Ukrainian YEAs: ‘Demonstrations are our way to speak for Ukraine’
It’s now more than three months since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Since that day, thousands of Europeans and Ukrainians have come out onto the streets for demonstrations in support of Ukraine, Ukrainians, and shared European values. In this blog, five Ukrainian Young European Ambassadors, some of whom were forced to flee the war in Ukraine, share their stories of civic activism and how they are supporting Ukraine while rebuilding their lives in a new place.
“I fled Ukraine without a plan. The first nights I spent in Poland with acquaintances. Then a friend offered me to stay in Berlin,” she said. The adaptation process was hard for Eliza: “First, I felt guilty for leaving Ukraine, and I was worried that my mom was staying in the basement in Kharkiv. Then, I had a strong feeling of hatred for the enemy. I was constantly scrolling through the news and the more immersed I was in the news, the more furious I became.”
But Eliza appreciates Berlin as it is an introverted place – no one cares about clothes or mood or appearance, the perfect place to calm down and heal the pain in her soul.
Eliza is moved to see the Ukrainian flags in Berlin, draped on people’s balconies or in their windows. “It’s impressive. From the very first day, I felt that people cared about me. They answered all my questions, even stupid ones,” Eliza said. Free public transport, health care, museum tickets, legal/moral support, and German courses are available for Ukrainians: “They understand our needs and they show their solidarity through practical things.”
Eliza joins the demonstrations almost every week – to show support for Mariupol, to call for an oil embargo, to stand against Russian propaganda. “Every time, there is a different audience. Sometimes you meet Polish or Japanese students or a family from Egypt which supports Ukraine in this way. However, in most cases Ukrainians are the main participants of these meetings,” she reflected.
“It’s a weird thing but I feel bad when I don’t have an opportunity to join the demonstrations. It’s hard to explain but I really believe that every voice matters. And the Ukrainians who take part in these events feel like family. It helps me to keep the connection with Ukraine,” says Eliza. The most memorable moment for her was a 10-minute performance in front of the German Parliament when people lay on the ground silently to mark the victims of Bucha, Irpin, and other Ukrainian cities.
“One day, the war in Ukraine will be just one other topic of the news. If people don’t care – their government doesn’t care.In European countries, democracy works, that is why politicians work to get people’s votes,” she said.
Eliza has a message to all Ukrainians in Europe or elsewhere: “You are ambassadors of Ukraine. You are the face of your country. It’s not a vacation. Please be involved in saving your country.”
On 14 February, she was in Hungary, where she’d gone for a one-week Erasmus+ youth project, and was about to go back to Ukraine. She had already checked in for the flight and printed her boarding pass. “But I was afraid of going to the airport. In Kharkiv, I had already prepared an emergency bag, with printed documents, water, canned food, and other essentials. I had checked the bomb shelters nearby and was living in constant fear of the possible invasion,” Anna admits. On the day she was about to fly back to Ukraine, one of her friends from Belgium texted and said he could offer her a place for some time. “He was very worried for me. I called my mother again. I was calling her three or four times a day and saying that I couldn’t fly, I was too scared. So, I skipped my flight, bought a new one and the next day arrived in Brussels,” she said.
Anna’s initial plan was to wait for a week or two, go back, and later celebrate her dad’s birthday on 10 March 2022. Those plans changed on 24 February. “I stayed in Belgium for two weeks and had to look for the options where to go next, but not go home. It was very hard emotionally, realising that I couldn’t go home,” said Anna. At the beginning of the invasion, she coordinated the volunteering chat in Kharkiv. “In two weeks, it grew from 600 participants to 10,000. There were lots of requests for food, medicine, water, and evacuation. The city I loved so much was slowly being destroyed. I had different feelings: anger, frustration, and fear for my family,” she said.
While she was in Belgium, Anna joined three demonstrations in Brussels. “For me, demonstrations are a crucial part of civic engagement. I was a local and national coordinator of the climate movement “Fridays For Future” several years ago. I am used to organising and participating in demonstrations and every single one means something to me,” she said.
Anna feels hugely empowered when she sees many people joining and sharing the same values as her. “I think that taking to the streets is a real human power. By participating in demonstrations, we can say a lot to politicians about the issues we want to be addressed. And we should use this opportunity as a society because changes do not come if we do not act,” she said.
