An Interview with Vijay Ramanaidoo (UK)
The Awakening Times (TAT): Tell us about how you personally got involved with ACT Foundation and how the work in Ukraine has evolved.
Vijay Ramanaidoo (VR): This started in 2011, when Mohanji came to the UK. When he came over, there was no organisation or anything like that at all, the only thing that was happening, I think, was Ammucare. Mohanji was working full time. He spoke to me about setting up something in Dubai, and that the costs of keeping it going were so high that they decided to close it, and were looking at somewhere else to set up our foundation. He said that to me while in my house and I thought it’s not for me, because this is just far too much work, setting up a registered charity in the UK. But, by a strange series of coincidences, somebody wanted to donate a whole load of books and clothes and things like that. I said, “We don’t have an organisation here, just give it to Red Cross.” I spoke to Mohanji about and asked whether we should try and set something up here. Of course, he said, “Yes,” and so we set it up; I registered ACT Foundation in April 2012, and we got formally registered by the Charity Commission on 20 September 2012, but activities had started from that April. That’s how I got involved with ACT Foundation: I registered the charity, got a team of trustees together and then served as chair. Then we started doing our little bits of work, initially serving the homeless, we’ve collaborated with a number of different organisations, with Mother Teresa home, trying to support them, going there, cooking food, serving the homeless. Then we made a tie up with Skanda Vale, which was to have far reaching consequences going forward, because they have a lot of excess food that comes to them as a result of donations from pilgrims. They have a food aid program, but they don’t have a mechanism for sharing that out to the needy, they work with different charities do that and we became a food aid partner with Skanda Vale. We go there regularly, take a van, fill up with one and a half tonnes of food; rice, grains, pasta, lentils, that sort of stuff, then we give to needy people. We give partly to the Mother Teresa home, for them to cook for the homeless, partly to needy families. We also worked with a couple of other charities Refugee Relief, Hope and Aid Direct, in order to give them the food for them to take to poor areas across the world. In that way, we’ve sent food to Ghana, Moldova, Kosovo, Croatia, lots of different countries. Then we got more and more involved in ACT Foundation in terms of humanitarian relief projects, where there were floods or earthquakes and that sort of thing. Slowly, the work started growing and the team started growing. It was in about 2016 or 2017, Mohanji said that he wanted me to set up Mohanji Foundation. What he suggested was to let another of our team handle ACT Foundation, and I set up Mohanji Foundation and serve as chair, but I still served as a trustee of ACT Foundation and an advisor, so I’m on both boards.
Also in 2016, we decided to go with one of the charities that we give food to, to Kosovo and see what they were doing. We went because we thought that we really needed to see who this food was going to. Jay and I flew out and we assisted the convoy of aid that went over to Kosovo, a few lorries, we helped to unload, put them in a warehouse and everything, and then go to different parts of the country and serve the food to the needy there. That had a massive impact on both of us, seeing the mechanism of the delivery, and how it was supporting needy people. We’ve also done some work with refugees. When the the Ukraine war started, the first thing we thought about was what we can
. Chris (Chrostopher Greenwood, Executive Assistant to Mohanji) was here at the time and we set up a small ACT4Ukraine group, we got Devi involved, myself, Jay and a few others, to brainstorm about what we could possibly do to support Ukraine. One of the first things that I said was that we’ve done enough of just giving a bit of money and a bit of food to people, we need to take that next step, we need to set up a hub there from which our volunteers can go and help and serve and we channel our resources through that hub. In addition to that, one of the charities that we went to Kosovo with, were sending a convoy of lorries over to Moldova.
