WASHINGTON — When the Russian army took Kherson in southern Ukraine, the occupation authorities offered 16-year-old Anastasia the chance to go to Crimea, a holiday outside the war, officials told her mother.
But as the days turned into weeks, Anastasia realized she hadn’t been given a vacation and the Russians might not let her return home.
It wasn’t until a non-profit organization, Save Ukraine, sent Anastasia’s mother on a bus to find her that she was able to get out. They now live in a shelter run by the organization in Kiev, the capital.
Anastasia says she is happy to be alive and with her family, just like other children who live there.
“There are people who regret having to leave their homes,” she said, on the condition that her family name would not be used. “But we are also very happy because we understand that life is so much more than a house that can be destroyed. Now we have the chance to continue, to move forward again.”
In the 14 months since the Russian invasion, the U.S. Agency for International Development has provided $18 billion in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including about $15.5 billion in direct aid to the government to support its healthcare and education systems and repair its power grid , which Russian troops have repeatedly attacked.
In addition to that aid, the U.S. aid agency has also sent grants to Ukrainian nonprofits serving the war-scarred population. Save Ukraine, founded after Russian troops attacked the country in 2014, is one of them.
From the beginning, the goal has been to move Ukrainians living in occupied areas or near heavy fighting to shelters or new homes.
Last May, with a grant from the aid agency, Save Ukraine set up a hotline to connect people affected by the invasion with medical and mental health services. The money has also helped the group deal with evacuation requests and provide psychological counseling and legal assistance.
With a second grant, Save Ukraine opened a daycare center in Kherson for children traumatized by the occupation.
In total, USAID has given Save Ukraine $290,000, just a drop in the ocean of total US aid. But US officials say Ukrainians have shown how much they can do with what they are given.
“One of the most inspiring responses we’ve seen from Ukrainians is that they can do things with little money,” said Isobel Coleman, the agency’s deputy administrator. “The money we have provided, in the context of the billions we have provided to the government, is small. But it is a small organization that can do things very effectively with little money.”
Private US donors and companies have also given Save Ukraine about $7 million. An American non-profit organization, All Hands and Hearts, has provided funds for 100 shelters and the armored buses, cars and ambulances the group has used to move 74,000 Ukrainians away from the front lines.
As the war enters its second year, Save Ukraine has expanded its mission. As Russia’s campaign to deport children from occupied territories of Ukraine became apparent, the group began organizing rescues.
US funding has not gone directly to those efforts, but the US government is supporting them.
“Nothing is more desperate than a parent separated from their child; they’re going to do everything they can to get that kid back,” Ms. Coleman said. “And in the fog of war, few institutions have been able to help these parents and Save Ukraine has been a lifeline in tracing children and actually finding a way to return them to their parents.”
The Ukrainian government estimates that at least 16,000 children have been abducted. Save Ukraine saved almost 100.
In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, saying he was criminally responsible for the kidnappings.
Ukraine’s impact may be small in terms of numbers, but the rescues have given hope to parents like Veronika Tsymbolar, whose 8-year-old daughter, Marharyta Matiunina, was kidnapped.
Marharyta lived with her father, Ms Tsymbolar’s former husband, in a town near the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine when the Russian army took power last year.
The Russians blocked communications, leaving Ms. Tsymbolar without contact with her daughter for months. When the Ukrainians began to drive the Russians back across the river in the fall, Mrs. Tsymbolar finally reached her former husband.
He initially found excuses not to get Marharyta on the phone, she said. Mrs. Tsymbolar then called her former neighbors and heard a horrifying story: her daughter was missing.
“All I can tell you is that I hate Russia and all that with all my heart,” she said.
A neighbor sympathetic to Moscow had fled with Marharyta as the Russian army began to retreat.
In an interview, Oleksii Mitiunin, the former husband of Ms. Tsymbolar, that he started searching for his daughter a few hours after she disappeared. He heard that the Russian army would not let Marharyta go through a checkpoint, so the woman who took the child left her there.
Mr Mitiunin said he had tried to get Marharyta back but that “the Russians attacked me and said go away.”
Mrs. Tsymbolar was unable to find her daughter on her own and contacted Save Ukraine. The group found the child in Feodosiya, a resort town in Crimea.
In February, Ms. Tsymbolar boarded a bus with other mothers in search of their children. Once in Crimea, Russian officials refused to release Marharyta, but Mrs. Tsymbolar insisted and they relented.
Ms Tsymbolar believes her daughter’s abduction was part of a larger Russian campaign to brainwash children and erase Ukrainian identity. But she said she was extremely lucky that, contrary to expectations, they were reunited.
“Marharyta is fine,” Mrs. Tsymbolar said. “She’s home.”
Asya Shtefan contributed reporting from Kiev.