Once a Ukrainian bike guide, a refugee now raises funds for the troops

KOSICE, Slovakia — Yurii Panchenko, who fled Ukraine with his wife and only daughter hours after the first Russian missile exploded near his home, has started fundraising through his Ukrainian mountain biking business, offering tours in and around Kyiv via Airbnb.

There are no real tours going on as kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, continues to face missile fire and indiscriminate shelling from the Russian military. But the money, which will be used to support Ukrainian defence, continues to flow into Panchenko’s account.

“People from all over the world have booked tours for months in advance just to support us,” Panchenko said, adding, “Except for the Russians. We haven’t had any reservations from there yet.

Before the war, Panchenko’s tours were called “Mountain Biking In Kyiv” and the company received about one request per week. He renamed them “Support Ukrainian Army MTB Tours in Kyiv” and demand soared. The idea came a few days ago, with a booking request for a bike tour on a day when bombs were falling on the Ukrainian capital.

“At first, I didn’t understand. Then I read a note from the client, in which he said he didn’t want to go around and just wanted to support us,” said Panchenko, who now lives with his family in Vienna, Austria.

Since then, he’s booked more than 500 tours, raising more than $15,000, despite lowering his prices to make the token adventure more affordable.

Panchenko is one of many Airbnb hosts in Ukraine using the platform to raise funds. More than 14,300 Airbnb Experiences were booked in Ukraine in the week to March 9, the company told ABC News.

The hosts received about $360,000 during the same period, the company said. Earlier this month, Airbnb announced it was temporarily waiving guest and host fees for bookings in Ukraine.

“We are so humbled by the inspiring generosity of our community at this time of crisis,” said company spokesperson Haven Thorn.

While there’s no way to know how recipients use the donations, Airbnb said it “actively assesses” listings in Ukraine to “detect and deter fraudulent activity.”

“The vast majority or most of our hosts are regular people who share the house they live in,” Thorn said. “People considering booking to donate can also view a host’s profile to see how many listings they have and view the listing’s review history to see how long the listing has been active. .”

The Kyiv bike mechanic said he used the money to buy fuel and medicine to support evacuation efforts in Ukraine. He said he also bought a special thermal imaging camera worth around $1,700 for one of Ukraine’s elite military units.

“We also plan to send the troops other special devices, body armor and helmets,” Panchenko added.

Panchenko said his family has almost nothing to spare, but they don’t plan to keep Airbnb profits for personal use. They fled to Vienna via Romania on a four-day trip, having packed a single bag of clothes and essentials while carrying less than a thousand dollars. They managed to find free temporary accommodation and support in the Austrian capital, where Panchenko now works as a bicycle mechanic in a repair shop.

“We will be here for at least three weeks. We are doing much better than other families still stuck in Ukraine. We try to help those in need as much as possible,” Panchenko said.

Panchenko’s family home is near Kyiv City Airport, but when the first Russian cruise missiles came dangerously close, they disappeared within 15 minutes, he said. They jumped in their car and left early in the morning.

“We were actually ready for something like this to happen and had a few pre-packaged essentials. But we didn’t expect ballistic missiles to rain down on us,” Panchenko said.

He managed to escape with his family before Ukraine banned all men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country and started drafting them into the army.

“I’m not a military man and I knew I could be useful from elsewhere, like sending help from abroad,” Panchenko said.

Panchenko said his family has no discernible plan for the future.

“We currently live in the moment. We don’t know what will happen to us next week,” Panchenko said.

He wants to return to Ukraine with his family once the war is over and rebuild his life, he said.

“But if they need me to come back and fight, I’ll be ready,” he said.