We thought that since we’ve got an ACT Foundation van, let’s drive together with them, pack our van full of food, and go over to Moldova. From there, we’ll go across into Romania at the border town, and then see what we can do in terms of serving the refugees there. We drove all the way from London, up to Colchester, across on the ferry 7 hours through Highridge, and landed in Holland. Then we drove across Holland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and then we got into Moldova, it took us 3 days to make that journey. We were also with the trucks, which can only go 50 miles an hour. We had some breakdowns and things like that. Going across that, through that terrain, was a journey in itself. We went to different places within Moldova, where refugees are residing. Because Moldova is just on the border of Ukraine, a lot of Ukrainians are coming across into Moldova, staying in some of the border towns, staying with some relatives and friends. Some of the towns have opened up their community centres and their schools and are housing the refugees there. We went a few places where these hubs for the refugees were, and gave them beds, medical equipment, food, toiletries. We work with the mayors in the different villages so that we can be sure that the work that the food is going to the right people and there’s also a team on the ground in Moldova that reside there, working with them, we distributed the aid. That convoy was seven lorries and three vans, a massive amount of aid.
Then we went across the border, between Moldova and Romania, crossed into Romania, drove to this place called Dora Hi, where we have this contact, Benny, who runs a social housing scheme, where socially disadvantaged orphans and children are being housed, some of whom are adults now. He’s working with a charity in the UK, he organised our stay. We went to the border town, called Surrett, the idea was that we would set up a hub somewhere there, but when we went there, we saw tonnes of aid agencies all lining up to see this road. It’s almost like as if they’re fighting; a refugee comes along, and lots of people are coming together, try to help them. Lots of different organisations there, lots of Americans, cheque, Cyprus, etc., were all lined and there’s actually not much need over here.
So, we though, “Let’s work with people that are in Romania, that are in the schools and try and help them.” Benny was housing some refugees and we went there and spoke to some of them. They were very withdrawn and didn’t want to communicate very much, which is understandable. Some of our team started becoming more familiar, coming on daily basis and, doing some Mai-Tri and some of them change very, very positively to that when you come then they start welcome us in particular child who’s the Maitri practitioner. Their whole demeanour, and attitude and approach changed completely, we witnessed the power of Mai-Tri. Then we thought that there’s no point in hanging around in Romania and creating a duplicate hub here. One of the guys could speak Romanian fluently and just across the border between Romania into Ukraine, there’s an area that speaks Romanian. I spoke to Mohanji, I said, “I don’t think there’s much point in staying here because the refugees are well served. But we think there’s a big need and Ukraine itself. We need your blessings and grace to crossover, is it okay?” He said, “Go, you have my, just make sure you’ve documented everything properly.” As we drove across, it was eerie, because all the roads are empty. It’s a big motorway, beautiful country, and you don’t see any cars, it was a bit spooky and worrying. Because if anything happens, there’s no around and you can’t speak the language or anything. We drove to a school, and were met by a welcoming party of a medical director of a nearby medical facility, the director of the school, the mayor of this town, called boilie, the school teachers, and a couple of other volunteers. They laid on a really lovely meal for us. Then they showed us all around the school and what they were doing, they explained that many refugees are coming across Mariupol, Kharkiv, Kiev, etc, were coming to the border towns, because they feel safe in their own country, rather than being refugees elsewhere, and the men stayed behind, and they could be in contact with the men folk etc. They feel comfortable in their own country. Some are staying with relatives, some are being housed by people just taking them in, and some are sleeping in the school in the gym, and the assembly hall. We went there and we saw all the beds laid out, we saw how people are living. It’s almost like a transit place; people stay there for maybe a week or two and then move on. Some people, with nowhere else to go, just stay there. We gave nearly a tonne of food to these people and they were very grateful. They took us to the medical facility where we were shown around the facilities. We gave them some medication, antibiotics and syringes… They even showed me the lab, because my work is in hospital of laboratories, a very warm welcome. They showed us what they need and what they were doing. We thought that this is something that we can support.
I made it my mission to start searching for hub properties which we could rent, because currently we are all paying hotel rooms, and it gets expensive. We’re paying from our own pocket and we try to support some people that can’t afford it. We looked at different properties and couldn’t find anything suitable, but eventually we managed. The downstairs is just open plan, it can store a lot of goods and the upstairs has got 2, 3 bedroom flats. It wasn’t quite ready in terms of the refurbishment, but we’ve got that all sorted and on 9th May, we signed the contract, so that’s our ACT Foundation hub at the moment. Concurrently Jay worked extremely hard in the UK to take the next step of getting our own lorrie. Initially was going to be a 10 tonne lorry, but then the guy said that we could get a 30 tonne lorry, for 3500 pounds, but then you’ve got to fill it up. We got about 8 tonnes of food from Skanda Vale, we got a big donation from America when they saw the work that we were doing. Mohanji always says that you really need to make sure you have the visibility. So, we were making these videos as we were going along, communicating that through the website, WhatsApp, etc., and people were seeing the work that we’re doing and they were donating towards it.
