Esteban Burgoa’s home real estate office on the Northwest Side is an assembly of cardboard boxes filled with cans of soup, trauma kits, sanitary pads — anything that Chicagoans have been dropping off on his doorstep since he began shipping aid to Ukraine.
On a recent overcast morning, an elderly man with a walker left several boxes of adult diapers outside Burgoa’s home.
“This guy is barely walking, and he’s carrying this thing,” Burgoa said. “But that’s the people that I love, and that I think God sends along to me.”
Burgoa has done this sort of thing before. When the Puebla Earthquake shook Mexico in 2017, he drove a truckload of aid there all the way from Chicago.
He proudly displays a photo on his desk of people lining up for food in Oaxaca.
“There are thousands of people waiting … And I saw them all night long, all day long. Under the sun, no water, no food, no bathrooms, no nothing,” Burgoa said.
When he saw on TV how thousands of Ukrainians were waiting at the Polish border, he resolved to do more than just ship materials. He decided he wanted to go there and cook.
He made some calls and soon enough, two pastors and two cooks agreed to join him — if they can raise the money.
Burgoa needs $15,000 to cover travel costs and buy the supplies they will need to set up a mobile kitchen.
As far as humanitarian missions go, Burgoa said that sum will only cover the bare minimum.
“We’re losing money going over there. I mean, we’re volunteers,” Burgoa said. “We could stay here and work and say, ‘I don’t care.’ But … I cannot live with that on my conscience.’”
Burgoa once was a refugee himself. He came from Mexico as a teen and served in Iraq in his 20s.
He says the PTSD he experienced helps him understand the pain of Ukrainians, as he knows “when a tank is moving on you. I know when snipers shoot on you. I’ve been through that. And most people don’t understand that.”
This includes his Ukrainian wife, who Burgoa said doesn’t want him to leave his family and business.
“I think sometimes, you risk your life in order to save other people. If I can save some children and some mothers …” said Burgoa, whose voice trailed off as he glanced at the small shrine set up in the corner of his office.
Eduardo Vasquez, one of the cooks joining the mission, said he plans to bake conchas, a sweet Mexican bread for refugees. But he said his family isn’t happy about his plans to leave.
“They’re not taking it that well. But I’m confident that with the leadership of Esteban, everything’s going to be okay,” Vasquez said.
Burgoa said they have had a difficult time rallying the support of the Latino community, questioned about why the mission is supporting Ukrainians when there are immigrants in need at the border. He said he has to give priority to those suffering the most. It’s what his faith calls him to do.
“When you see a woman, children being bombed and turned into pieces and blown up in the air, it’s not pretty. Okay? Life is on the line,” Burgoa said. “When you’re immigrating from Central America, you are running from crime, maybe looking for work, things like that. But nobody is putting you a gun or a bomb, or a missile over your head. It’s a big difference.”
Despite the low turnout at a recent fundraiser at La Pulqueria, a Mexican tavern in the Pilsen neighborhood, his small group did land a $500 check from Alderman Ariel Reboyras.
Burgoa still isn’t anywhere near his goal, but said he isn’t giving up. If he doesn’t raise enough money, he said he will pay for the trip out of pocket, even if he is forced to take fewer people with him.
“We need the support, we need to raise the awareness and we want people to understand that what’s happening out there is called genocide,” he said.
For now, he will continue fundraising and hoping people will come around.
Reporter Anna Savchenko covers higher education for WBEZ. Follow her @annasavchenkoo.