Opinion | For Ukrainians, volunteering is about survival, not just solidarity


Iuliia Mendel is a journalist and former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Most schools in Kyiv sit dark and empty these days. Russia’s invasion in February sent children back home for distance learning, and then the summer vacation started. But this school gym is packed — not with students, but with women cutting pieces of cloth, weaving, chatting.

“We do this for you, you should tell us what you need,” a woman tells a man with a military uniform.

The gym equipment has been pushed to the side and fishing nets and colorful rags are stacked on the floor — when the women are done, the nets and rags will become camouflage for equipment and troops in the front.

“When the war broke, we were sitting in our apartment and needed to do something,” says Valentyna Hushchyna, 52, a former clothing saleswoman and seamstress. “I called all those who stayed, many of them elderly, to bring old clothes and fabrics and to get ready to weave. Our first net was 24 meters long and six meters wide and was very heavy. It hung from the eighth to the first floor of a building and people weaved on every floor. Now we weave them here.”

This is one of the many ways regular Ukrainians have stepped up to aid the war effort. Very quickly, neighbors organized and learned the way to make camouflage more professionally to fit the army’s needs.

“We have a night vision device that we use it to check that the cloth does not glow at night,” Anna, 39, tells me. “We get fabrics from whoever we can. Someone even unraveled sweaters for the threads. If necessary, we also repaint fabrics.”

“We do it every day, so Putin doesn’t win,” she adds.

Ukrainian volunteers have shown the world what a united front looks like. The Volunteer Platform, launched back in March 2021, lists over 1,150 volunteering opportunities in Ukraine. The platform currently connects more than 400,000 users with over 500 organizations, UNICEF reports.

Many Ukrainians volunteer without officially registering. We see the effects of the war everyday — the casualties, the fatigue — but people refuse to give up.

“I think the whole world is already tired, because no one thought it would last this long, but I believe in victory,” says Marharyta Liashuha, 30, a doctor who has devoted herself to delivering medical supplies. Liashuha’s husband is in the military and spends a lot of time on the frontlines. Liashuha, for her part, developed a network of international contacts and delivers the aid to hospitals.

I met her in a large office stacked with boxes of medicines and medical equipment. Liashuha knows what is in every box, though she never thought she would be able to collect such large quantities of aid.

“I’m already calling the chief doctors directly and asking what’s needed. In the early days, I would just randomly ask my friends at the hospitals what was missing and try to get it,” she says.

Liashuha got her driver’s license during the war (she didn’t see the need to learn to drive before) and already brought several ambulances into the country. She says she will always remember how she had to cross on foot into Poland to pick up her first ambulance and get behind the wheel of a car by herself for the first time. “It was very scary, but what Russians were doing in my country was even more scary,” she said. “Since then, my colleagues and I delivered 17 ambulances — all went to the military hospitals and the frontlines.”

The southern city of Mykolaiv come under heavy attack in recent weeks. One day, Oleksandr Tkachuk woke up to explosions instead of his alarm clock. After sending his family to western Ukraine, he began distributing tactical equipment to local self-defense units from his gun store. He then used his contacts to distribute night vision devices and other gear.

“I am hopeful because I see the successes of the Ukrainian army in my hometown,” Tkachuk tells me. “Russian artillery no longer reaches the neighborhood where my house is located. For me this is the biggest proof that everything is not in vain. ”

Yes, Ukrainians are tired, but we can’t afford to rest. Russia is threatening our very existence, testing us everyday. For many, volunteering is more than act of solidarity — it’s about survival.

“I get the feeling that the more I help, the faster the victory will come,” Liashuha tells me. “And the sooner I get back the life that I thought was calm and perfect.”

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