Saturday, 12 December 2020

 “Snow”, that is the word I would use to describe my arrival to Severodonetsk. Already on the train that goes through the very heart of Ukraine and cross it from one half to another, I could see the changing landscape, from a very warm autumn to the sudden harsh winter, or at least harsh for me since my native city in Spain has an average of 20 Cº in winter. “Welcome to Donbass” that was what my coordinator Sasha said when I ask her about the weather, and I think it was a pretty good answer.

Crossing Ukraine by train

The weather was cold, but I had a warm welcome from the team, and this coldness stayed for not long as I started to work and organize activities soon. One of the first things I did was to discover the city with a camera on hand, trying to capture the real “soul of Severodonetsk” and its different faces as part of the project “Humans of Ukrainian”, and to be able to assist the team in the delivery of materials to rebuild destroyed homes, this gave me an opportunity to see one of the biggest challenges that affect the local population.

Children play on the central square, while elder woman weeps about her lost the house due to fire. 

On the education topic, firstly, I visited school Nº5 where I met a very interesting group of teenagers, we got the opportunity to know about each other. I introduced myself, my mission here, and a bit about Spanish culture, we also spoke about our interests, hobbies, and ambitions. I have to say I’m very impressed by the creativity and interesting topics we shared together, now we continue doing activities and games to improve not only speaking but also other very important social skills like teamwork and self-confidence. We almost replicate the famous babble tower (but tastier)!

Teamwork activities in School Nº 5

Then I got to visit the Lyceum №16. Where the welcome couldn’t be better, the teenagers are very active and they introduced their passions and expectations, as well as asking lots of questions and sharing interesting and funny facts about Ukrainian culture. The next lessons we did some activities on one of their favorites hobbies, debating, where they were put on a fictional scenario where they should express their ideas to escape a desert island, very fun indeed!

Creative public speaking in highschool

In addition, we started the languages clubs in the office for both Spanish and English languages, which was a huge success, lots of interested people were calling to get one of the few available places. With a similar scope to the schools, we had a lot of fun while speaking about ourselves and learning new words and funny expressions. We even had the chance to show our creative side and draw each other, making Picasso and Dali tremble with pride.

Spanish Club

So, my first month couldn’t have been better, even with all the challenges to come to live in a different country and even more in a warzone. I was able to do quite a lot of things, to meet very interesting people, both locals, and internationals, working in different organizations. I’m very looking forward to continuing and do even more activities and getting to know more about Ukraine, the country that now I call home.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Not everyone gets to choose a new beginning

Due to Covid-19, I left Severodonetsk already 2 months after my arrival. However, during those two months I had the chance to work with the wonderful Vostok SOS team and to meet a lot of inspiring people. For this, I am really thankful. 

    Whether in Ukraine, the Czech Republic or Germany, I enjoy listening to people's stories. Before I went to Severodonetsk, I worked as an adviser for international applicants at Leipzig University. One afternoon an Iraqi woman came with a German woman into my office. The German woman was supporting the Iraqi woman with some steps of the application process. After telling them all the necessary information on the application procedures, the German woman asked me whether she could ask me which country I was from as my accent sounded familiar to her.

    When I answered I was Czech, her eyes got bright and she started telling me stories about her childhood which she had spent during the World War II in Litoměřice, a small Czech town, and about her home, which she and her parents were expelled from. This was a very strong moment for me: Myself, having left the Czech Republic simply because I wanted to become a part of a little bit more multicultural and human system, an Iraqi refugee hoping for a better future and this German lady with Czech roots who was expelled as a child from her home. In my opinion, this afternoon meeting was the reflection of the past century and of today – the constant repeating of history. Expulsion from a home country, fleeing from a home country, taking a refuge in a foreign country. Oftentimes, for these people, their home country turns into a foreign one and the opposite way around.

    Sometimes, I dive into the melancholic world in my mind and ask myself: How many more people will be forced to leave their homes and overcome borders of their new homes?

