Eine junge Frau lehnt sich gegen eine Blechwand Eine junge Frau lehnt sich gegen eine Blechwand
Liliia Steptschenko
Democracy and human rights

We are a strong community

Youth work during the war in Ukraine

Liliia Stepchenko was a long-term volunteer at the Bonn office of Service Civil International. In summer 2021 she returned to Ukraine and started working in the youth centre of her hometown. On 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine. On that day, Liliia's life also changed abruptly. Now, youth work and working with refugees gives her the strength to continue.

29.06.2022 / Christian Herrmann

ijab.de: Liliia, you live in Bila Tserkva, south of Kyiv. What is the situation like in the town?

Liliia Stepchenko: Thanks to our army, the situation is stable at the moment. A few weeks ago it was much worse - you said it, we are not far from Kyiv. At the moment we have several air alerts a day, but people have already got so used to it that they don't always go down to the basement. Besides, our air defence gives us a sense of security.

ijab.de: The last time we spoke, you sounded very depressed and didn't want to give an interview. Now you have offered to tell something on your own. What has changed?

Liliia Stepchenko: I am now a youth worker in our local youth centre. This is an important step for me. Also, our framework has improved. Until recently, there was no definition of what youth work even was. Now we have a new law and I am part of a recognised profession. I came back from Germany on 1 September and started working in the youth centre. Many young people came to us and we offered what they were interested in: workshops or lectures on their desired topics, for example, leisure activities or support in implementation of their own small projects. During the lockdown, we continued this online. Also, through USAID's Ukraine programme we have won material and personnel funding in the contest “Youth HERE: create a community of youth perspectives” within the programme “We dream and act”.

Early in the morning I was woken up by two air-raid bombings

ijab.de: What happened next?

Liliia Stepchenko: On 26 February we wanted to celebrate the first anniversary of our youth centre. Early in the morning I was woken up by air-raid bombings. I heard two heavy blasts. I was at home and - like many others - had not expected it. I immediately started writing text messages to the members of my youth group. Where are you, are you okay? I was really worried. One youth wrote me that the explosions were very close and very loud. Then I panicked but had no idea where to run to.

Later my family moved to a neighbouring village, my grandmother has a house there. My parents went on to work, my mother works in a hospital. She is needed there and can't just take time off. It is the same with my father. The next few weeks were very hard. I scrolled up and down the news channels all the time. I couldn't eat anything, I felt really bad. Then I thought to myself: you have to do something now. That then turned out to be the best therapy.

I am now back home in Bila Tserkva. When there is an air alarm, we are told to stay in the stairwell because that is supposed to be safer. I don't know if that's true - we've all seen the pictures from Kyiv and Kharkiv. The most important thing is: I'm working again now. Our youth centre is now a registration centre for refugees. We take care of the building and the refugees every day. We talk to them, give them information about where they can get accommodation, clothes, food and a job. Some of them literally came to us with only what they had on.

The refugees are part of our community

In the meantime, the situation has stabilised. Half of the building is now used to store and distribute donations. We have toys, games, prams and more - everything children need. These are all donations and it is really amazing how quickly people understand what is needed and how willingly they give it away. We have a very strong sense of community here and that is also something that helps me a lot.

We are trying to make our support more professional. Many of the refugees are traumatised. The workshops with military psychologists have helped me understand what is going on inside them. It is also important to us that the refugees feel at home here, that they become part of our community and are not a foreign body. We also try to educate ourselves and exchange ideas.

ijab.de: This is very far away from what you did as a youth worker before.

Liliia Stepchenko: Yes, on the other hand, I have rediscovered the workcamp as a method and this is something I know from my time at SCI in Germany. The NGO Building Ukraine Together (BUR) offers workcamps and I took part in one of their workcamps in Drohobych in western Ukraine. The idea of BUR was originally to bring volunteers from western Ukraine to eastern Ukraine to repair war damage. On the one hand, this was practical help, on the other hand, it helped to break down mutual prejudices. Because of the war, of course, they can't do that at the moment, but the goals remain. In Drohobych, we renovated a student dormitory that now serves as accommodation for refugees. I had a lot of fun doing that. I had no idea how to plaster a wall, but if you get professional guidance, you can do it. I also really enjoyed working with the other volunteers and making lots of contacts thanks to this workcamp. The volunteers in our group were totally different and yet a strong community was formed within a short time. I am already thinking about whether we can somehow get BUR to come to Bila Tserkva with a work camp.

For me, this is also a perspective for the reconstruction of Ukraine after the war. As far as I remember, the first workcamps took place after the First World War, and they were also about overcoming the war damage in many ways. There are also such examples from the time after the Second World War.

ijab.de: How can you continue with your youth centre in Bila Tserkva?

Liliia Stepchenko: We are thinking about how we can continue, how we can rebuild the youth work. We need to integrate the internally displaced people into the life of our city and I want the strong sense of community to remain. Young people from different minority groups have come to us. They are part of our community. Throughout a mutual dialogue we are looking forward to make their integration as smooth as possible.

Ein junger Mann spricht in ein Mikrofon
About democracy and human rights

IJAB understands international youth work and youth policy cooperation as contributors towards a strong civil society, a democratic polity, and greater social justice.