How a man from Toronto raised $ 1 million to Ukraine by selling stickers

“My accounts were frozen because the banks thought I was laundering money”: How a man from Toronto raised $ 1 million to Ukraine by selling stickers

Christian Borys spent five years as a foreign correspondent in Kiev. When Russia attacked Ukraine, he started a viral Instagram collection

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, I was glued to the news. As a Toronto-born child with Ukrainian and Polish roots, it was personal. I could not help but see the coverage of the war unfolding, especially the Vice News series Russian roulette. I dreamed of doing that kind of work by reporting from the front line. At the time, I worked at Shopify, but I had freelanced for Vice, and I felt I could make journalism my career if I made the effort. I had heard that the best way to become a conflict journalist was to go to a conflict. Then – in easily one of the worst financial decisions of my life – I left my job at Shopify and flew to Ukraine.

In Kiev, I found out how to find stories, how to pitch editors, and how to survive. For a while, I slept on the floor of a two-bedroom apartment, $ 200 a bedroom. month, which I shared with two other people. Our landlord lived on a chair in the hallway for several weeks. I lived in Kiev for five years and occasionally upgraded apartments. I worked all over the country, writing stories, recording news clips and making documentaries for publications such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, CBC, Vice News, The Guardian and Washington Post.

Those stories still cling to me. I spent a week living and working with my good friend, the Ukrainian photographer Anton Skybaon a history on Russia’s escalation in Ukraine following Trump’s election. For another piece, I interviewed widows, widowers, and orphans who had lost loved ones in war. I spent several days listening to them break down while they told me about the most brutal moments in their lives.

Although many of my stories were about the destructive war in eastern Ukraine, the consequences of the war were not clear in the West. It was an incredible time to be in Kiev, which quickly developed into a truly world-class city that was renowned globally for its fashion, architecture and design. I spent the formative years of my life there and ran around the country with phenomenal journalists and photographers who became my close friends. Together we reported from the front line, took on 14-hour road trips and spent nights in Kyiv’s abundance of bars. It’s a cliché, but looking back, those were some of the best days of my life. I loved the city, I was obsessed with my work, and I felt like I was covering the most important story in the world. When I decided to return to Canada in 2018, Ukraine’s future was bright.

Back in Toronto, I got engaged and started a marketing agency by name Black Hawk. We make websites, produce videos, work with influencers and run campaigns. Until recently, my life was much like everyone else’s. I complained about shutdowns, real estate and traffic. I woke up, worked all day and watched TV at night. My fiance and I were preparing for the birth of our first child. I was sure it was the biggest life-changing event on my horizon.

So in early February, my friends in Ukraine started ringing the alarm bells about Russia’s impending attack. My colleagues are responsible for many of the stories and images you see now. One of my old landlords in Kiev, a hugely brave Ukrainian photographer named Evgeniy Maloletka, has documented several war crimes in a few weeks than most photojournalists will throughout their careers. He just escaped the city of Mariupol after Russia put him on a hit list.

On February 24, I collapsed when I saw the bombs begin to fall on cities throughout Ukraine. I’m not a particularly emotional person, but I lost it because I was so angry that the Russians were actually going through this war. I’ve seen pictures of Russia’s previous wars in Georgia, Chechnya and Syria – and witnessed their attacks on Ukraine first hand – so I knew they would terrorize civilians. I also believed that Ukraine was heavily outcompeted by Russia’s modern military equipment. In short, I thought the country and the people I had known would be wiped out.

I wanted to help. I did not have a fixed plan, but I wanted to get started something. So I decided to make a sticker out of a meme called Saint Javelin. It is an extreme niche meme that can only be recognized by war reporters, defense analysts and military types. It depicts a religious icon, the Madonna, holding a Javelin anti-tank missile – the type of weapon the Americans gave to the Ukrainian military so that they could defend themselves against large-scale Russian invasion. Memet represents support and protection for Ukraine.

The Saint Javelin image, which Borys printed on stickers, shirts and stickers.

I asked one of the designers at our agency, Evgeniy Shalashov, to redesign Saint Javelin so I could print it as a sticker. He sent me the graphic the next day, and I posted it on my Instagram and asked, “Does anyone want one of these stickers?” A bunch of friends responded right away, so that night I set up a simple Shopify site in minutes and priced the sticker at $ 10. I launched it around noon. 23 and received orders worth $ 88. I thought it was unique and I ordered 100 stickers that night.