    In Ukraine, these borders were made visible during the war in Donbas which has started in the spring of 2014. The Donbas space was always a very specific one as a lot of the region's cities were founded during the Soviet times. Moreover, the biggest Russian immigration was directed to the Ukraine´s most industrially developed cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, in the end of 1950s, Russian was made also the language of instruction at schools. Therefore, for people born during this time, Russian was often the first language they spoke. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, these regions became part of today´s Ukraine. The differences in historical development between the eastern and western Ukrainian regions and the relativity of state borders can be observed as of beginning of the conflict between the Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine. 

    In fact, a lot of inhabitants of these regions did not feel like having one clear national identity. Parts of their families were living in Russia, parts of them in Ukraine. The language they spoke was sometimes Russian, sometimes a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian language, the so-called “surzhyk”. A lot of people were much better off during the Soviet industrialization period than after the dissolution of the USSR. But then the war came and during a conflict, you have to take a side. You must clearly set up your identity. Pro-Russian? OK, join the separatists. Pro-Ukrainian? OK, move to the government-controlled areas!   

   Nonetheless, it is a bit more complicated. I met a brilliant journalist who had to leave Donetsk because of his opinions and activism and was not allowed to come back but his parents had stayed there as they could not afford to leave everything behind and start their life from zero. They spoke Russian as their mother tongue but felt as citizens of Ukraine. Now, these people face difficulties as they live on separatist-controlled area having a Ukrainian citizenship and it is hard and sometimes impossible to reach out to their pensions.

    This conflict has been devastating for the economy, for families of the killed soldiers or imprisoned activists, but mainly for the most vulnerable people who are not able or simply cannot afford a new life. With this post, I would like to call on all people to get engaged and support all the newcomers to their countries as the new beginnings are often hard to come through and you never know when you are going to be in their position.   

Monday, 25 May 2020

Do you celebrate March, 8?

In October 2019, I finished my Masters in European Studies. Going back to Ukraine was something that I wanted to do since 2017. That year, I spent 6 beautiful months in Kyiv at Taras Shevchenko University and 3 inspiring weeks as an English language teacher in Snihurivka. I’ve always wanted to experience Eastern Ukraine, Severodonetsk and working with Vostok SOS was a clear choice and a great opportunity. Rather than describing all of my tasks, I would like to share one day of my Severodonetsk life.

It was a nice snowy day when I walked to the office. On the way, thoughts about the upcoming workshop were running through my mind, arranging and structuring ideas. To be honest, it was quite a challenge going to schools and carrying out workshops on human rights. At the time, my Russian language skills were not very strong and finding the best way to communicate so that everyone gets involved was the most difficult part. However, I still enjoyed every part of this experience.

This was the last day with my class and on Sunday, it was going to be the International Women's Day, so it was the perfect opportunity to talk about women's rights. During that week, a few people had asked me about this day: 
“How do you feel about March, 8 coming from the Czech Republic where before 1989, just like in Ukraine, this day was used as an advertising campaign for the former regime rather than for women’s rights? Do you actually celebrate it?”
When I got to the class, I talked about the main issues concerning women’s rights in the Czech Republic and in Germany. Consequently, pupils were sharing their experience and knowledge on women’s rights from their Ukrainian perspective.
As a preparation for this workshop, I was going through news articles and read about four women from three cities.

There was the story of Dasha and Mila from Rovno who were kept by some men in an apartment and could not flee until police had noticed them begging for help from the apartment’s window.

There was the story of Lenka from Prague who was on her way home when a man approached her and groped her body under her dress.

And there was the story of Marie from Leipzig who was murdered after hitchhiking and getting into a stranger’s car.

“What do you think have the stories of Dasha, Mila, Lenka and Marie in common”, I asked the class at some point. In the chat room, a lot of the reactions to the news articles were quite similar. 

Why did they go to the apartment? Was she alone in the city at night? What clothes did she have on? What was the time when she was out? Why did she hitchhike on her own as a woman?

