Thursday, February 28, 2019

Those little things that count in Severodonetsk

It was still warm when I arrived in September in Severodonetsk, eastern Ukraine. In this small city located on 30 kilometers from the contact line I would assist the local NGO Postup in awareness raising on human rights and conducting different educational activities. Though as a volunteer I was not allowed to come any close the contact line then 5 kilometers, I would ‘see’ the conflict on a daily basis through our contact with the locals and IDP’s, or seeing the soldiers and army tanks heading to the front.

As the autumn arrived, temperature dropped below zero and white snow covered this grey Soviet city, daily life was taking place inside most of my stay. On a weekly basis I would conduct different weekly activities: my local English speaking clubs for teenagers and for adults, a psychosocial creative activity for children on the Saturday morning, weekly teaching on a local school. We would visit schools in the region and talk about different issues.

On Thursday nights it was time for women issues. As I am convinced that there are many women intimate subjects that deserve more attention and less taboo feelings, I started together with my colleague volunteer a Women circle. We talked about issues like menstruation, PMS, sexual consent, vulnerability of woman, but also practiced self-defense. We even found a gynecologist that would talk about different ways of contraception and would any answer any question about health. After some months we created a little group of women that would regularly visit our group in an atmosphere of trust.

No big mountains were moved by me, but it are those little things, that were very rewarding and made this all worth it. The happy faces of people that really appreciated the activities we organized, or the students in my weekly class that in the last lesson all would thank me in English.

Friday, February 8, 2019

New year, new volunteer

Here I am, the third curious volunteer in Severodonetsk, with her package of dreams, well installed in this corner of Ukraine. As probably all of the foreigners before arriving here, I thought it might be a little bit dangerous living more or less 30km from the contact line, from an unfortunate brotherly war with irreversible consequences. 

Yet, you get an entirely different feeling by arriving here. People go on with their lives – of course, with many  more hardships –, the snow falls smoothly and the challenges of the hearts beating here only push them for the best. 

In other words, I have to say I was touched by their resilience and willingness to help each other. It is basically what the organizations I volunteer for do; they have done humanitarian aid and development, as well as Human Rights projects. Hearing how different individuals suddenly decided to get involved and volunteer in their endeavors has also made me confident that I am in the right place.

Talking about the right place… I could say it is also a right one for its cultural and social richness. You really feel at ease among friendly people, by tasting great food (among which I’m definitely in for many different vareniki and salo) and interesting stories.

After a tour of Severodonetsk, you get intrigued about the tank being covered by tones of concrete, which is part of the foundation of the town’s Theater, the story of the buildings limiting the most beautiful boulevard in the city center, where the buildings are three-floored and tell the story of the architect who decided to spend his life in this ethnically diverse town some century ago.

Still, it is an industrial town, whose industry has greatly suffered due to the conflict and whose people don’t know if this mess will ever end. But by now I feel like home, and I am eager to discover more and more.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

All good things come to an end

Six months have gone by already. The last days of my deployment are being quite intense: farewell party, last lessons, interview for the local television, goodbye hugs, presents… so many presents I have to leave with a second suitcase! But who would complain about that?

I was invited to give an interview about this conversation group for women that we just started implementing with Francisca. The first session was about difficulties encountered with periods, the second session about sexual consent. We realized that those topics were quite taboo here and wanted to create an intimate and safe area where women could exchange about their intimate life.

I was sad to learn that schools were under quarantine for my last week, since it would prevent me from saying goodbye to the students I taught for a few months. But they made me the beautiful surprise of coming to my office to have tea with me and we had a proper goodbye.

This English class of beginners I teach on Saturday also made me a beautiful surprise on my last class and offered me a decorated Ukrainian plate to never forget Ukrainian delicious cuisine.

And at last but not least, the ones that I want to thank the most, my great colleagues. I was extremely happy to work by your side on an everyday basis, and to discover your culture and way of life - that I truly appreciate. Thanks for miming every word that I did not know (a lot!) and to be patient while explaining me stuff. Thanks for welcoming me with such opened arms Masha, Sasha, Rusana, Julia, Svetlana, Irina - and Milan, Tata & Maxime for welcoming me in the Bus! I will never forget this amazing experience. And many thanks to Veronika and Janika (Mondo) for making all of this possible!