The next day I posted on Instagram again. I figured the stickers would raise maybe $ 500 in total. But on the first full day of sales, Saint Javelin received $ 1,000. I was completely blown away. I got in touch with someone at Help Us Help, a registered Canadian charity with decades of experience helping orphans in Ukraine, and excitedly told them I had some money to donate. The person I spoke to was ecstatic because they had worked on a scholarship program for orphans of veterans. The price was around $ 120 per person. child, so that meant more children could get scholarships.

Then it went crazy. The Instagram post started to get shared. It must have hit a nerve with people looking for ways to support Ukraine, because the next day we sold stickers worth $ 5,000. I emailed in panic to the printer asking for 1,000 more stickers.

It was mid-February. Now, in mid-March, we have sold Saint Javelin items worth over $ 1 million – including shirts, hats and patches – in more than 60 countries. We have also spawned a large number of unauthorized knockoffs, including Saint Javelin Lego, NFTs and dealers on Etsy and Amazon. Our Instagram page has become a fast-growing community where more than 30,000 followers can find a mix of genuine information and memes with dark humor about the war.

Due to Saint Javelin’s unexpected success, there are now plenty of people working behind the scenes to keep it going. We run into problems I was not prepared for. We try to obtain an order backlog and we deal with customer support, logistics and operational problems. Each of my bank accounts was temporarily frozen because so much money was flowing through them that the banks thought I was laundering money.

People have sent nice messages and congratulated us on what we have traveled, but it is nothing compared to what is needed. After this completely meaningless war ends, Ukraine will need billions upon billions of dollars in the coming decades to recover. That reports from survivors from Mariupol give a glimpse of the devastation caused by the Russians in just one Ukrainian city.

While all this was going on, the World Congress of Ukraine asked me to help them establish a logistics chain for help flowing into Ukraine: first aid kits, tournament pants, bulletproof vests, kevlar helmets – anything that will help keep people alive . So in early March, I flew to Przemysl, a border town in Poland where my father now lives.

I have been to Przemysl at least 50 times in the last 15 years, but when I got there on the evening of March 4th, I was shocked. My father and 13-year-old step-sister stood on the platform of the railway station and volunteered as translators for the mass of refugees fleeing Ukraine. This city has been the first stop for over 1 million people since February 24th. My father, like most people, never believed this was possible. When I spoke to him the day before Putin attacked, he laughed at it and said I was a fear-monger.

Poland is now overwhelmed by refugees. Early estimates say 2.5 million people have fled or are in the midst of fleeing Ukraine. Millions may come. My father alone has received dozens of women and children who have fled the violence. He has transformed his old rural cottage in Ukrainian style into a shelter for refugees, where 21 people live there. During my 10-day stay with him, his family welcomed four separate groups of refugees for a one- or two-night stay in his home when they found out about their next move. His once quiet city is now filled with Polish police, military and NATO personnel, who are there to help coordinate the flight of millions of people as well as to monitor the huge amount of aid flowing into Ukraine.

Ukrainian refugees arrive in Przemysl, Poland.

The Ukrainian borders are clogged by people trying to escape. In normal times, the waiting time at the border with Przemysl would not exceed an hour, but when the war began, the line stretched 50 kilometers back, causing people to give up their cars and walk. A friend walked 18 miles to the border; it took him two days to get through.

Evgeniy, who designed the Saint Javelin graphics, has been forced into bomb shelters so many times that he chose to flee to a village near his city, Lviv. He recently sent me a message saying he could not sleep because there were seven separate air raid sirens in a single night.

Our team in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, had to leave the city because it has been effectively destroyed. They are now hiding in smaller towns and villages, looking for apartments in Poland for their wives and children. One of them, a 25-year-old named Viktor, sent me a picture of himself next to a rocket that landed in his yard.

The author’s colleague, Viktor, with a Russian rocket that landed near his home.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Ukraine just a month ago was a wonderful place to live. Now it’s a disaster – all because of a bunch of paranoid thugs in Russia. I do not think the thugs realize that they are also destroying their own country. Analysts estimate that as many as 8,000 Russian soldiers were killed in the first two weeks of this war – that is 700 a day. To put it in perspective, Russia lost more people in two weeks in Ukraine than the United States lost in both Iraq and Afghanistan over 20 years.

Even for those who escape the violence, war causes endless, soul-crushing bureaucracy that only reminds people of everything they have lost. You have to document everything, explain what you have lost, try to get help from the government, register in a new country, all while trying to find food and shelter. That’s just the beginning. What do you do when you’re 40 with two small children and the only home you know has been destroyed? How do you get a new life, learn another language and earn enough money to feed and house your family? How do you restart?

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