In their most fervent dreams, the war ends tomorrow. They wouldn’t wake up to the sounds of explosions and the crumpled ruins of their cities. If everything depended only on them, tomorrow they would return to rebuild their hometowns or fulfill their pre-war dreams. These dreams nourish the soul as war rages unabated. But Ukraine’s youth – with all the optimism, courage, strength, and energy that adolescence brings – are beginning to hope for a brighter future.
Even in war, IOM’s annual summer schools continue to provide a safe space where young voices can be heard and supported. Over 60 youth leaders aged 18 to 25, either displaced persons from Donetsk, Luhansk, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Kharkiv, and other affected regions, or members of their host communities, recently spent time in beautiful natural reserves in Western Ukraine. Here they learned about safe migration and employment, civic participation, soft skills, volunteering and leadership, while having the opportunity to be sporty and creative. The summer schools were made possible with funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
“I want to open a theatre studio for children in Ukraine where nothing will limit their imagination”
Karyna is a young Ukrainian linguist. The war obliterated her home city of Mariupol, but not her dreams. Currently displaced in Vinnytsia, itself the scene of carnage from Russian shelling, she teaches children Ukrainian language and literature online, and conducts drama classes. She draws power from the words of well-known Ukrainian writers. The most inspiring for Karyna are those of poet Lina Kostenko: “It’s true that those who have wings don’t need the ground. If there is no land, there will be sky. If there is no field, there will be freedom.”
“I don't want to go abroad,” says Karyna without a shadow of a doubt in her voice. “I want to stay here, support Ukraine, and teach children. I do my best to succeed and never stop learning new things.”
Besides gaining knowledge, she received another valuable opportunity – for the first time she spoke about the war, her life and worries about her family members who remain in Mariupol with a psychologist working at the school.
“I believe in diplomacy”
19-year-old Liubomyr was always the first in sports competitions at the IOM school in Ivano-Frankivsk. He is a professional sportsman and in his village he trains other young people. But there’s more to him than his muscles.
But his true passion is international relations. He is studying diplomacy and participating in training on communication with internally displaced persons (IDPs) to engage with people who have found a new home in his native region.
As displaced persons from Eastern and Southern parts of Ukraine mostly speak Russian, language barriers pose a challenge for integration within host communities in the West, where people commonly speak Ukrainian. However, Liubomyr believes that despite different languages, people can cooperate and respect each other. The IOM schools have become a place where IDPs and locals learn how to support one another and work in teams to solve acute social problems by leveraging their different life experiences.
Liubomyr is convinced that the ability to listen to others and communicate proactively can not only develop communities, but also prevent major crises: “Although I live in western Ukraine, where there are no active hostilities, my life has changed a lot since the beginning of the war: from routine to mentality. I studied history at the university and can’t even imagine that war could happen in the 21st century. Yet here we are. I believe that such crises can be prevented in the future if people learn how to negotiate properly,” he says.
“I want to change the public perception of displaced persons in Ukraine: they are not victims of the situation, but strong and resilient people”
Sofia invites the participants of the IOM school in Lviv into the hall to share her experience of displacement. Her peers already know that she is from the city of Rubizhne in Luhansk Region, over which Ukrainian authorities lost control this summer. Half of the young people do not know what it means to be displaced, while others want to support the peer with whom they have a shared experience.
“I was in the city to the bitter end. But it kept getting worse. Our windows were blown out. We melted the snow to have water. Then we moved to the basement to hide from fierce shelling. My grandmother has diabetes and when we ran out of insulin, her legs began to rot,” she says.
The audience listens carefully to 21-year-old Sophia. “When there was no more food, water or medicine, we realized that we had to leave the city. On 30 March, we left the basement. It was a difficult and unsafe journey with my grandmother and my younger brother. He has a severe form of cerebral palsy and cannot walk, sit, or even hold his head. We pulled them out of the basement through tears and pain. When you understand that you have to save a life, there are no more emotions and worries left. You have to do it."
In sharing her story, Sophia hopes to show that displaced persons are seen as strong and courageous. She is a true leader and has many goals. Now she volunteers at the Lviv railway station in the medical and psychological service, and plans her future in the military sphere.
“I want to open a rehabilitation centre for people with disabilities in Ukraine”
Polina listens attentively to Sophia’s story, as she has a similar tale. She was forced to flee her hometown, Sievierodonetsk, in February.
It is still hard for Polina to talk about what happened to her native city over the past months. Sievierodonetsk has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting, with 80 per cent of the houses damaged or destroyed.
After the full-scale invasion, she began to work in a children’s camp near Kyiv. On the second day of the war, 160 children, mostly orphans from Donetsk, arrived. Despite active hostilities around Kyiv in the first weeks, it was safer than in Eastern Ukraine.
“In the distance we heard explosions, and the children watched for our reaction. Therefore, we tried not to show that we were afraid, and to support them,” recalls Polina.
It was her previous experience and willpower that helped Polina care for others in a time of crisis. A rehabilitation specialist by training, for several years she led a group of volunteers working in a school for blind children.
Polina says that when she works with people with disabilities, she understands why she has chosen her profession: “These people are truly inspiring and know how to appreciate every moment of life.”
At the IOM school, Polina learned more about social project management. This knowledge will be useful to her, because she has already set herself a goal.
“I want to open my own rehabilitation centre for people who were born with or acquired a disability. In a country where there is a war and constant shelling, it is very important.”
Photos by Roman Shalamov