Val Chmerkovskiy Talks Brother Maks' Escape from Ukraine During Invasion and How They're Giving Back

The Chmerkovskiy brothers, who were born in Ukraine, recently launched a nonprofit aimed at helping those fleeing the region amid the Russian invasion

As Ukraine came under attack from Russian forces in late February, Val Chmerkovskiy felt hopeless.

His brother, fellow Dancing with the Stars pro Maks Chmerkovskiy, was in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, when the fighting broke out. In addition to worrying about Maks, Val worried about Ukraine, where the two were born and have so many memories.

Speaking to PEOPLE (the TV Show!) Senior Correspondent Jeremy Parsons for Friday's episode, via Zoom from a warehouse in Fort Lee, New Jersey, that was stacked with relief for Ukraine, Val said he and his brother — who made his way back to the U.S. in early March — wanted to do more than just worry.

So earlier this month they launched Baranova27, a charitable organization for humanitarian aid named after the address where they and their father were born in Odesa, Ukraine.

Though the project began as an Amazon registry, it's now an official nonprofit organization, Val says, and is entirely volunteer-based. Their warehouse's landlord (who donated the space), the local police department and Fort Lee's mayor have all rallied around them, he says, adding that he hasn't felt this type of camaraderie since 9/11.

Maks Chmerkovskiy
Maks (left) and Val Chmerkovskiy. Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

"It's been amazing to see people who aren't personally touched by Ukraine doing so much," he says.

By his last count, the volunteers with Baranova27 have packaged and boxed more than 210,000 lbs. of humanitarian aid, worth more than $160,000. And they're just getting started.

Val's brother is now in Warsaw, Poland, helping in the humanitarian effort there as well.

"Maks felt really conflicted, he was traumatized when the war broke out. He was happy to be back with his family but he felt obligated to go back. He built relationships and working there — it didn't feel right for him to be in the states," Val says.

Since arriving in Poland, Maks has told his brother how tough the situation is with the sheer number of refugees fleeing there from Ukraine.

"It's tough, the first thing he said is, 'You don't realize there's a lot of congestion there,' " Val tells PEOPLE (the TV Show!). "When refugees get there, it's like, 'Now what?' and that's brought a lot of sadness to him — the 'now what' is very hard."

While Val says he's contemplated going to Poland too (or even "picking up a gun and fighting" in Ukraine's resistance against Russia), he feels he can best serve the country from America, by organizing the efforts of Baranova27.

Speaking to PEOPLE (the TV Show!) on his birthday, Val says the best gift he could receive would be contributions for the besieged country: "Donate a dollar to the GoFundMe, you can contact Gov. Murphy to donate a cargo plane, go to an Amazon registry and send a sleeping bag for a soldier ... you gotta start somewhere."

Russia's attack on Ukraine continues after their forces launched a large-scale invasion on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades. Details of the fighting change by the day, but hundreds of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including children. More than a million Ukrainians have also fled, the United Nations says.

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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