Since September 2020, Olga Tsuprykova and Mariia Makarovych have been inviting young people from two villages in Eastern Ukraine for ‘Coffee, Tea and Opportunities’, albeit online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two young women have both been active Young European Ambassadors, and now, as EU4Youth Alumni, they are keen to share their experience of European opportunities and mobility programmes with young people from conflict-affected areas of Ukraine.
The EU4Youth Alumni Network aims to bring together beneficiaries of EU Mobility programmes and youth networks in the Eastern Partnership to provide peer support and guidance for disadvantaged youth groups.
“We are both natives of the Donetsk oblast of Ukraine, which has been a conflict-affected area since the spring of 2014. So, when we were thinking of a youth initiative we wanted to implement as Alumni of the EU4Youth programmes, we immediately thought of young people from our region, especially those living in remote areas not far from the contact line,” says Mariia.
Olga Tsuprykova is no stranger to civic activism and multicultural environments: she studied in Greece, then worked as an EU Blue Book trainee in Brussels; returning to Ukraine, she joined various youth NGOs in Ukraine as a volunteer, and became a Young European Ambassador. She is currently a UN Volunteer with the United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme in Ukraine.
Mariia Makarovych also worked as a volunteer with NGOs, supporting young people from the Donetsk region, before joining the ranks of the Young European Ambassadors. “This was an opportunity to gain new knowledge and skills, meet great people, and expand my horizons. But in addition, my volunteer experience has helped me get positions in various international and national organisations” – she is now Programme Manager at the Ukrainian Social Academy and Project Manager at the ‘Mistsevyy Rozvytok Hromad’ NGO – “That is why I want to share my experience with young people from my home region and help them realise their potential,” she says.
Mariia and Olga chose to focus their activities on two villages in the Donetsk region – Zvanivka and Illinivka.
“Girls and boys living in smaller towns and villages sometimes deny the opportunities that are available for their personal and professional development. They simply think it’s not for them, and lack the basic confidence to apply and make this very first step,” says Olga.
“So our initiative aims to support young people who are about to make choices on their professional path. We want an international exchange experience in the European Union to be a part of this path, since from our own experience we know how life-changing it can be for a young person.”
Since September 2020, Olga and Mariia have conducted eight online meetings for more than 20 young people from Illinivska and Zvanivska.
“We wanted to emphasise the informal character of those meetings, so we decided to call our initiative ‘Coffee, Tea, and Opportunities’, optimistically assuming that one day we will be able to gather around one table enjoying coffees or teas and a good conversation,” says Mariia.
The meetings are an opportunity for the young people to learn from the experience of young Ukrainians who have benefitted from EU exchange programmes, such as one young woman who won an EU scholarship and is now working in the field of aerospace studies – “we organised this event for the International Day of the Girl in October 2020, in order to promote equal opportunities for girls in STEM and to encourage youth to believe in their powers and potential,” says Olga.
Other activities focus on group tasks aimed to develop key ‘soft skills’, such as communication, creative thinking, teamwork, and career planning.
The initiative is still a work in progress of course, and the women say it’s too early to assess the impact. “In the long run, we aspire to establish relations of a high level of trust between us and the young people we are currently working with. We know that trust-building is a long process, and we are ready to continue working on it,” Mariia explains, acknowledging the importance of local support and the contribution of community leaders who helped to organise the meetings.
Olga and Mariia now look forward to the day they can hold face to face meetings around tea and coffee. And they are conscious of their role in encouraging a new generation of confident young Ukrainians, taking advantage of the opportunities available to them.
Indeed, the EU4Youth alumni are looking even further: “In our vision, we see the participants of our initiative ‘Coffee, Tea, and Opportunities’, first of all as future participants of EU programmes, and, secondly, as possible local mentors for the upcoming generations of young people. In our opinion, this would definitely simplify access to the exchange and scholarship opportunities among youth from smaller towns and villages.”
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