In the end, we got so much food we could fill up the whole lorry and still had about 8 tonnes left, and now we’re going to send another lorry. Some of our team flew over and received the lorry, unloaded it into our hub property. At the same time, we’ve organised to buy a van, there was a bit of a hiccup there, because van broke down, but we’ve got this van and the idea was that the van will take 1 tonne at a time and go to different places within Ukraine. The team has have reached out to other schools and special needs places that need help and the next stage was to get funding. Santosh has been very good at getting funding from the US and making the lives of the refugees better.
TAT: The hub is called Casa Karuna right?
VR: We don’t want to call it Casa Karuna anymore, because we need to have greater visibility, something more universal and less Indian sounding, so we will call the ACT Foundation hub.
TAT: Where do things stand now? What’s next?
VR: We’ve hired the place for 3 months initially and we’ll extend that month by month based on the need. We’ve been looking after the physical, which is the food, but then there’s also the psychological, emotional, and mental well being. We’ve been doing Mai-Tri, meditations, yoga, and some fun activities; healing through arts and music to support the next step of their well being. So, this is the strategy: give some humanitarian aid, then support mentally, psychologically, emotionally, and try to install some infrastructure. Eventually we want get to a place where we have a registered bodies in Romania and Ukraine, so that that the work can happen with a team of people that is connected to Mohanji, that are locals. For that we need acharyas to go over there, to support and grow the local team and it can be self sustaining and keep growing, without us having to come from external areas.
TAT: From what you’ve seen there, do you think that it’ll go on for a long time, or do you think we can look forward to a speedy resolution?
VR: I reckon the Russians have got a bit of a bloody nose from trying to take care of places elsewhere, they’ve realised they’ve stretched themselves too far, and have withdrawn from many of the areas and just concentrated on the eastern area. So, I feel what’s going to happen is that they’re going to take that whole of that Donbass area, all the way with Mariupol, all the way down towards Crimea, so basically, Russia extends all the way into that southern area of Ukraine down into Crimea and control the Black Sea area. That’s kind of the industrial heartland of Ukraine, so they’ll capture all of those areas, and, and retain them, then defend that, and if the Ukraine tried to get back, I think they’ll probably strike in other areas of Ukraine to try to teach them a lesson. I think that’s what’s going to happen. I feel that what will happen is that Russia will just hold on to those areas. I think that there was a lot of tension in some of those areas anyway, because many of them are pro-Russia, so there is a kind of proxy war going on anyway. I think it will permanently become part of Russia, because Russia is not going to give it up. It depends on what Ukraine decides to do, whether or not they strike a deal. Sanctions are also putting a stranglehold on Russia, so I think it’s in Russia’s interest to try and end this thing as soon as possible. Because I think that they really absolutely want to hold on to that whole of that Donbass area and that whole eastern side, all the way down the Crimea. I don’t think they’ll go as far as Odessa because then that will make Ukraine landlocked completely and they will never give up.
TAT: Can you share a few best and worst moments from your time over there; some of the things that shocked you the most deeply and some of the things which gave you the greatest cause for optimism?