These questions are insulting the victim and they also do not target the perpetrators. The blame is placed on the victim. Thus, after a fruitful discussion and exchanging of opinions, we came to the conclusion that gender-based violence and victim blaming are transnational issues and they should be discussed regularly and openly regardless of the nationality that is written in our passports.
Coming back to the above-mentioned question on how I feel about the International Women’s Day, I think it would be sad to forget this day just because it was misused in history. On the contrary, I believe we should all make use of this day to talk about and point out women’s rights violations.
A mural painting on one of Severodonetsk buildings saying "Stop Violence Against Women".

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Communications and fundraising in Eastern Ukraine

From Copenhagen – the capital of the happiest, politically and economically most stable countries on the planet, to Severodonetsk – the administrative center of the most underdeveloped region in Ukraine, which apart from declining industries has been torn by war during the last 6 years. The change could not be more contrasting and were it not for my familiarity with post-soviet societies, I would probably have been appalled or perplexed by many things. 

     Photo: Milan Zaitsev

However, despite the lack of comfort, glamour and abundance of offers and activities in large cities, Severodonetsk is a charming town in its own way, with its decaying soviet enterprises and abandoned ruins, typical 5- and 9-storey residential buildings lacking maintenance and repair for decades, old trolley-busses and roads in poor in condition. “It’s like the end of the world here”, a Belgian freelance journalist said to me. “Actually, every city here is like the end of the world”, he added after some thought.

Even at the end of the world life continues. People go to work, kids go to school and the old grannies sell their fresh produce and pickled vegetables on the market because their pensions are not enough to pay their bills, food and medicine. 30 kilometers away is a different world: the front-line, or ‘contact line’ and ‘demarcation line’ as it is more commonly called among international organizations. The protracted low-intensity armed conflict, largely forgotten outside Ukraine, continues here on a daily basis.

Severodonetsk is quiet and peaceful and doesn’t look like a city in a conflict zone at first glance. Only the unusually large amount of military personnel, a military base on one of the central streets and the fading red letters on almost every building - “УКРИТТЯ” meaning bomb shelter – make you conscious of where you are. And so does working in an non-governmental organization whose primary mission is to assist victims of the conflict in every way possible, be it delivering humanitarian aid, psycho-social support, legal assistance or educational activities, civil society development and capacity-building.

Working for Vostok-SOS has been a rewarding and extraordinary experience both professionally and personally. The team is very motivated and passionate about the work they do. Being internally displaced themselves, they have dedicated their lives to help others in the same situation and people who live along the frontline where shelling and shootouts still occur daily despite the first careful steps of troops withdrawal, prisoner exchange and the first meeting in the Normandy format in 3 years. 

My work here started with communication tasks such as making content for Facebook and Instagram accounts, feature stories and translations of reports for the website, but gradually I moved over to translating and assisting in writing project proposals, communicating with existing and potential donors and partners.

Photo:Nikola Skuridin
Among some of the most interesting processes I was part of was the planning and execution of the Opinion Festival in September 2019 – a yearly outdoors festival that brings together people from different social layers and regions of country for open debates, discussions and creative events on important social issues. 

In 2019, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) established the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund – a country specific humanitarian pooled fund aimed at addressing the acute needs that are least funded to support the Humanitarian Response Plan efforts. We applied for the first project call within the fund which was a technically challenging and time-consuming process, especially for a multi-cluster project, but the lessons learned and experience gained were valuable. As a part of this process, Vostok-SOS underwent a capacity assessment by OCHA which included the preparation of documents, policies and guidelines of the organization and an interview with a commission from OCHA. We received an evaluation and recommendations for possible areas of improvement.

One of the exciting moments during my deployment was receiving the news of approved funding for one of our project proposals. I was actively involved in editing the application and communicating with the donor organization along the way. The project is aimed at strengthening the capacity of local self-government in frontline towns of the Luhansk region and consists of an educational course for the leadership and employees of local authorities as well as representatives of civil society. During the course, participants will gain knowledge about the structure, powers and duties of the local self-government and state bodies, the competencies of effective communication between government and the civil society, resource mobilization and other competencies necessary for the sustainable development of democratic transformations in local communities. During this work, government officials together with active citizens will work on developing strategies for sustainable development of the eastern regions.

