When Iraqi-born American entrepreneur Emad Ballack watched footage of war breaking out in Ukraine from his office in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, he decided he had to act.
As civilians started to pour out of the country, Ballack, who is an ethnic Kurd, began a four-day trip to Kyiv, a city he has called home for the last eight years.
“I was not scared but more worried about how I would manage to get into the country,” he said.
During his journey by plane and train, the 45-year-old started to think about how he could use his businesses, including restaurants and an e-commerce company, to help Ukrainians under fire.
“Fighting is not only about holding a gun. Because of who I am, I am more useful getting support, finances,” Ballack said. “Growing up during war times in Iraq gave me some sort of resilience. I grew up being able to adapt to tough situations.”
After a childhood in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war, Ballack and his family fled to the Netherlands. He later settled in the United States before coming back to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012.
A couple of years later he decided to start investing in Ukraine, just before Islamic State took over large swathes of Iraqi territory and dragged the Kurdistan region into a prolonged economic crisis.
Until Russia’s invasion, Ballack considered Ukraine a safe and promising country to invest in.
Now, using his own ventures and political and business connections in Ukraine and abroad, he is mobilizing support to deliver food, basic necessities and clothing to civilians and security forces.
After arriving in Kyiv on March 8, the entrepreneur started preparing free meals for security forces and civilians in his restaurant, while raising donations mostly in the United States.
Using his e-commerce company Zibox as a tool to manage the relief support, Ballack is organizing the delivery of goods to the Polish border with Ukraine, where local authorities assist with logistics to deliver the aid to those in need.
Unsure what the future holds, Ballack said he might bring more of his businesses to Iraqi Kurdistan.
“I am nervous about everything coming to a halt now,” he said. “But what I tell people to reassure them is that I myself am a war child. But look … I managed to rebuild my life.”