VR: What gave me most joy was interacting with refugees. When we met them, you can see the positive love coming from them, when they see people coming from different parts of the world to help them, for they’re kind of blown them away. They’ll point to their hearts, because they can’t speak the language, that warmth and that love was so emotional for me. It’s touching that they feel like that, and that was a consistent theme: they’re saying that they don’t believe we’ve come all the way just help them. The other thing that was the utter despair of people; they had a house, they had jobs, they had income, family, school, everything. In a snapshot, everything has gone; the family is split, because the husbands and sons had to stay back. They’ve had to move and be dependent on other people. They have no income anymore, they’ve got no shelter. They rely on the goodwill of other people to help and support them. There’s profound shock in the change of their circumstances, and we could see how that’s impacted them emotionally and psychologically. We did some interviews with people, and even though we couldn’t speak the language properly, they just had to speak, they wanted somebody to whom they could speak all this out, even though we weren’t fully understanding exactly what they were saying. Seeing the emotional impact, especially on older people, was the saddest for me. If you’re a bit younger, you’ve still got a future ahead, you can make something of your future, but as older people, there’s not much you can do, you’re like a victim, helpless. Obviously I’ve enjoyed working with the volunteers. Of course, you get personal challenges when a group of people are together constantly; you get the personal frictions and things like that, but these are minor things, the purpose is the main thing.
TAT: Whenencountering these kinds of personal frictions, along with any number of other obstacles, what would your advice be on the best way to overcome those?
encounter these kinds of personal frictions, what would your advice be as the best way to overcome those?
VR: Concentrate on the purpose: What it is that we’re doing there? Also, some simple orientation and preparation of the volunteers, laying out clearly what is required, what they’ll be doing, some guidelines and ground rules to be set at the outset, proper line management… All those things will help. Doing some spiritual activities, because I feel that volunteers themselves need some support. Help to release some potential pressure, local activities to support the volunteer well being. Maybe debriefing sessions, satsangs, and meditation. Ultimately an emphasis on the larger mission, the rest is technical stuff.
TAT: You had mentioned collaboration with a lot of other organisations and charities. There is no urge on ACT Foundation’s behalf to reinvent the wheel, you’re happy to collaborate, but have you had any experiences where people are trying to exploit the situation?
VR: What we’ve tried to do, especially when we were a young organisation, is try to work with other people to leverage the work that we’re doing, and to gain experience in how to do things. That has definitely helped us grow, get the ideas and be able to do a lot more. But I think we’re at a stage now where we’re a mature enough organisation to actually do things off our own back. We’ve got to be careful with who we can collaborate with and how we collaborate with them; have defined standards, boundaries, and guidelines, because when you work with other people, they will try to grow their own charity, their own aims and objectives. I think as long as you realise that, it’s a win for both Yes, then it’s worthwhile. Work towards your own independence as an organisation and be cognizant of the fact that there might be a different agenda involved with other organisations, and try and work in such a way that everybody grows and the service still happens.
TAT: Any advice for someone who wants to get involved. For Joe Schmo, who is sitting in a different, who wants to contribute something?
VR: If people want to contribute in terms of monetary donation, we have we have a link to the Mohanji International Foundation and the funds will be funneled to ACT Foundation, that’s one way. What’s also happened is that Ukrainians are coming to the other countries in order, to escape, so there may be Ukrainians in your area, and you could work with people there, you don’t necessarily need to go all the way to Ukraine. The third way in which you can help, is if you have the time and you wish to come and spend some time at the hub and support the work that we’re doing to establish a permanent presence in Romania and Ukraine, then there is a mechanism for doing that. there’s info attack foundation, that people can email, that inquiry will be picked up by Anita who is the policy coordinator who will do an interview, then we can see whether we can accommodate and at which time we can accommodate you.
TAT: In other words, there is always an avenue through you can contribute and one shouldn’t entertain any reason why it’s not possible?
VR: If it’s a calling for you and if you feel you want to do something to help, then there are definitely avenues for you to help.
TAT: Parting thoughts?
VR: It’s been an incredible experience and I believe that this ACT4Ukraine initiative has brought us to a different level in terms of our foundation activities, the creation of this hub, sending out lorries, going into Ukraine, and supporting with infrastructure work has definitely brought us to a different level, this is definitely a step change. I feel very honoured and privileged to have played a small part in this work, and my gratitude to Mohanji for setting up the platform, for empowering us to be able to do this, because never in a million years did I think that we’d be doing so many different things at this level and scale. So, GRATITUDE. Never underestimate the impact of the work you’re doing, no matter how insignificant it seems, and never allow yourself to entertain constrained thinking, the vision needs to be huge!