about resilience, about bravery, about courage, about pain, about the fact that every Ukrainian has his own story about the war. The Ukrainian people are unique.

Despite everything, they keep living, they keep cooking, dancing, singing, because they are so strong mentally and they are resilient. We saw this incredible Ukrainian fighter, who was captured and knew he was going to die, and he said: ‘Glory to Ukraine’. The Russians can take away your land, they can take away your lives, and unfortunately, that's what they are doing. They can take away your children (whom we will bring back), but they can never take away your soul and your heart. And that is why you will win.

Iryna Drabok, The Hague

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