I would also like to thank Martin and Kelli for the Video they made of my mission here. You can find a link of the video here if you want to see what my life looked like in Severodonetsk.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

До Войны – before the war

Here, whenever you start having a conversation for more than twenty minutes with a local, you have a great chance of hearing the words “до войны – before the war ». Indeed, for every inhabitants originally from eastern Ukraine, there is a before and after March 2014. The war hit them all at different stages of their life, whether they were kids, teenagers, parents, or elderly people. Hence, they all reacted differently, each of them having their own priorities. But one thing is certain, they all had to adapt themselves to this unknown situation.

For six months, I have had the amazing opportunity of sharing some of their paths. No words can describe how interesting this experience is. Of course, the conflict itself, the geopolitical influences of the different stakeholders could already satisfy one’s curiosity. But to me, the real beauty lies where no words are printed down: in people’s personal stories, informal testimonies, facial expressions. I could try to share some of their stories with you, but my words would never equal the intensity of their stories. You would need to see their eyes.

The eyes of Tania, in her mid-thirties, when she told me that four years ago, her biggest fear was to drive a car. Indeed, her mom died in a car accident when she was 18 years old. But now that bombs and soldiers belong to her every day landscape, she has started learning. She wants to be ready to drive her sons anywhere, if another crisis was to strike her small town, if they had to flee once again. The eyes, of Sasha, three years old, when she was playing with clay, building those houses and on top of each of them putting a massive “snow ball”. Intrigued, I asked her what those balls were. “Bombs”, she replied. The eyes of Iana, when she told me about her two miscarriages. The first one happened right after the death of her sister, five years ago. The second, right after the war started. The eyes of Natacha, an IDP that is struggling to find a job in this new town she had to settle in. The eyes of Maxime, Ukrainian activist that got tortured for one night before we could live the non-governmental controlled area with his wife, daughter and mom. This eyes of Vladislav, 17 years-old, that cannot handle his anger since the war started, and keeps getting involved in violent fights with kids his age, sometimes older. The eyes of Nina, 76 years old, that lives alone in her home town, her kids having left for “the other side” for a while now. All the shops closed down and if it was not for the few vegetables she still grows in her garden, she would not be able to feed herself anymore.

War changed things for all of them.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Ukraine according to my grandmother

Years ago, when my grandmother was still alive, I had a terrible image of what life in Ukraine should be. Grandmother would use Ukraine as a synonym to a terrible place where you would not want to go, let alone live. In the months before my deployment in Ukraine I was making jokes about this, but when the departure date would come closer, I realized I might better not mock this. 

After arriving here in Severodonetsk I was relieved. It is true that in this grey Sovietic city the street scene is dominated by many sterotypes. The iconic Lada cars and the sweet buchanka's (a little van in the form of a square bread, in Russian called buchanka) aren't rare at all. The condition of the roads in general is terrible. Our driver and colleague André luckily is a professional in avoding the holes, but anyway needs to repair his car almost every week.  Someone told me that the level of corruption of a certain region can be measured by the condition of the roads. The more money is taken away, the less is left to maintain among other the roads. This theory does not promise any good for our region, but I try not to think to much about this. 

In the meantime everbody is awaiting the big day that the heater will be switched on. This is centrally organized and cannot be switched on by the inhabitants themselves. The fifteenth of October was appointed to be the day, but due to high gasprices and relatively high temperatures for October, two weeks later the heater stil isn't on. That makes home a bit cold, but thanks to the warm and friendly inhabitants of Severodonetsk, this city is still pleasent to live. 

It was last week that I got to see the Ukraine that my grandmother probably was referring to. Together with my colleagues we went to visit babushka Katya. There - like 6 kilometres from the frontline - it looks like time stood still. Old and decayed houses, no running water and a toilet in the backyard. Hunchbacked babushka Katya is suffering from thyroid cancer and her overcoat looks like a patchwork blanket. She tells us she is seventy five years old, but looks like she is ninety. Mentally she seems to have everything in order. She lives from her pension and what she grows in her kitchengarden. 

