“Instead of payments, we decided to help with finding employment”

How do Belarus solidarity foundations operate right now

31 January 2021 | Darya Balshakova, TUT.BY
The picture is for illustrative purposes only.
Source: Aliaksandra Kvitkevich, TUT.BY

In 2020, quite a few support foundations and initiatives have emerged in solidarity with the people of Belarus. Some of the funds are meant for anyone in need, while others target specific groups, for example, resigned law enforcement officers, expelled students, factory workers who have lost their jobs, arts professionals and journalists. FINANCE.TUT.BY gathered the most recent information on the support foundations and initiatives that are ready to help Belarusians.

BY_help: how the Investigative Committee took an interest in the fund and how application processing priorities have changed

One of the most famous initiatives is perhaps the BY_help foundation.The initiative exists since 2017. In 2020, the fund assisted with, among other things, the payment of fines and covering lawyers’ expenses.

Last November, Belarusians who received compensations from BY_help ​had their cards blocked by the banks and the amount equal to the support payment received was frozen in their accounts. If there was not enough money in the account, the balance went into an overdraft. Due to this some were not even able to receive pensions and social payments as these were debited in full against the payment received earlier from BY_help. In December, those who had their cards blocked reported that the cards were active again and all the money had been returned. It turned out that the National Bank of Belarus and the Investigative Committee have redefined the mechanism for seizing payments from BY_help.

BY_help representatives now say that most people got their money back, but the process of reactivating the cards is still ongoing.

In the second half of January, the fund ​reported​ that it had paid out more than 8.5 million Belarusian roubles (around 2.7 million euros) in 7 months against 8,700 applications. “We reimbursed 971 invoices for prison meals in detention. Processed 1,848 payments to those who suffered injuries and beatings at the hands of security forces. In exceptional cases, for the most disadvantageous, we covered 526 payments for lawyers’ expenses. We have received more than 12,300 applications, of which more than 10,000 have been processed and more than 9,000 have been verified. We continue to accept applications for support,” the fund said.

At the same time, the fund said that from 17 December 2020, new rules are in place on applications processing priorities and the provision of support.

“The primary beneficiaries are the most disadvantageous groups: the injured and victims of torture, people with disabilities, pensioners, families with many children, families where the victim is the sole provider, and those who have a means of income from assets seized by authorities. However, we continue to accept applications from everyone, and the more funds we manage to raise, the wider range of people we will be able to help.”

BYSOL: “Instead of lump sum payments, we decided to help with employment”

In August 2020, Alexey Leonchik and part of his team began to work mainly with BY_help, while the other part of the team and Andrei Stryzhak started the work on BYSOL.

“BYSOL is a foundation that helps the dismissed and persecuted who no longer want to work in public service because of their beliefs, as well as the members of strike committees,” says Andrei Stryzhak​​, co-founder of BYSOL. “We have an official status in the European Union and the foundation is registered in the Netherlands. In four months we have moved from the idea of individual support to supporting organizations and initiatives. We are also involved in international jurisdiction cases. We ​participated​ in the preparation and implementation of Maksim Kharoshyn’s case, whom we helped with leaving for Vilnius.”

“In total, 2,965 people applied to BYSOL, 1,229 people received support, 1,593 got refused,” said Andrei Stryzhak. This are the numbers by 28 January 2021. Stryzhak clarifies that among the main reasons for application refusal are non-specific applications, failure to pass the verification, and repeated applications.

“We have unfortunately come across a situation where people try to get support without being entitled to it. We seen cases where the date of dismissal was corrected in the applicant’s work record book. Our requirements state that dismissal should have happened no earlier than 20 May 2020. Also, everyone perceives their situation differently. For some, several hours’ detention is already a fact of persecution, but there are also people who get accused in criminal cases, and end up in prison. We are forced to set priorities.”

“In December, we changed the format of our support for those dismissed for political reasons. Instead of payments, we decided to help with finding employment. We announced these changes in advance, setting a deadline by which applications for payment support could be sent to us,” BYSOL’s Telegram channel reported in late January. “There were so many applications that the funds collected at the end of the fundraiser were insufficient. After all the paperwork was verified, 52 applications remain on our ‘waiting list’. We will fulfill our obligations on those, as promised, but it may take time.”

To get support from BYSOL, you need to fill in a Google form application providing your details so that the fund can assist you with new employment, re-training or studies.

BYSOL also helps courtyard initiatives and initiatives that work with people who were forced to relocate. At the beginning of 2021, BYSOL launched a program to support people arrested for political reasons and their families.

“We are now actively promoting the BYSOL website, where it is possible to donate money to the joint fund or for a specific cause. BYSOL and BY_help websites are blocked in Belarus and can only be accessed through VPN,” says Andrei Stryzhak. “Our main sources of financial contributions are common Belarusians, diasporas abroad, as well as Belarusian and foreign businesses. Businesses mainly cover all of the fund’s administrative costs. We are also assisted by institutional foundations, which are established by various countries or public organisations. These contributions are mainly directed to help those who were forced to relocate.”

