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The Ukrainian IDPs who started over from scratch

The war in Ukraine has forced almost 1,8 million people to leave their homes Photo:
The Ukrainian IDPs who started over from scratch
Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Andrew Fink

30 year old Anna Maslyukova  left her native Donetsk (which now is occupied) for the first time in two years ago. In the summer of 2014, she together with her mother left the city suddenly, almost without preparation. Her mother decided to leave first because she could not sleep, every night she could hear fighting. At that time, the fighting was only from small arms. Anna herself did not give up hope that the situation would return to normal until the last moment.

Anna Maslukova moved from Donetsk. After two years Kyiv feels like home. Photo: EuromaidanPress

One day it turned out they had no other choice but to leave. Anna was working at her computer with headphones in her ears and felt an explosion. I did not understand what is going on. The building was shaken. I took off the headphones and heard nothing. There were no sounds, but just vibration. I went to the courtyard and there were women there in tears, in bathrobes or in their pajamas. They were running to the schools to take their children home. Chaos ensued. We could see two fighter aircraft launching rockets,” remembers Anna.

That was when she decided to leave Donetsk.

Her mother asked her to pack everything she could, even her winter shoes. At that time Anna thought this was a strange request. However, they collected everything they could and left.

Donetsk after battle. Some districts are much more damaged than others  Photo: Rianovosti

Two years later the family returned to Donetsk to visit some friends who stayed. Now Anna no longer feels at home there. In fairness, according to her, the city is clean, well kept, and even with much fewer soldiers visible (except at the places where they are based and the days when something major happens). However this is not what creates the atmosphere of the city:

“I came to our apartment [in Donetsk]. We had done renovations there before. Everything is still there, but I arrived there and realized it was no longer my home. It is hard, mentally. When you arrive at the territory where checkpoints start popping up you feel it in the air. You feel the spirit of depression. There is no joy. On public transportation you see half-drunk middle aged people. They are constantly drunk, because it is probably impossible to live there without alcohol,” says Anna.

Even Kyiv apartments rented without any help from the government seemed more comfortable to Anna.

It was not like this at the beginning. Her first shelter was the small apartment of a young family. Five of them lived there together. There were also difficulties with her registration as an IDP and, of course, with finding a job. Anna and her mother arrived in Kyiv during the second wave of IDPs, so there were no vacancies at the special sites and the state service offered hardly any help. Anna tried everything and in the end found a job to make a living. Now, two years later her situation is more stable and she finally received an opportunity to re-start her favorite thing – her own business. She owns a hat shop. She started the business in Donetsk. It was not her first attempt to do something all by herself, but the idea of a hat shop had stayed with her for a long time. In Kyiv, her hat store is even more popular than her old shop in Donetsk. “Here people follow the fashion more, that is why we have more customers,” explains Anna.

The girl received some funding for this venture from the International Organization for Migration. Specifically, she was helped to pay for mannequins, shelves, and other necessary equipment. Anna still considers this shop more like a hobby, because she can’t yet earn a living with it, but she hopes that she will be able to make a living from this business in the future.

Sometimes Anna promotes her hats by being a model herself. Photo by Anna Maslyukova

The Employment Centre of Free People is an NGO which helps people like Anna to start their own business. The organization was founded during the Euromaidan revolution when many people were forced to leave their jobs because of their political stance. The story is not over, because just as the Maidan revolution ended, the war and occupation of Ukraine started. So volunteers for the Center started to help displaced people and war veterans to find work, or to switch careers, or even to start their own business.

During the past two years about 20,000 have applied to the Center. Among those who want to continue to work in the profession they had before the war started, the most popular requests for work are from administrative employees, accountants, salesmen and construction workers. For those who want to study something else, training in computer skills such as programing and web-development  is requested more and more. Knowing these skills gives one an opportunity to earn more money.

Training for remote online workers in the  Employment Centre of Free People Photo: The Employment Centre of Free People

For the first 8 months, the Employment Centre of Free People operated without any funding. Later they started to apply for small and eventually large grants.

“Before we didn’t even know about the existence of grants,” says Vira Lebedeva, the education and development coordinator at the Center. She also coordinates the Center’s business-incubator. Vira is from Mariupol and has lived in Kyiv for 12 years. She joined the Employment Centre of Free People in the summer of 2014. Before this, she worked as a trainer for different corporations.

