Report from Ushhorod, Ukraine

3 September 2023

Report from Ushhorod, Ukraine

Normal. Normal is a very special adjective in Ukrainian language. It’s used to qualify state of the minds or feelings or also facts.I like this normal and it’s Ukrainian meaning. Somehow it qualifies what is going on in Uzhhorod. In these very hot summer days people are on the street. On a walk along the Uzh river I can see them all:

Many young women with small children, many small children. Older women in groups of two wide summer dresses. Young girls in tight pants and belly tops. Young men in groups. Soldiers or police men some with big guns. Bikers, scooters, no cars – the riverside is car free.

It’s normal. The people here are coming from all parts of Ukraine. Some still speak Russian. Uzhhorod is a city that travelled through many countries during its history. It belonged to Hungaria, to Slovakia, to Russia. Normal means here to live together with man ethnical groups. Normal means to be open and also to try to get along with situation you cannot change. 

Since the beginning of the Russian attack Uzhhorod has grown by 28.000 from 115.000 to now 143.000 Inhabitants. Uzhhorod’s normal is its situation in the remote west of Ukraine, a situation with very few attacks. Of course, this normal also includes air alarms. On some days there were six or more, on some days none. The only ones who have to follow the security rules during air alarms are students and children in schools and in the universities. They have to go to the shelter. These shelters have their own normal. Class designations are hanging on the walls. So, everyone knows, where they have to go and to wait and, maybe, continue learning.

Apart from Students and Schoolchildren no one cares. The alarms can be heard everywhere, but normal life is going on. Carry on, it’s normal.

After my trip to Lviv in March, I decided to learn Ukrainian. I started with an online program. However, it is difficult if you are not in the country.

So, I went on a two-week trip to Uzhhorod. I wanted to meet our Zonta friends here and to get to know the many projects that the club is supporting.

Area Director Helen Kovalchuk planned my visit in detail together with her club members.

The program was extensive and I could see some projects, but also learn a lot about life here under war conditions.

I was there in late summer and the situation seemed relaxed (except for air alarms). Last winter the bombing of energy plants in Ukraine caused large cuts in electricity and in Internet connection. Many online systems didn’t work anymore and institutions needed to establish a double system of registration and accountancy.

For example, Red Cross Uzhhorod. Club Member Valentina Mytrovski  is one of the organizers here. They are helping refugees with food packages payed by ZC Uzhhorod. They are for single mothers with three children and more. To prevent abuse of this help, they are registered. The same goes for the mini clinic of Red Cross, where IDPs can be treated for free.

Help was the first ‘normal’ for ZC Uzhhorod. From the first day of the attack on. It means standing together as Ukrainians and doing as much as they can. 

What could they do? And what do they do? 

From the first day of the war, the Zonta Club has supported refugees in their country. Here they are called IDPs, Internally Displaced Persons.

In the beginning they organized a shuttle with cars and brought refugees mostly at night from the area of Kiyv (about 10 hours’ drive) or Lviv (about 4 hours’ drive) to the relatively safe Uzhhorod. 

Later, they focused on providing on-site care for the IDPs. ZC Uzhhorod has helped finance a canteen, organized a warm space for adults and children in winter, laundry, hygiene items and much more for daily needs.

Already last summer there were summer camps for children here. They were supported again this summer. The aim is to distract the children a little from the traumatic experiences in the war zones.

ZC Uzhhorod supports a group of creatives who not only founded the Theater Group “Uzhik” but propose workshops like painting, pottery, making videos and much more.

They are working with the children in summer camps and on other occasions.

I met the theater group on the third evening at the premiere of their third play, "Maklena Grassa" by the Ukrainian author Mykola Kulisch, who was killed under Stalin.

The theater group consists of people from Uzhhorod and IDPs, most of whom had no previous experience with theater. 

This group helps itself with the play over the loss of their homeland. But they also give their audience some hours without the thought of war.

The performance took place outdoors in the courtyard of the castle. The stage design is the most unusual I have seen so far: it is made of cardboard from large cardboard boxes and wooden slats. It is as changeable as few stage designs.

ZC Uzhhorod has financed the spotlights, headsets and a camera for the theater group. In return, the performers help the club with the production of videos and - see above - with many other actions and projects.

With their plays they go on tour all over the country (as far as possible). By now they are quite well known in Ukraine. As a sponsor, Zonta is clearly written on all posters and invitations. They have just learned that they have been invited to England by the Royal Shakespeare Company. King Lear was the first play they staged.

After 16 month of war the city of Uzhhorod is still struggling with the housing for refugees. As Uzhhorod is one of the safest cities in Ukraine the rents are rising and IDPs with no jobs cannot find homes. The city had to relocated them from schools to shelters but they are coming to an end there too. Two families have to live in one small room. Not counting the special needs of handicapped, old, and traumatized people.

The club strives to contribute to the integration of IDPs. Past-AD Marianna Pryscljak, Myroslava Kalamanyuk and Area Director Helen Kovalchuk have, among other things, a program in the clothing factory of Myroslava with which refugee women can qualify. The factory was able to hire 4 female employees and help many others find housing or jobs. All of them get a voucher for the clothes outlet of the factory Parada. They can also pick up bedding and linens for their families there.

One of them is Irina. She used to be the chief doctor and a military in a small town near Luhansk. Her town was one of the first towns occupied on 24.2.2022. She couldn’t go immediately, because she had to adopt a son. He was ‘forgotten’ when the orphanage evacuated to western Ukraine. He is now 14 years old and brother to her own sons of 23, 13 and 6 years. After struggling with the Russian occupiers, she could finally flee with her sons to the west. Her oldest son is already a soldier, like her husband.

She is an admirable woman full of energy. I net her on the day she could find some nice clothes and bedlinen at the Parada store. 

With the beginning of this school year on 1.9. a new school will be opened. ZC Uzhhorod provides desks and chairs for it. Last school year ZC Uzhhorod supported IDP schoolchildren with tablet computers and school materials. 

There are still not enough places in schools and so IDPs have online lessons.

Uzhhorod university too has much more students now. Many are learning online with the help of Computers donated by ZC Uzhhorod.

The club supports two institutions for mentally handicapped children. Here again they had to place many IDPs from the eastern regions. 

In one boarding school in Mukashevo there are living 108 women and girls. 23 are younger then 18 years old. Half of them have been transferred from Donezk region. 90% are orphans.

The war not only increased the number of patients here, but they also get less money. 

There is need anywhere and this is also normal now.

Last but not least I visited the organization Heart by Heart. One of the leaders is Mariya Yurina, a former YWPA Awardee of ZC Uzhhorod. 

They are located in an old cinema for students. A huge location full of boxes with medicine, hygiene products, furnisher, clothes. All this are donations from individuals and service organizations.

District 27 has been sending funds to them to buy medicine and also a washing machine that can be used by refugees.

I cannot report all I’ve seen, but I was impressed about the solidarity and the matter of course these new tasks are taken. 

ZC Uzhhorod is a strong Club with strong personalities. I met three new candidates and two new members, all committed to same spirit. Almost every member represents a smaller or bigger project, mostly for IDPs.

And yes: it’s normal to stand together. It was a relief for Zontians in Ukraine to see the solidarity of so many Zontians from all over the world.  

Nevertheless, if they decided that it’s normal to help and to resist against the robbery of their country and culture it’s still a long way to the win. They cannot think of another solution. “It’s normal that we will win!” I hope with them. Slava Ukraïni!

"Régine loves Ushhorod !"

Report from Ushhorod, Ukraine

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