After some time, Anna moved from Belgium to the Netherlands for another 10 days. She spent her time there on internship and university applications. She wanted to find a permanent place and not move from one place to another every week. “I sent my CV for an internship that our Ukrainian YEA National Coordinator, Liliia Antoniuk, had shared in the ‘YEA in Ukraine’ group chat. I didn’t even expect to get an answer from the company. But I did,” said Anna. The company was looking for two Ukrainian students and was ready to offer six months’ paid internship in Zurich. At the same time, she was also accepted as a visiting student by the University of Zurich.
“I couldn’t believe I would move to Switzerland,” she said. For the first three weeks, Anna lived with an amazing Swiss woman, who she found on the EU4Ukraine website. “This woman treated me like her daughter. And both the university and my colleagues welcomed so warmly,” said Anna.
Switzerland is very welcoming to Ukrainians, she added. There are Ukrainian flags everywhere, companies offer free SIM cards, volunteers meet people at the train stations, and some buses have “Please, come in” written in Ukrainian. “For the first time, Switzerland introduced the S protection status to allow Ukrainians to stay in the country, have access to the job market, social help, and education,” said Anna.
“Whenever I talk to people here, I always emphasise that this is not the first time Russia threatens our territorial integrity and take the lives of innocent people. I want them to understand that this is not just a Ukrainian war, it is a decisive moment for the whole of Europe,” said Anna. Some people say they are not interested in politics: “But I want to say again, this is far more than politics, the crimes that Russia commits are against innocent civilians. They do not focus only on the political power in Ukraine but try to destroy us as a nation.”
Victoria Molnarmoved to Paris not long before the invasion in order to pursue her education.
She felt immediately accepted in the city, even with the language barrier. “Thanks to the vibrant university environment, I was surrounded by many bright young people from various backgrounds, which has facilitated my integration,” said Victoria. When the bombs began falling on Ukraine, Victoria’s friends from different countries did everything they could to help her, and set up volunteering groups with her. “Paris mobilised quite quickly, both on the grassroots and municipal levels,” she said. The first hectic initiatives have since gained structure thanks to the active presence of well-established Ukrainian associations at demonstrations, Ukrainian churches in Paris, and the active involvement of the City of Paris, which has mobilised all local town halls as centres for information and donations. “People have been donating to the town halls and contacting the Embassy and associations, or even us, volunteers, to ask how they could help. Public and private institutions have also done a great job of establishing short- and long-term solutions for temporarily displaced persons,” said Victoria. Universities are also helping: at Sciences Po, there were fundraisers for humanitarian aid and medicine, but also events and conferences to shed more light on the events in Ukraine. Many universities have also opened their doors to Ukrainian students and researchers to allow them to pursue their education despite the war.
“But I was surprised that all of the efforts on the humanitarian level were not reflected in political support, at least in Paris,” said Victoria, adding that demonstrations were regular but more modest in terms of numbers and organised mainly by a single Ukrainian association. “Still, the protests have taken place every Saturday or even twice per week since the invasion, which would not be possible without the consistent support of the most dedicated individuals,” she said.
Victoria has attended almost all these demonstrations and became a part of a diverse community that has emerged at the Place de la République, the main protest square in Paris. “While every demonstration is an event in itself, what is most impressive is the solidarity expressed by so many different people. My Latvian, Lithuanian, Swedish, German, Portuguese, Georgian, and Romanian friends, as well as friends from South America, Asia, and the Middle East, they all ask when is the time of the next demonstration and bring their friends, French families bring their children and dress in blue and yellow, and various diasporas in Paris take part and show their support,” she said.
At first, demonstrations were an opportunity for Victoria to express her anger and pain together with like-minded people, but as time went on, they took on a new importance. “When the number of protesters began to fall, the demonstrations became a way of keeping the Ukrainian cause high up on the local agenda. Every Saturday has become a reminder that the war continues and that Ukrainians need more help from the international community,” said Victoria.
Viktoriia Omelianenko moved to Bruges, Belgium in September 2021 to study EU international relations and diplomacy at the College of Europe.
“It was my first experience studying abroad, and I was amazed by the diversity of cultures in the college.” Viktoriia says the college gives her the opportunity to tell fellow students – who are the future policy and decision-makers – what is going on in Ukraine. “The most crucial message is to underline that the full-scale military aggression launched by Russia on 24 February came after eight years of war in Ukraine,” she says.