Now she organizes programs for IDPs and veterans who want to start their own business. Moreover, she often organizes trainings where these two quite different kinds of people have to work together. “Veterans are a closed audience. When they return from war they communicate mostly with their comrades and their close relatives. They have different periods of adaptation,” explains Vira. During the trainings, they find common ground with others, both IDPs and Veterans. Vira says she has never seen any conflict at the Center’s trainings.

The Center provides future entrepreneurs with mentors in accounting, judiciary, and other needed fields. The Center works mainly with those who have never done anything similar before. Vira says that people who went through these programs say that having a mentor who can give a piece of advice from outside is the most valuable thing the program offers.

Vira Lebedeva, the Center‘s coordinator for their education and development programs, and also of the Center’s business-incubator. Photo:
Vira Lebedeva, the Center‘s coordinator for their education and development programs, and also of the Center’s business-incubator. Photo:

The most complicated challenge for people starting their own business from scratch is the required change in mentality, says Vira:

“They used to be waged workers. They are afraid of risks, but later they begin to understand their responsibility for their business, their finances, and their life. After that, they say that they will never again work for somebody else.”

Since the start of the Center’s business-incubator about 75 people have studied at the trainings. 40 people have launched their business. It does not mean at all that these businesses are all already profitable, but it is a start.

Vira is also thinking about launching programs like this in her native Mariupol “This city is so close to the war and people really need help with employment.”

She says that a company called Gurmanyaki is among one of the more successful businesses which went through the Business-Incubator. Gurmanyaki is a small company that mainly produces lemon curds. The founder of the company is 36 years-old Tetyana Tkachenko and her husband. They moved from Luhansk in summer 2014.

“First, we went on a vacation to Western Ukraine for 2 weeks, hoping that the situation will normalize at home. In the end, we have not returned,” recollects Tetyana.

In Luhansk, the family was doing construcion-related business. Tetyana was also involved with imports from the USA. In Kyiv, Tetyana dramatically changed her career. She followed her passion of experimenting with food and together with 2 partners she opened Gurmaniaky.

Tetyana Tkachenko moved from Luhansk 2 years ago. In Kyiv she started her own business Photo: Tetyana Tkachenko

Doing business in Kyiv feels different than in her home town. “You can’t let yourself fail, as there will be no second chance,” explains Tetyana. She said that she joined the incubation program at the Employment Centre of Free People few months after she moved to Kyiv, in the winter of 2014. Still she recollects it as the most informative and useful of all the trainings she attended in Kyiv during these 2 years. What impressed Tetyana the most about this program were the other people who were in the program:

“It was amazing to see that people who needed something also felt they need to do something. There are stereotypes that displaced people only want to lie on the sofa and do nothing. These people showed me that the opposite was true and it gave me inspiration.”

Gurmaniaki was also supported by grants from the Renaissance Foundation and the UN. The money was used mostly to buy equipment. Now the business has a more-or-less stable flow of customers.

Lemon Curd is Gurmanyaki’s main product. Photo: Tetyana Tkachenko

Tetyana can hardly imagine that the things will soon beсome better in Luhansk, but she hopes things will change. She also does not think that she will go back to work in Luhansk after the war. “Probably we will expand to other cities, including Luhansk and Donetsk. When Luhansk becomes peaceful there will be a wave of different food festivals,” predicts Tetyana.

For Vira Lebedeva, it is also not that simple to imagine what life will be like after the situation in eastern Ukraine changes. “I think (after peace) we will train other companies as we have a huge experience. Maybe we will work with other vulnerable categories of people, for example, the disabled,” says Vira.

After visiting Donetsk, Anna Maslyukova is confident that the situation will change. “After two years there people are starting to understand. They see who is shooting, from where, and why.” However, she also is not sure whether she will go back there.

According to the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine, there are about 1.8 million IDPs in Ukraine. Most of them are registered in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kyiv oblasts. Not all of them are of working age and willing to run their own business. Not everybody can easily find a stable job at a new place, and there are still a lot of criticism of the Ukrainian government’s policy towards IDPs. This is another aspect of this war that will not be solved in the near future. The challenges of registering, supporting and integrating IDPs will be important items on Ukraine’s agenda for a long time.

Edited by: Andrew Fink
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