Photo: Nikola Skuridin

I am grateful to have stayed here long enough to see this project launch! 

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Six months in Donbass, Eastern Ukraine

When I received the confirmation of deployment to Ukraine, I went really quiet inside.
“It is really happening. I am going to live for half a year in Ukraine.” I felt happy, excited and grateful. 
Since I was 15 years old I always volunteered parallel to my other life chores, school, university, work. This time it was going to be my main job. I always found volunteering very rewarding and satisfying and was very much looking forward to join the new team of co-workers in Eastern Ukraine.

Soon the preparations started. A very intensive training in Italy, followed by induction training by our sending organisation MONDO and the preparations to leave Poland. One would not realise how much work it actually involves to get ready for deployment... By the end of May I was ready and boarding the plane to Kiev.

We arrived in Severodonetsk in Donbas few days later, and not before long I started feeling this place becoming my new home.

Soon after I met my new colleagues from Vostok SOS. All the communication was in Russian, and at that time my attention span with the new language was still somewhat limited.
I was worried whether my level of Russian was sufficient to communicate. Rapidly I found out, that people were both very understanding and supportive, the communication run smoothly with some language laughter from time to time. I was received very warmly by the team and by all the people I came in contact with.

With great support from the team members, I started trainings and seminars on the topics of stress management and nonviolent communication. 

Session on stress management.

Training on non-violent communication with teenagers. 

Professionally I am art-therapist and did not give trainings on those topics specifically, yet it started a new chapter for me. It was challenging at times. I learnt to adapt and readjust the group sessions. In group work, and for me personally, it is very important to connect with the people and give them the content that is adapted to the local context. In many countries, and including Ukraine, the topic of mental health is surrounded by a lot of stigma. It is changing slowly, and I felt people more and more open to discuss it. There was a lot of interest in the trainings, I lead groups in our offices and in centre of employment. Later a new program for the law enforcement officers on stress management, resilience and suicide prevention was created.  

Every week I also looked forward to the sessions with the members of psychological club Dovira, an open group where we worked using creative arts therapy techniques.

Group working on the topic of resilience through creating own metaphorical cards.

A very memorable session on "mindful meditation" and the different levels of patience
Humour is important!
Dovira means "trust"

Before I came to Ukraine I was wondering, how I will handle the stories of people affected by the ongoing conflict, how will they affect and change me. During the deployment and after I feel I learnt so much, from the people I worked with, from the team members, from new friends I made, and that I now miss. It was so unbelievably valuable and powerful experience. I learnt a lot about myself too, and like to believe I became a better person. It was an opportunity I would not change and definitely do it again.

At the end of my deployment, I heard several times, that I am like “nasha” (one of ours). It touches me still and I felt it one of the biggest compliments. I felt like “nasha” to them, and they felt like “dom” (home) to me. 

Thank you :).

You see, there is a trick in volunteering. 
Not sophisticated at all and very simple in fact: it works in circles and is fuelled by kindness.

Try it and let others know. 
Good luck.

Friday, 12 July 2019

До встречи (See you), Ukraine!

I don’t like changes. I find it very hard to leave behind people, memories, things that you shared with dear ones at some point in time. I think I very well represent the cliché that one leaves part of his heart when leaving. I cannot forget. And I don’t want to.

the three Vostok-SOS volunteers at Ivana Kupala near Severodonetsk

The Donbas was a revealing, unforgettable experience for me. Apart from the wonderful people that I met and I’ve worked with, who inspired me and encouraged me whenever I needed it, this place must be my-kind-of-place. Since the times of Katherine the Second, people from different regions and countries arrived either to populate the empty lands for agricultural purposes, or being sent here for isolation reasons. The result is a young-like society, where people are not afraid to say what they think, and many elderly people are able and more than willing to go out of their comfort zone and have fun. 

part of the fun team after a workshop in Rubizhne
Severodonetsk has revealed to me slowly, from the grey days of January, with almost no one on the streets and temperatures around -10 degrees Celsius to the glowing days of summer, when everybody goes to one of the numerous lakes in the area for a shashlyk and beer with family and friends. 

