In 2014, he wanted to leave the USA to join the Army to defend Ukraine. But his mentor persuaded Yuriy that his talents are better spent by instilling the values of Euromaidan into the lives of everyday Ukrainians. Since then, 32 people and thousands of volunteers have dedicated their time to what he says is building a true democracy.
300 houses damaged by war repaired, 80 volunteer camps that united Ukrainian people from different towns and cities, 35 youth centers all over Ukraine along with a network of thousands of volunteers who provide sustainable improvement to local communities. These are the results of one of the largest Ukrainian volunteer movements, Building Ukraine Together (BUR), founder Yuriy Didula said during a conversation with Oksana Syroyid under the auspices of the Lviv Security Forum.
He explains how volunteering for the Ukrainian army in 2014 has gone far beyond military affairs, to unite Ukrainians from different regions through common action, foster participation in local communities, and give young Ukrainians a strong sense of their leadership potential.
Uniting Ukrainian people by volunteering and the beginning of BUR
In 2014, the word “volunteer” became a synonym for “defender of Ukraine.” At that time the regular army was largely ruined, with volunteer soldiers and civil volunteers providing all necessary supplies and being the first to withstand Russian aggression. Today the Ukrainian army is in much better shape, but volunteering remains, expanding in scope and changing its shape.
“We are a volunteer program that unites Ukrainian youth in a network of active citizens by working, traveling and participating in non-formal education together,” BUR describes itself.
It all started from a small initiative launched by several enthusiasts who traveled to the liberated part of Donbas in 2014 to rebuild the region from the consequences of military devastation.
“In 2014, I was in the United States where I was studying and working. When the war broke out, I thought that I would join the Army and I became determined to do so,” Didula recalls his decision to establish BUR. “However, my mentor managed to persuade me that there were enough people willing to join the Army, but not enough who would introduce values of Euromaidan into the everyday lives of ordinary Ukrainians. This is why me and my friends from the East and West Together program, which at that time was evacuating people from the war zone to Lviv, decided to go to Sloviansk, which had been liberated just a week before… We were willing to show some solidarity and demonstrate to people living there that they were not alone, that this was a real war led by Russia against Ukraine and that we all had to keep together.”
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Didula had already been involved in public activities since 2010 while studying at the Ukrainian Catholic University.
Students realized that there was a certain problem in Ukraine, namely that Ukrainians from different regions did not communicate with each other nor maintain genuine, friendly relations.
“We as young entrepreneurs decided to solve this problem,” says Didula.
That way, already before the war, they created the East and West Together program. It invited young people from the east and the south of Ukraine to come to Lviv in the west with their whole families. They were shown the city, unique old customs and, in fact, all social links became a great discovery.
“I realized that you can speak Russian, but love Ukraine. And that they [people from the East of Ukraine] may speak Russian at home, but know, love, respect the Ukrainian language.”
That is why Didula experienced a sincere shock when the war began. But he already knew what to do. In 2014, their team came to Kramatorsk and restored the first 25 apartments there. Most people came for a week or a month to build something and help people solve specific problems.
But the project quickly evolved from such one-off programs into institutional influence on what is happening in the country. That is how the Building Ukraine Together movement was born.
BUR has been managing several types of projects
During Building Ukraine Together summer camps, young Ukrainians come from all over Ukraine for two weeks to repair buildings damaged by war or help families who are not just poor but who make an effort and need support.
BUR has a complex approach. About 35 people from different regions of Ukraine come to one town with a dozen local young people joining them. BUR perceives volunteering as an educational tool. Apart from providing specific help, volunteers communicate with each other and, while working together, they can easily address difficult topics:
“We mostly create some kind of a youth structure like a youth center, or a kind of street public space for the local community during these summer camps. From nine to four or five o’clock we do something with our hands. And when we work together, we reach the same level of trust in each other. And a guy from Odesa speaks the same language with a girl from Lviv and in such an environment of trust it is very easy to discuss difficult issues for Ukraine. And, well, I don’t remember that we had one single serious conflict. Although these issues could lead to a fight on Shuster [most popular Ukrainian political show].”
In a long-term volunteering program, inspired by the American Peace Corps, BUR volunteers dedicate several months to come to a specific community, teach there and develop it. BUR has already sent two volunteers to Kherson, in Ukraine’s south, to develop a local volunteering community. The ambitious goal is to achieve a holistic impact on the city environment, make people more interconnected and ready to pursue common local goals:
“For me, the Come Back Alive organization is a bright example. If we talk about 2014 and 2015, we just collected money to support the front. Now it is an institution that has a holistic impact on what is happening. They advise the military leadership, they participate in legislative activities. And every year there are more and more people who are ready to get involved in volunteering, not humanitarian which already essentially covers the consequences of problems, but volunteering, which should solve these problems at their root.”
Earlier, volunteering in Ukraine was often perceived as a substitute for the failure of state institutions. It was like paying twice because people have actually paid taxes for the state to do something in the community. But nothing happened, so people had to gather and do everything themselves. Such was the case with volunteering for the army.
A network of 35 youth centers works permanently in different Ukrainian cities and towns specifically for this purpose. It is managed by BUR.
When they create youth centers in different villages and towns in Ukraine, these centers become very busy. They include nongovernmental organizations that deal with social issues, others that deal with landscaping, and others that are engaged in advocating for some legislative changes in the municipality.
“We have set a goal to involve about 30 000 young Ukrainians in public life within 5 years through volunteering in camps through an exchange program, by fueling a management project and through capabilities, through mentoring, by funding their projects. Because I understand that in Ukraine there are a lot of cool, powerful young people with potential, leadership potential. But they often do not realize this and do not sense it,” Didula comments.
Yet another program conducted by BUR is a 10-day facilitation course for new projects that people want to implement in their communities. Trainers take 50 people to the mountains, teach responsible leadership, project management and then support their ideas for the next year.
“Why is volunteering valuable? I think it is primarily because of the feeling that you develop – a sense of responsibility for your community. You feel like a person who influences what is being done in this community. And you have a very strong sense of belonging to and trust in the people who live around you. And this is very important in order to feel happy.”
Volunteering as true democracy
Didula believes that what BUR does is true democracy, meaning constant participation in the local community rather than mere voting.
“Democracy is something that needs constant involvement. Therefore, volunteering as a tool will never become irrelevant. That is, there will be no time when people in Ukraine will say: okay, volunteering is no longer needed.”
This is so, given the volume of financial support that BUR receives from ordinary Ukrainians. There are about 300 Ukrainians who were either in the camps or know about BUR and pay a monthly fee, contributing $4, $40, $80, and so on. The United States Agency for International Development as well as the American National Endowment for Democracy have also supported BUR.
Yet most astonishing of all is the story of Bohdan Kutyak, a Ukrainian political emigrant to Australia after WWII. He told Didula:
“In Australia when I go to meetings, I never drink coffee. I always drink water. And I put aside $10 I was supposed to spend on coffee. And when I go to Ukraine, I pass the money saved to Building Ukraine Together.”
BUR is for Kutyak what famous Ukrainian church leader and philanthropist Andrey Sheptytsky emphasized in his sermons and essays: building a common home. It is about the interaction between Ukrainians and solidarity. Kutyak is so inspired by this that he constantly writes, organizes local fundraising events in Australia.
“He sees value in Building Ukraine Together not just because a house was repaired. We are investing in the development of people who will change the rules of the game in Ukraine for years,” Didula concludes.
There is a team of 32 young Ukrainians who run BUR and thousands of volunteers. They already know they can change Ukraine and this is the biggest achievement.