Shared Home for Displaced Ukrainians

The door I’m looking for hides over the corner of a noisy market street in the center of Kharkov. It’s my first visit to the hostel for the refugees from Donbas conflict zone. Locals call them IDPs, or “displaced”. A busy looking young woman of about 20 walks out before I get the chance to knock.
“Hi. Do you know if the international volunteers are here”. She frowns, and shakes her head.
“What volunteers? No, they are gone, they moved.”
"I called twenty minutes ago, and they were here".
She lets me in when learns I’m their coordinator. Another woman of about the same age tells me to take off the shoes at the entrance, because there are kids. I walk in to be immediately proven she’s right. In two minutes I’m being hugged by three kids. Someone offers me a doll, or throws the doll — it’s difficult to make out in this Tom&Jerry-like storm that constantly continues here.

The project I come to coordinate, “Making Peace in Ukraine” (SCI branch SVIT-Ukraine), is designed to bring a group of 7 foreign volunteers to help refugees in Kharkov, a city two hundred kilometers from the Donbas warzone. Not a usual place for a youth exchange, and not the best time, cold and rainy April.
Caution of hostel inhabitants is understandable. Even though refugees can spend only one month on hostel premises, they have the same story and connect fast. On leaving, they continue visiting the IDP center “Station Kharkov” and often become part of the volunteer force. Some adapt better than others, dividing community in two groups, the calm and the constantly unnerved.

Their hostel looks like any other youth hostel with brightly painted walls, new kitchen and bathroom appliance, double-decked beds with orthopedic mattresses. People here look like anyone in the crowd. It takes time to notice the trauma buried under the surface. Young women argue with their boyfriends or shout in the air on that person who left “a jacket in the bathroom”. Small stains on the plate turn into a life tragedy for a girl whose parents had been hiding from bombs in their cellar for 5 days straight. The only person no one spills nerves on is a guy in military uniform who walks around the kitchen with a gun on his hip. Two international volunteers who were meant to prepare dinner walk in the bedroom and ask whether someone who knows Russian could ask the armed guy to not show the gun so apparently because it looks disturbing. I walk in the kitchen, look at the guy, his trembling hands and don’t feel like giving him any criticism.

 

Kids don’t mind the gun. When you’re three years old and half of your life there were armed people around, it becomes new normal. Children treat the hostel as a summer camp prolonged for an indefinite time. It doesn’t mean that when the door shuts too loud they don’t hide under the table.

 

I’m used to see refugees on TV, people from exotic countries traveling through sands like in movies about aliens. In Ukraine refugees look like anyone else. But they don’t blend in. People in Kharkov complain about “arrogant, fierce, neurotic” characters of “Donetskis”. “Donetskis” break traffic rules, they skip lines in the supermarket, or park on the flowerbeds. The truth is, they are different not because of where they came from, but because what they went through. I mean, every society has equal percent of nice and rude. However, post-traumatic syndrome distorts borders between you and reality. The guy I met in Salvation Army told me about a couple who were given two packets of baby food as humanitarian aid. They returned the next day and gave it back. They forgot they didn’t have babies. To grab everything you can carry is automatic. To not let the “newcomers” invade your territory is also an ancient reflex. Fortunately I see more Ukrainians who aren’t guided by reflexes. The hostel is set up by a guy who moved his office, furnished the whole place and gave it to IDP center for free. He understands it’s time to share.

Author: Viktoria Grivina

Edited by: Stefan Alijevikj

Reflections of a workcamp leader of 'Making peace in Ukraine', April 2015

Originally published in “You(th) Challenging Diversity”