during an English class for children
All of the projects I’ve engaged in here are special to me, but among them I have to first mention the Active picnics. Nature is always a good friend and an awesome excuse for us all to follow suit. This is why I couldn’t wait for the good weather and I tried to stick to the outdoors environment for my lessons whenever it’s been possible. And the energy jumps out of the Active picnics’ photos. This is just one of the projects I’ve been implementing with Sasha (Voroshilova) and which provided me with the opportunity to meet wonderful youngsters in Severodonetsk’  parks and talk about different things, play a lot of games with them and listen to their interests and dreams and… be overwhelmed by the whole thing. 

Interview for a local radio during the active picnic
The children are sparkling of curiosity and big dreams. Some would use any chance to ask about our [the volunteers’] countries and opinions about Ukraine, the conflict situation or other serious issues. They are eager to learn, open to engage in new activities and grow. I’m thus sure that their determination will one day bear fruit, making Ukraine known for what it is, a country of huge potential.

during my last active picnic
I’ve met very different people with sometimes opposing opinions and I admit I’ve tried to test limits. But the adults who attended my English classes or the film club focused on human rights have made it too easy for me; every time we would discuss a hot topic, such as political incorrectness, black humor, human rights in conflict, discrimination, war or the communist past, people - of very different ages - respected the others and engaged in it admirably, however difficult. 

I’ve also met many activists for diverse social and political issues, who are no different in their convictions from those residing in the EU, but they could be a little stronger in terms of resilience. I will never forget the House of Human Rights in Chernihiv, where I went for one of Vostok-SOS & Mondo’s projects and I had my first lecture in Russian ever (and I couldn’t have been more scared). This is an open house for initiatives that matter and all sorts of activists, a network linked also to countries in the region.

during an English class for beginners
Here I tried several things that I’ve always dreamt of doing, such as teaching in high schools and working on human rights in a creative way, organizing debates, educative games and so on. At every step, my lovely colleagues were there for me as much as I tried – at least – to be there for them. So I’d like to use this opportunity to thank them again for everything!

a part of the Severodonetsk team
How can I leave this place?... I was talking with a friend, who at some point told me with unhidden jealousy “and you are paid to do that?!” and I thought “well that’s that”. One for sure needs full energy and flexibility for this journey, but it’s definitely worth it. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Contagious Spring in Eastern Ukraine

Already four months… I cannot even believe it. Time flies without acknowledgement when you enjoy what you do.
Interactive English class at Vostok-SOS office

I arrived in Severodonetsk with a clear view of what I want to do, with objectives attentively put on paper - I only had to work a little bit on the overall strategy with my colleagues after I arrive there, I thought. I didn’t have any expectations; I enjoy surprises however they are, because I believe one can learn from any.
It turned out a successful strategy, as I’ve mainly faced pleasant surprises in Severodonetsk. Maybe in the first two months the atmosphere was a bit grey due to the capricious snow and the change of office that both the team in Kyiv and the one in Severo were going through as many other changes.
By now I am fully introduced into the work of the team and this has been made with incredible sensitivity and understanding so that I was able to closely watch what and how my colleagues work, what the overall expectations from the beneficiaries are and how I can find my place in this new environment. My imperfect language skills weren’t much of an impediment in discovering the Vostok-SOS community thanks to the great people that are part of it.
Chistyi Ozero (Clean Lake) in Severodonetsk

Of course, my objectives, strategy and myself have changed during these four months, but I absolutely cannot regret it. I'm continously learning. Whenever I have an initiative, we talk and try it out, which one should face it – it doesn’t really happen in other work environments. 
Brave squarrel by the monastery near Severodonetsk

Otherwise, what can I say about Severodonetsk in spring? The town seemed to be brought to life. Little kids jumping around and having some fun out of life, as the song goes, elderly friends discussing the state of the country by the lake, youngsters having early swims and life going on as usual. 

I guess it took Severodonetsk a few years to adapt, but these people are stronger than you’d think.