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

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

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

The author at the Poland-Ukraine border in Przemysl.

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, I was glued to the news. As a Toronto-born kid with Ukrainian and Polish roots, it was personal. I couldn’t stop watching coverage of the unfolding war, particularly the Vice News series Russian Roulette. I dreamed of doing that kind of work, reporting from the frontlines. At the time, I was working at Shopify, but I had been freelancing for Vice, and I felt like I could make journalism my career if I gave it all my effort. I’d heard that the best way to become a conflict journalist was to go to a conflict. So—in easily one of the worst financial decisions of my life—I left my job at Shopify and flew to Ukraine.

In Kyiv, I figured out how to find stories, how to pitch editors and how to survive. For a while, I slept on the floor of a two-room, $200-per-month apartment that I shared with two other people. Our landlord lived on a chair in the hallway for several weeks. I lived in Kyiv for five years, upgrading apartments every so often. I worked all across the country, writing stories, shooting news clips and making documentaries for publications like the BBC, Al Jazeera, CBC, Vice News, The Guardian and Washington Post. 

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

Though many of my stories were about the destructive war in Eastern Ukraine, the repercussions of the war weren’t apparent in the west. It was an incredible time to be in Kyiv, which was quickly developing into a truly world-class city, getting noticed globally for its fashion, architecture and design. I spent the formative years of my life there, running around the country with phenomenal reporters and photographers who became my close friends. Together, we reported from the frontlines, went on 14-hour road trips and spent nights out at Kyiv’s plethora 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 called 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 lockdowns, real estate and traffic. I woke up, worked all day and watched TV at night. My fiancée and I were preparing for the birth of our first child. I was sure that was the biggest life-changing event on my horizon.

Then, 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 photos you’re seeing now. One of my old landlords in Kyiv, a tremendously brave Ukrainian photographer named Evgeniy Maloletka, has documented more war crimes in a couple of weeks than most photojournalists will in their entire career. He just escaped the city of Mariupol after Russia put him on a hit list.

On February 24, I broke down as I watched the bombs begin to fall on cities across Ukraine. I’m not a particularly emotional person, but I lost it because I was so angry that the Russians were actually going through with this war. I have seen images of Russia’s previous wars in Georgia, Chechnya and Syria—and witnessed their attacks in Ukraine first hand—so I knew that they would terrorize civilians. I also believed Ukraine was heavily outmatched by Russia’s modern military equipment. In short, I thought the country and the people I had known were going to be annihilated.

I wanted to help. I didn’t have a solid plan, but I wanted to start something. So, I decided to make a sticker out of a meme called Saint Javelin. It’s an extremely niche meme, recognizable only to war reporters, defence analysts and military types. It depicts a religious icon, the Madonna, holding a Javelin anti-tank guided missile—the type of weapon that the Americans gave to the Ukrainian military so that they could defend themselves against large-scale Russian invasion. The meme represents support and protection for Ukraine.

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

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, asking, “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 a few minutes and priced the sticker at $10. I launched it around 11 p.m. and got $88 worth of orders. I thought that was outstanding, and I ordered 100 stickers that night.

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

Then things went nuts. The Instagram post started getting shared. It must have struck a nerve with people who were looking for ways to support Ukraine, because, the next day, we sold $5,000 worth of stickers. I emailed the printer in a panic, asking for 1,000 more stickers.

That was mid-February. Now, in mid-March, we have sold over $1 million worth of Saint Javelin goods—including shirts, hats and patches—in more than 60 countries. We’ve also spawned a litany of unauthorized knockoffs, including Saint Javelin Lego, NFTs and resellers on Etsy and Amazon. Our Instagram page has become a fast-growing community where more than 30,000 followers can find a mixture of genuine information and dark-humoured memes about the war.

Due to Saint Javelin’s unexpected success, there are now lots of people working behind the scenes to keep it going. We’re running into problems I wasn’t prepared for. We are trying to catch up with a backlog of orders, and we’re dealing with customer support, logistics and operational issues. Each of my bank accounts were temporarily frozen because there was so much cash flowing through them that the banks thought I was laundering money.

People have sent nice messages congratulating us on what we’ve raised, but it’s nothing compared to what’s needed. After this entirely senseless war ends, Ukraine will need billions upon billions of dollars over the coming decades to recover. The reports from survivors of Mariupol provide a glimpse of the destruction that the Russians have caused in just one Ukrainian city.

While all of this was going on, the Ukraine World Congress asked me to help them set up a logistics chain for aid flowing into Ukraine: first aid kits, tourniquets, 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’ve been to Przemysl at least 50 times in the past 15 years, but when I got there on the evening of March 4, I was shocked. My dad and 13-year-old step-sister were standing on the platform of the train station, volunteering as translators for the mass of refugees escaping Ukraine. This town has been the first stop for over 1 million people since February 24. My father, like most people, never believed this was possible. When I spoke to him on the day before Putin attacked, he laughed it off, saying that I was fear mongering.

Poland is now overwhelmed with refugees. Early estimates state that 2.5 million people have fled or are in the midst of fleeing Ukraine. There may be millions more to come. My father alone has taken in dozens of women and children fleeing the violence. He has turned his old rural Ukrainian-style cottage into a shelter for refugees, with 21 people living there. During my 10-day stay with him, his family took in four separate groups of refugees for one- or two-night stays at his home as they figured out their next move. His once-quiet town is now filled with Polish police, military and NATO personnel who are there to help coordinate the escape of millions of people as well as to monitor the massive amount of aid flowing into Ukraine.

Ukrainian refugees arriving in Przemysl, Poland.

The Ukrainian borders are clogged with people trying to escape. In normal times, the wait at the border into Przemysl would be an hour at most, but when the war began, the line stretched back 50 kilometres, causing people to abandon their cars and walk. One friend trekked 18 kilometres to the border; it took him two days to get across.

Evgeniy, who designed the Saint Javelin graphic, has been forced into bomb shelters so many times that he chose to flee to a rural village near his city, Lviv. He recently messaged me to say that he couldn’t 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, searching 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, just a month ago, Ukraine was a wonderful place to live. Now, it’s a disaster—all because of a bunch of paranoid thugs in Russia. I don’t think those thugs realize they are destroying their own country, too. Analysts estimate as many as 8,000 Russian servicemen were killed in the first two weeks of this war—that’s 700 per day. To put that into perspective, Russia lost more people in two weeks in Ukraine than the U.S. 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’ve lost. You have to document everything, explain what you’ve 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 start. What do you do when you’re 40 with two young kids and the only home you know has been destroyed? How do you make a new life, learn another language and earn enough money to feed and house your family? How do you restart?