Even though her house is located close to the front line, her village was spared the fightings. Her poor living conditions are no result of the ongoing conflict. People like babushka Katya, that you will find in every Ukrainian village, were already forgotten long before the conflict started... 

And there you go with your humanitarian aid package with clothes and food. It feels like a drop in the ocean, but babushka Katya is very grateful and gives us her last melon of the season. Besides the fact that I do not feel comfortable to accept this gift, it even upsets me more that I am not able to make a real difference here. Although, my chance to make a difference might be there in the classroom when I teach and implement other activities. Then, the new Ukrainian generation is sitting in front of me and hopefully during these classes I can create some awareness. This thought eases me a bit. And it is surely is a pity that my grandmother is no longer among us. I would have loved to tell her about my own experience in Ukraine.... 

Monday, September 24, 2018

The kick off in Severodonetsk

For the upcoming six months the city of Severodonetsk, located in eastern Ukraine, will be my hometown. It did not take long before it felt like home. At thirty kilometres distance from the frontline we do not notice much from the ongoing conflict. At first sight life just goes on: children go to school, the harvest from the dacha gardens is to be sold on every corner of the street by the babushka’s (grandmothers) and the stray dogs lay in the warm late summer sun.

But when you look a bit further and talk with random people it never takes long before they
start to mention the conflict that affects them all in some way. Take for example Svetlana, a women
I met on the market. She is an educated 65-year old pensioner, but needs to supplement her small
pension by selling second hand clothes from Europe. She lives together with her husband in
Severodonetsk. Her parents are buried in the occupied Luhansk, her daughter lives in the occupied
city of Donetsk. Before it would take Svetlana three and half hours to reach her daughter, now it
takes her about a whole day. It especially takes a long time to cross the border. With tempertures
in summer of +40 and in winter of -20 this is not an easy job. This story is not an exception.
The border which is dividing many families does simply not excist in the minds of the people.
Our activities for the organisation Vostok-SOS (East-SOS) mainly concern the victims of the
conflict. Before the conflict the organization was located in the now occupied city of Lugansk and
was mainly working on protection of children. After the outbreak of the conflict, there was no
other option then moving the office to the area under Ukrainian authority. Also the focus of the
organization changed: since then Vostok-SOS helps victims of the conflict – internally dislaced
people (IDP’s), but also people living close or on the frontline by offering humanitarian, legal and
psychological aid. Next to this in the Severodonetsk office events (that are open to everyone) are
organized to contribute to one’s education and development, but also to support contact between
IDP’s and local residents. And this is why I am here: to contribute to an extensive programme of
cultural, educational and social events by using my exerience as an event organizer.
I was lucky to arrive in a very exciting time as the annual Festival Mneniya (Opinion festival)
was going to take place. This festival, organized in cooperation with my Estonian sending
organization MTU Mondo, provides ground for sharing knowledge and discuss diverse topics.
There was a children’s playground where I provided a hedgehog workshop. It was great to see
that children in Ukraine get as excited about it as in the Netherlands. In no-time the books were
finished. For now many things are on the agenda, starting off with English conversation clubs, global
education on local schools and different childrens’ activities that I will write about in my next blog!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Focus on : Psycho-social support through workshops with kids

Every week, Rusana and I held workshops for kids. This workshops happen every friday in Severodonetsk, and on a less regular basis, in villages closer to the contact line. Kids are usually under six, since it happens during school hours, but everyone is welcome, specially in august.

Since I arrived, we have held hand made workshops fabricating jellyfishes, fishes, drawing of the ocean (with dolphins, wales, etc.), of space (with spaceships, stars, the moon, etc.), of summer (with glue and cereals) and chalk drawing on the ground.

Usually, before or after the handmade workshop, we stimulate cognitive reactions of the kids asking them about colors, everyday words, sounds, and behaviors (jumping, turning around, etc.). After all of these activities, we invite the kids to play altogether.