IJAB: What does BUR do and why was it founded?
Oleksii Lavrynenko: BUR was founded in 2014 to support people whose houses were damaged or destroyed during the war. Our volunteers repair and rebuild them. Originally, we only operated in the Donbas region, which was already under Russian attack in 2014. Now we operate nationwide. Of course this has a practical side, but there is more to it. Through our work we support dialogue and communication within Ukrainian society. I joined BUR as a volunteer in 2016 and have been working there full-time since 2018.
Olena Lupova: I joined in 2019.
IJAB: You mentioned social dialogue. What is that exactly, and to what extent does it contribute to peace?
Oleksii Lavrynenko: Our founders Yurko Didula and Kolya Dorokhov wanted to establish a new culture of dialogue. Yurko studied in the US, where he learned how people can be brought together by offering them the helping hands they need for certain tasks, for instance. That’s what we do with our volunteer camps. You need to understand that Ukrainians as a society are not particularly mobile; we don’t travel much. Those who live in the western part of the country don’t travel to the eastern parts and vice versa. This produces prejudices about one another, particularly in the eastern regions which were long dominated by Russian media. We want to break through that with our volunteer camps.
Since 2016 none of our volunteer placements differentiate between war and non-war regions. We work with everyone who is willing to combine problem-solving with a bottom-up approach within the community, in the spirit of commitment and cooperation, with participation in decision-making, and through non-formal education and service learning. Everything we do in Ukraine with our own hands and which has a practical value for the community – whether that’s a rebuilding project in a war zone or a value creation process – is always combined with non-formal education. This helps people to grow as individuals and as members of a group and community, because they build strong ties and experience communicative dynamics that helps them to continue developing after their BUR placement and beyond the BUR community.
Olena Lupova: I come from Kharkiv. Before I joined BUR I had barely had any contact to people from the western part of Ukraine. But I wanted to connect with people there, so I took part in a volunteer camp in Drohobych.
More volunteers than usual
IJAB: Given that the country is under attack from Russia, what can you actually still do?
Olena Lupova: This year we launched our annual programme as we usually do in April, without knowing whether things would work out or not. We started out in the western part of the country, in Drohobych und Ivano-Frankivsk, where the situation is safer than elsewhere in Ukraine. We worked on buildings belonging to the municipal administration. In Drohobych, for instance, we renovated an empty student halls of residence so refugees could be housed there, and also set up a youth club. We took basic safety precautions; for instance, we always went to the air raid shelters when the alarms sounded. But what about the eastern and northern regions? After May, once the Ukrainian army was able to liberate the first areas, it was clear to us that we had to go there too. Young people don’t want to sit around, they want to take action, they want to go to the east. We are receiving significantly more requests from volunteers than usual. Many write to us saying “let me do something”. However, one major problem are the mines that are lying around everywhere where there’s been fighting. Already back in March we started reaching out to contacts in the east and sending humanitarian aid out there. Sometimes we used the postal service, but we also had support from our umbrella organisation, Ukrainian Education Platform, which has its own trucks and drivers. In other words, we started by meeting people’s most pressing needs.
IJAB: Do you also get volunteers from abroad?
Oleksii Lavrynenko: Absolutely, especially when it comes to humanitarian aid. In the last few month we’ve had volunteers from the US, Poland and Switzerland.
Olena Lupova: Some of them don’t just come to help out, they also offer their skills as professionals. For instance, one volunteer from Switzerland ran one of our camps and contributed their professional expertise.
How safe are the volunteer camps?
IJAB: On your website you invite applications from volunteers abroad. The obvious question is how safe a volunteer placement is in Ukraine.
Olena Lupova: That’s hard to say. We can’t guarantee safety 100%, and because the situation is hard to gauge, we cannot make an exact statement. One major issue is all the mines. So we work with mine clearance teams and disaster relief providers. We travel to the communities where life is returning now the occupiers have gone, where there is access to water and power. It’s not just the eastern regions that are risky. Russian rockets are also hitting central Ukraine.
IJAB: What kind of assistance from abroad do you need?
Oleksii Lavrynenko: We need something that I would call a culture of diplomacy. People need to understand that Ukraine is not an object to which others can dictate their terms. We make our own rules. Come here and show us how you live, and understand how we live. We need these connections to people around the world. We need solidarity. Some countries have already understood this. But I don’t know whether there is an awareness of this in India, China or Brazil.
On a practical level, bring Europe to Ukraine and Ukraine to Europe! We need to build institutions, we need to develop youth work. We’re doing pretty well where the practical side of things is concerned. Sometimes I look at exchange programmes that get Erasmus+ funding. I would like to have a more focused dialogue around issues that are major enough to represent global values and principles, like peace. I’d like to see these broken down into the skills and competences we need so we can become active, responsible citizens. I want us to be able to consider and re-consider global concepts, but equally be willing and knowledgeable to create local decision-making structures, to design and run a petition, to use the internet to influence democracy from the bottom up and horizontally. These are skills we can develop and apply during the volunteer placements and adjust them to local contexts and needs. We need communication, dialogue, language skills, collaboration. In this context, Europe is closest to us.
“We want to move closer to the war zone”
Olena Lupova: In 2019 we ran an international camp in Poltava with young volunteers from Ukraine, Türkiye (Kurdistan) and Poland. We realised that we face the same problems in our respective countries. How do we work as an organisation? How can we involve young people in decision-making? How can we build communities where not everything is decided top-down? How can we combat corruption? In Türkiye and Poland they’re asking the same questions as in Ukraine. So it makes sense to try to find common responses. I would like to see more young people from Europe come here. I want us to build something that’s good for all of us. Young people should – in fact they want to – shape the community together. They are more than just users
IJAB: What are you planning next?
Olena Lupova: We want to move our operations closer to the war zone and reach out to people there. One of our recent projects is about repairing windows that were smashed by rocket attacks or artillery fire. Windows are expensive. Not everyone can afford new ones, and when we started it was winter. From Scotland we learned how to replace the expensive materials with considerably cheaper plastic. That helps for a while, until people can get their hands on real windows. There are so many broken windows that we rely on the help of volunteers. And that brings us back to our original question: How can we invite volunteers to join us? How can we involve them in community life? We manage things from afar but build groups locally. We believe that this has a psychological impact on the people on the ground – they realise they can make things happen themselves. It might sound odd, but outside support is important. Many of these people don’t use online media to get access to know-how, especially not if it’s in a different language. We connect with them directly. That’s how we can move closer to the war zone and can help.
For more information on BUR, go to https://www.bur.org.ua/en