Project Dynamo of Tampa hopes to evacuate at least 1,000 American citizens and NATO allies from Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion earlier this week.
The campaign began Thursday morning. Two buses, named Apollo 1 and Apollo 2 in a nod to the U.S. space-race victory over Russia, have left the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv for Romania, said spokesperson James Judge.
About three dozen Americans are on board, Judge said. The first bus, with 23 people, was about 20 miles from the Romanian border in southwest Ukraine at noon on Friday.
“A majority of the evacuees are from Kyiv, but we’ve gotten requests from all over the country,” Judge said.
Project Dynamo has received around 300 requests from people seeking help leaving Ukraine, Judge said. Considering some of those requests include entire families, he predicts Project Dynamo may eventually evacuate or provide shelter for thousands.
Running the operation in Ukraine is Project Dynamo’s co-founder, Bryan Stern of Tampa. He is joined by other American volunteers and Ukrainians in a team that is growing daily, Judge said.
President Joe Biden urged Americans to evacuate Ukraine starting in January, when he called Russian aggression imminent. U.S. embassy employees left the country Feb. 12 and the State Department said Thursday it will not attempt to evacuate Americans still in Ukraine.
Stern said in a news release Thursday that his organization hopes to fill a void left by the U.S. government.
“The evacuation began minutes after our team on the ground physically felt the nearby explosions in Kyiv last night,” he said.
Those attempting to leave Ukraine must do so by car or foot. There are no commercial flights out of the country and many airlines cut inbound service earlier this month, even before the invasion.
Project Dynamo is a joint operation of two veterans coalitions, Digital Dunkirk and Dynamo II, and gets its funding through donations to a Naples-based nonprofit — Liberty Aviation International Rescue, according to its website.
Operation Dynamo was the code name for the civilian-driven mass evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during World War II.
As of Friday morning, Project Dynamo reported more than $200,000 in online donations since Russia invaded Ukraine around 9:30 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday.
The money helps cover travel costs for refugees and for volunteers heading into Ukraine to help them. For those who can’t escape, the money will be used to provide safe houses, Judge said.
Project Dynamo is working in regions throughout Ukraine. The organization took the same approach when it evacuated people trapped in Kabul as the U.S. completed its pullout of troops from Afghanistan on Aug. 30.
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“Whatever we need to do, we’ll find a way,” Judge said. “Whether that’s through safe houses or new rendevous points, it doesn’t matter. We don’t plan to leave a single American behind.”
Judge, a Republican, is also running for Congress in the 14th Congressional District, a seat now held by Democrat Kathy Castor of Tampa.