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“I can help others just as once other people helped me”: child of war now supports vulnerable kids of Donbas

“I can help others just as once other people helped me”: child of war now supports vulnerable kids of Donbas
Translated by: Iryna Lytvynchuk
Edited by: Michael Garrood
Victoria was 13 when a bunch of volunteer activists came to help the “broken” children of war in her Donbas town. These volunteer activists made a lasting impression on her: the young lady has become an activist herself and runs projects to support the vulnerable kids suffering from a childhood full of war in her hometown. “You never lose, you just get more love, inspiration and a desire to move forward,” Victoria tells about her volunteering. In the video, she also tells of her journey to switch to speaking Ukrainian — a rare occurrence in her east-Ukrainian town — and the strength that her newly-found Ukrainian identity gives her.

The video above was created by teenagers from Donbas who participated in the DocUaDream School of Documentary and Media project. They are also the authors of the following article describing the path of the same heroine from a child of war who was helped by volunteers to a volunteer.

The DocUaDream project took place in Summer 2021 in Kyiv. 40 participants aged 14 to 17 from Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts took part in it. Eight main lecturers mentored participants on documentary filmmaking, journalism, photography and IT. As a result, participants created 10 documentary videos, 10 articles, 10 documentary portraits, and 40 websites on the Tilda platform.

The project is being carried out by the New Donbas NGO in partnership with Hromadiany (Citizens) Foundation with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.

This story was produced in its entirety by one group of the participants; their heroine was a girl who moved from the Donbas town of Mykolayivka to study in Kyiv.

From a child of war to a volunteer: the story of Victoria from Mykolayivka

Photo of Victoria made by the participants of the DocUaDream project

The fighting in 2014 harmed the whole of Ukraine, but especially children living in Donbas. Schools, houses, and parks, as well as dreams, hopes and childhood were destroyed. The school students urgently needed help. Concerned individuals began to create volunteer initiatives aimed at helping the children. Viktoria was 13 at the time of the fighting. She became one of those helped by volunteers. And now she helps others herself.

Viktoria is 20 years old now. She is studying to become a director at Kyiv’s Karpenko-Karyi National University of Theatre, Film and Television. She chose this profession at school where she was influenced by volunteers. Viktoria’s first acquaintance with them took place in 2014. They told school students about cinema, theater, art, and journalism.

People who rescued childhood in Mykolayivka

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Viktoria said that her first meeting with the volunteers was a nervous one. First, volunteers from the New Donbas initiative came to the school. All children were gathered by director Larysa Artiuhina.

Victoria recounted that at first she viewed the volunteers with distrust. She did not know how to communicate with them, and was even afraid. Over time, the girl realized that she received probably the most valuable experience and impressions during this period of life.

The first project of the volunteers was the feast of St. Nicholas (Mykolai in Ukrainian). Viktoria noticed that though her native city is called Mykolayivka, it wasn’t traditional to celebrate a holiday of Mykolai there. Volunteers together with schoolchildren organized a puppet show of shadows for juniors. Seniors were authors, producers, directors and operators:

“We cut out the figures ourselves, created the screen, voiced the fairy tale on which we made the play.”

Over time, it grew into a fully-fledged school club, which was joined by interested students.

How the children launched the city newspaper themselves

Volunteers also told students about the essence of the journalist’s work. With their help, students began to publish their own city newspaper. They were free to choose topics; none of the adults interfered in the process. And Viktoria liked this freedom the most.

“If we thought that teenagers start drinking and smoking because of the lack of places for leisure time, we wrote that.”

But there were conflicts also. Neighboring school principals and the city administration were unhappy that the newspaper was covering the city’s problems.

“Children and the military”: a project that taught listening

Viktoria also recalls a project related to documentary theater. In this project, students talked about the horrors of war, relationships with parents, love. For Viktoria, it had a healing effect, and she felt that she was not alone in having such problems.

The documentary “Children and the Military” was memorable. The plot was that children asked the Ukrainian military who lived in Mykolayivka questions. Viktoria shared with one of the members of the military stories of friends whose parents had died on the other side of the front, and then asked him how he felt when he killed people.

“He was such a chubby man in his 40s and he cried.”

The soldier also talked about his daughter, who turned a couple of months old and whom he had not seen. Viktoria was upset that she had hurt the man with her questions. This situation helped the girl to understand that everything is not as simple and one-sided as it seems.

After this project, Viktoria and other teenagers travelled through Ukraine and abroad. They saw the diversity of life and the world. This opened the eyes of the future director and helped her to take the final decision on her profession.

“I realized that the most interesting part of my life was directing.”

The path to volunteering

Since childhood, Viktoria arranged finger puppet shows for parents. In directing, she likes to share her experience with other people:

“Because of my pain, because of what I’ve been through and because I’m in pain, I can touch others and help them.”

Viktoria believes that Ukraine needs volunteer organizations that will help teenagers build a worldview:

“Adults need to tell these ‘injured’ children that they are not alone.”

Viktoria believes that the youth of Donbas put paid to themselves because they do not receive attention and do not see an opportunity to leave their towns. The girl felt how scary it was, so now she is following volunteer initiatives in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. One of the projects that interested Viktoria was a film version of the play installation by German director Georg Genoux Misto to Go [Misto – city in Ukrainian]. It was created according to stories of schoolboys about life in the cities on the frontline and took place in Viktoria’s native city, Mykolayivka.

Now the future director together with a team of volunteers is implementing the Momo project. Its purpose is the moral support of schoolchildren on the frontline.

“It’s a philosophical project because teens are asked a lot of questions that will affect them in the future.”

The initiator of the project is the above-mentioned director Georg Genoux, whom Viktoria met in 2014. At that time, he assembled a team to work with children in Mykolayivka. So far, only the first stage of the project has taken place, concerning acquaintance with the participants and the topic they will work on.

Being a volunteer means helping other people for free and not demanding anything in return. But according to our heroine, volunteers receive much more than they give:

“You never lose, you just get more love, inspiration and a desire to move forward.”

Victoria knows from personal experience how difficult it is to be alone with problems. She understood how much young people need communication with adults and decided not to remain indifferent.

“I can help others just as once other people helped me.”

Daria Katunina
Kateryna Senatska
Alina Makodai
Anastasiia Lazorenko


Translated by: Iryna Lytvynchuk
Edited by: Michael Garrood
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