BYSOL foundation also includes initiatives that help specific groups of people: healthcare employees, independent journalists and media, families of political prisoners, people on strike, as well as expelled students. Belarusian Culture Solidarity Foundation is also associated with BYSOL. However, Siarhei Budkin, one its managers, emphasizes that the fund is now “fully independent in its activities”.

​​Belarusian Medical Solidarity Foundation​ helps the families of arrested doctors, provides legal assistance, protects the rights of doctors and finds them new employment abroad. More than 300 doctors have already signed an open letter to the authorities demanding an end to the violence. More than 32,000 euros were collected for the support of healthcare professionals.

The main task of the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Fund​​ (BSSF) is to support athletes detained for their involvement in peaceful protests, as well as those dismissed and stripped of their scholarships for political reasons. 50 people from the sports industry received lump-sum financial support in cooperation with the BYSOL foundation. At least 12 athletes receive ongoing support. “We help athletes prepare for high-level competitions. We consider all applications and, if necessary, redirect them to other specialized foundations,” says the BSSF’s executive director ​Aliaksandr Apeykin​​. “We are now engaged in communications with the international sports federations. We are also starting a project for the promotion of sports education which includes re-training, advanced training, and the opportunity to receive online education and internships in the best sports organizations in Europe. A separate direction of our activities are reforms of the sports system in Belarus. An expert commission will be responsible for these activities.”

The picture is for illustrative purposes only.
Source: Miron Klimovich, ​TUT.BY​

Media Solidarity Belarus Foundation(MEDIASOL) helps employees of non-state media and independent editorial offices who have lost a significant part of their income due to persecutions from the authorities. The fund also helps with the provision of individual protective equipment for journalists covering the protests. MEDIASOL supports both full-time employees and freelancers. As of the end of 2020, the fund received 104 applications, payments were made to 70 of those, another 5 were in the process, the rest were either sent to partner initiatives, and some cases got refused.

“There have been several cases where journalists were unaware that the editorial office they were working with could provide them with funds on request. Some applicants ask to cover the fines or expenses connected to injuries, and then BY_help is the fund that handles these types of claims,” MEDIASOL reports. “Our initiative also does not support employees of the state media, these are handled by the BYSOL Foundation. Still we come across cases of fraud. For example, one editor was approached by scammers allegedly from the Valery Tsepkalo Foundation and offered financial support. When that editor shared his needs and sent a scan of his passport to the scammers, they applied to MEDIASOL on his behalf. Our verification procedures helped uncover the truth in this matter.”

The first area of activities for the Belarusian Culture Solidarity Foundation​ is helping the arts professionals that were persecuted. The Foundation supports, consults, employs and provides psychological, financial and legal assistance. The second area is supporting creative ideas.​

“We are trying to collect money through fundraising, by organising crowdfunding campaigns,” says ​​Siarhei Budkin, producer, and one of the fund’s managers. “This is a fundraiser in support of the Uniya choir, the Kaliady z Maliavanycham project, and Ales Dzyanisau. We also hold charity auctions. Vladimir Tsesler, Yury Stylski from Daj Darohu, and Katya IOWA were among those who put their paintings up for auction. Ihar Varashkevich and Lera Yaskevich auctioned their guitars.”

The foundation says it has been unable to approve some applications due to modest financial capacity, but gives advice on which other donors to contact in such cases. “Now we are also working in a more strategic direction, by developing a new cultural policy for Belarus. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s headquarters, Pavel Latushka’s National Anti-Crisis Management and the Coordination Council’s ‘cultural courtyard’ will be invited to participate in developing the reforms. We are also launching an international solidarity campaign,” the fund says.

If you need the help of a legal cousel or a lawyer, a doctor or a psychologist, you can contact ​Probono.BY​. You will get help finding a specialist and receiving pro bono support. This initiative reports providing assistance to more than 6,500 thousand victims.

BYChange​ initiative helps people in Belarus who have lost their jobs for political reasons to re-train as IT professionals.

Families of victims of protests, strike participants, those dismissed, fined, victims of blocked bank accounts can also receive a grocery basket support from the INeedHelpBY project​. In order to apply you need to fill out an application through the Telegram bot. In your application you need to describe your situation, as well as attach supporting documents.

The picture is for illustrative purposes only.
Source: Volha Shukaila, TUT.BY​

Founder of the INeedHelpBY project Pilip Hauryshau explains:

“The grocery basket includes a variety of products for the whole family for a period of two weeks. If your financial situation has not improved within these two weeks and this can be documented, it is possible to extend the assistance for another two cycles (four weeks). Our principle is connecting those who want to help with those in need. A volunteer spends his time and money ordering groceries directly to the family’s address. We work with various foundations and initiatives, including BYSOL, By_help, Honest People and Imena.”

Mutual Emergency Aid initiative by Honest People helps put people in need in touch with those who are willing to offer financial support, employment or re-training. After application verification, suitable job vacancies or training are suggested, along with help writing a resume and preparing for a job interview.