“There is No War in Sauna”: The Story Behind Sauna Aid
On 24th February 2022, Ukraine faced a devastating attack from its neighbour, Russia. The conflict brought forth a barrage of missiles and artillery, mercilessly pounding residential areas, compelling millions of women and children to flee the war-torn country. I was hiking in the Nevada desert thousands of miles away when I heard the news and it felt like the ominous beginning of World War III.
An idea is born
Confronted with a world seemingly falling apart, I felt helpless and yes, scared. A memory of an incident that occurred years ago during the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, gave me hope. Following the disaster, the Japanese Sauna Society swiftly responded by setting up a large tent sauna on-site. Not only did it provide a practical means to decontaminate thousands of people exposed to radiation, but it also offered solace, community, and a way to relax amidst an exceedingly stressful time. The circumstances were different, but why couldn’t we extend a similar gesture to aid Ukraine? My fear transformed into resolve.
I contacted Risto Elomaa, President of the International Sauna Association (ISA) based in Helsinki, Finland and wrote: “Risto. Do you think it’s possible that the International Sauna Association can help organise a mobile sauna convoy to the border to the Ukraine refugee camps?”
Risto immediately contacted key members of the association with the idea and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Rimas Kavaliauskas, President of Lithuania Bath Academy, organised a teleconference and within a few days, a dozen or so of us from all over the globe were brainstorming what to do on a near-daily basis.
We agreed on a name, Sauna Aid and set up our website, graphics and fundraising pipeline. Rimas and his colleague Birutė Masiliauskienė, President of Professional Bath Masters Association, with support from Lasse Eriksen, president of the Norwegian Sauna Association, created a guide for bath masters dealing with trauma. Rimas and Birutė also hosted free bathing sessions for fleeing Ukrainian women and children in Lithuania.
Ukraine was our immediate concern, but we quickly envisioned Sauna Aid as a long-term initiative with a global scope. Our mission statement expanded to “providing movable sauna facilities and supportive services to people facing natural and man-made disasters.”
Bringing sauna to warzones
With hands-on support from the British Sauna Society, along with a generous grant from the Japanese Sauna Society, Sauna Aid collaborated with Arctisauna to design and construct a robust tent sauna currently operational in the centre of Kharkiv. The tent sauna was tested at a fundraising event in Helsinki in March 2022 before it was sent to Kharkiv. It boasts an efficient wood-burning stove and accommodates up to 20 bathers. Additionally, we transported a donated container sauna to Ukraine where it is now being used near the eastern border with Russia. Currently, we are in the process of transporting a 14-person sauna donated by Therme Group to the Ukrainian village of Staryi Sambir where it will be placed at a youth sports centre. Furthermore, we are working with a citizens group in Kharkiv to build a sauna complex on the shore of a public lake on the city’s outskirts.
Our fundraising efforts include hosting a major event: a benefit screening of Perfect Sweat on 15th January 2023 in central London organised by the British Sauna Society with generous sponsors Therme Group, Design For Leisure, Kyro Distillery, The Bath House, Heartwood Saunas, The Saunaverse, and Paus Cambridge. This was followed by donations from the Saunaverse during the UK’s first Sauna Festival in February 2023. Furthermore, under the guidance of Glenn Auerbach, the editor of SaunaTimes, we mounted a ‘World Sauna Aid Moment’ fundraiser on 11 March 2023.
Over the past year, several public bathhouses in England and the US, including the Hackney Wick Community Sauna Baths, Water & Stone Wild Spa, Archimedes Banya and Uusi Sauna, have hosted Sauna Aid fundraising events. Further generous grants have been contributed by institutions such as the Japanese Sauna Society, the Swedish Academy and Finnmark Sauna, all actively raising funds for our cause. We have also accepted many small donations from contributors around the globe through our website.
Sauna is for everyone
Our biggest fund-raising challenge comes from potential supporters who ask: “There is a war going on and you send saunas? Why don’t you just send flowers?” To me, the answer is obvious.
There is no war in sauna.
Throughout my life, I have witnessed how sweat baths such as Finnish sauna, Slavic banya, Islamic hammam and Native American sweatlodge can heal not only the body but also the mind and spirit. These baths offer a profound sense of connection with oneself and nature, fostering a space where people can come together, share stories, and cultivate a deep sense of community. This sentiment is familiar to most Ukrainians. For them, the banya or laznia is an integral part of everyday life, far from being considered a luxury.
While Sauna Aid’s primary goal is to help civilians, in a country where everyone is affected by conflict, the boundaries blur. We have partnered with Saunas 4 Ukraine, an Estonian group led by filmmaker and military officer, Ilmar Raag, whose complementary focus is on delivering complete mobile sauna sanitation units directly to soldiers fighting on the front.
Ultimately, Sauna Aid is more than an initiative of the International Sauna Association; it is an idea, a concept that can be applied anywhere in the world, by anyone who wants to see the world a better place. Your help and contributions are welcome: www.sauna-aid.com https://saunainternational.net http://mikkelaaland.com.
Therme is happy to support the work of Sauna Aid, providing solace and wellbeing to communities in need, with the donation and transportation of a 12-sauna to Ukraine.