These Students Are Smuggling HIV Meds and Hormone Therapy Into Ukraine

“We’re making sure the medications are reaching those who need them the most.”
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
GettyImages-1157741286
Transgender activists participate in the Kyiv Pride march, estimated to be the city's largest ever, on June 23, 2019 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

WARSAW, Poland — A group of Gen Z students are working around the clock to get HIV and gender-affirming meds to people who need them in Ukraine.

Three students based in Poland and the Netherlands, along with friends in Berlin, are collecting the meds and coordinating deliveries across the Poland-Ukraine border, reaching people in Ukraine who are struggling to access their prescriptions because of the war.

Advertisement

“We’re making sure the medications are reaching those who need them the most,” said one of the organisers, a trans person in her 20s whose pronouns are she/they. The group has already managed to coordinate five deliveries with dozens of boxes and bottles of HIV medication, and hormones for trans people, as well as thyroid and pain medications. VICE World News is protecting the students' identities for security reasons, and because it’s illegal to give people prescription medications they weren’t personally prescribed. 

Russian forces have targeted civilian healthcare infrastructure since invading last month, threatening access to medical treatments for citizens. But even before the war, Ukraine had some of the highest rates of serious illness – including tuberculosis and HIV – in Europe. 

Aid groups and people have been working to deliver various medications, including antibiotics, into Ukraine and to refugees who’ve fled. But another one of the group’s three main organizers, also in her 20s, said there’s been less urgency placed on HIV and hormone therapy.

“It’s this idea of ‘lifesaving’ meds,” she said. “There’s still life in Ukraine. People still need to take their hormones and their HIV meds and for their thyroid. I think Western society forgets that in a war zone, people don’t only necessarily need bandages.”

Advertisement

All three students agree that aid should include prescriptions that many people rely on every day. 

“I wouldn't ever see myself being in a war and having to face detransition,” said the trans person in her 20s. “If you cannot take your hormones because you don’t have them, you’re facing huge depression. And you’re already not allowed to exist, and then you’re facing war.”

Boxes of donated antibiotics at the Brussels Aid For Ukraine sorting centre in Belgium earlier this month. Photo: Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Boxes of donated antibiotics at the Brussels Aid For Ukraine sorting centre in Belgium earlier this month. Photo: Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As for people with HIV “who don't get the medications and stay in Ukraine… it’s not going to end up well,” she said. 

She originally offered to donate some of her estrogen about a month ago at a student-run flea market in support of Ukraine, where other meds were being collected by the third organizer, whose pronouns are they/them. The gesture ultimately sparked the realization among the trio that there was a need for hormone therapy and HIV meds. 

According to the group, they’re well situated to carry out the collections and deliveries because they’re not well known and can “slip under the radar” of authorities. It’s illegal to share prescription medication with someone whose name isn’t on the prescription, so a well-known advocacy group facilitating such work could get into trouble. The group says their work complements the support that queer advocacy groups are offering to LGBTQ refugees who’ve already fled Ukraine.

Advertisement

So far, most of the medications delivered to Ukraine are procured via donation: Hundreds of people have given some of their own prescribed medications to the new grassroots team. The group then coordinates deliveries from Poland to a queer shelter in Ukraine, where LGBTQ folks can access them. 

“It is actually really amazing. A lot of people are reaching out saying they want to help… I’m really humbled,” one of the organizers said. 

Another organizer told VICE World News the efforts are a good example for people who want to help but don’t always know how. “Doing things like we’re doing is not as hard as it seems… Everyone is able to do what we’re doing, and I was shocked to see how effortlessly this went,” they said. 

For the three, helping Ukraine is humanitarian as well as personal; they all belong to queer communities and have ties to those in Ukraine. One, for example, used to access some of her hormone therapy from Ukraine. “It’s a country where my transness has a big connection,” she said.

Meanwhile, another one of the organizers said Ukrainian people helped them find their queer community. 

“Living In Poland, Ukrainians were the first people to show me what is queerness… In Ukraine there is an amazing queer community and these people changed my life in many ways,” they said.