“On the first day of the war, I received so many messages from my friends with suggestions to help and to support,” said Viktoriia. At her college, students organised a demonstration to show their support and solidarity with Ukraine. “I was thinking about my family and friends and was just so shocked by what was happening. Is this happening to my country? My Ukraine from which I returned just a month ago after the winter holidays?” Later on, Viktoriia and other Ukrainian students talked with the college rector, Federica Mogherini, who was incredibly supportive. “If it hadn’t been for the college it would be tough to come back to life. In the first month, I felt like I was living in different worlds – in one, you just exist physically and try to study; and in the other, your mind and hands are checking news all the time,” Viktoriia explained.
After some time, a group of Ukrainian students started an initiative – a newsletter “What’s Up EU”, which covered events in Ukraine and EU policies. Then, a local church in Bruges started to collect humanitarian aid to send to Ukraine and organised a prayer for Ukraine during which Viktoriia delivered a speech. There were also demonstrations for Ukraine in Bruges.
“Another privilege of studying in Bruges is to live an hour from Brussels – the heart of Europe.” Viktoriia joined most of the demonstrations in Brussels. “It was important to feel yourself with like-minded Ukrainians who share your pain, not only with college students who continued their life while I could not,” Viktoriia said. Demonstrations took place every Sunday and during one of them, she met girls from the NGO “Promote Ukraine at Brussels” which organises all the main events. Viktoriia joined the advocacy team and helped in the communications field.
Every demonstration is special, but for Viktoriia the most memorable was one that took place near the Russian embassy. “The next one was in the centre of Brussels and we had blood on our faces, sitting on the ground with pictures of children who died and others from the attack on the maternity hospital in Mariupol. At another protest, we were all lying on the ground to show solidarity with the people who died in Ukraine. It was a powerful and Ukrainian way of expressing solidarity,” Viktoriia explained.
“You need to feel that you can contribute to the visibility and understanding of the situation in Ukraine by people in your host country,” she said. But the protests also helped Viktoriia on a personal level: “I happened to be at a demonstration where there was a concert of famous Ukrainian singers. And that was like a balm for the pain of the soul. Demonstrations that were initially more about political messages and speeches, gradually began to be about Ukrainian culture – songs and dances,” she said.
“I wish for all Ukrainians abroad to continue going to such demonstrations and help organise them,” Viktoriia said. “It is our way to make our voices louder and speak for Ukraine, because if we don’t, no one will,” she said.
“After such a long period I decided to come back to Ukraine and build my life there. Ukraine is a very modern country with a lot of opportunities. Unfortunately, I had to come back to Austria again because of the war,” she said.
“I am happy to be surrounded by people in Austria who support Ukraine, who host Ukrainians, help to collect humanitarian supplies or donate,” said Nataliya.
There are protests organised by the Ukrainian diaspora almost every day in Austria. “We have a lot of Ukrainian NGOs who are responsible for protests, collecting donations, etc.” she says. A lot of locals show their support for Ukraine by holding Ukrainian flags, wearing Vyshyvanka, and knowing the words to Ukrainian songs.
Nataliya attends the demonstrations, meets new people there, and hears different stories: “It is heartbreaking when you talk to people from Mariupol, Irpin, Okhtyrka, etc. These cities are totally ruined, they have lost their homes and they have nowhere to return.”
Demonstrations act as a form of communication for Nataliya. “I go there to be heard. If you don’t talk, nobody will know what is important. Nobody will know what needs to be done. The result is to highlight important topics, to spread information, to push politicians to act and civil society to help,” she said.
Nataliya has the following message for Europeans: “Dear Europeans, this war is about European values and how Ukraine stands for them. We don’t want totalitarianism, dictatorship, no freedom of speech in this world, as well as the aggressive invasion of one country into another. Joining demonstrations is the easiest way to show your support for European values and your support for Ukraine!”
She says it is important to learn from each other and to share information with your friends. “Also, I am sure that Ukraine and the other European countries can learn from each other too, and they will build a stronger European Union!”
A demonstration is a place where people unite and become stronger together. Ukrainians and Europeans march on the streets together with common goals and values. Joining a demonstration in your country is the easiest way to show your support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. It is also an opportunity to meet new people who will share with you their stories and experience of war. Hopefully, the stories of these five Ukrainian Young European Ambassadors, each in a different country, will inspire you not only to take part in demonstrations but to organise them in your town or city to show your support for Ukraine and shared European values.
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