Now is the Time for Growth: Community Activism and NGOs

Oksana Smerechuk talks to Kateryna Yushchenko and Anastasiia Medvid on how community service and community activism are developing phenomena in Ukraine

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk


Kateryna Yushchenko,

Anastasiia Medvid

Now is the Time for Growth: Community Activism and NGOs
Now is the Time for Growth: Community Activism and NGOs

Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here’s a look at some of the stories that were in the news this week.

FOCUS INTERVIEW: Oksana Smerechuk talks to Kateryna Yushchenko and Anastasiia Medvid on how community service and community activism are developing phenomena in Ukraine.

Smerechuk: Hello, this is Oksana Smerechuk for Ukraine Calling. In this week issue we will take a closer look at what community service means in Ukraine and the stories of two community organizations. I have two guests with me in this studio today. One is KaterynaYuschenko, Chairperson of Ukraine3000 Foundation, which addresses issues like health care for children, education, the homeless and orphan children as well as integrating the handicapped people into society. She does not need introduction for most of Ukrainians. She was the First Lady of Ukraine from 2005 to 2010. Today she continues her work in charity sector. Our other guest is Anastasia Medvid. She is a public relations specialist for Crimea SOS, which is a new NGO that has appeared since Maidan. It is working for, and with, people displaced from Crimea, following the Russian annexation. A common opinion in Ukraine these days is that Maidan gave birth to a great deal of community activism. There has been a surge in volunteering. If you look more closely at the activities of NGOs, charities and community organizations, you realize this did not came just at that time.  In reality, Ukrainians have been gaining their experience of self-organizing for many years. If you go further, the Soviet government really did not encourage community initiatives because in an authoritarian state the state has to control everything. With the beginning of independence Ukrainians rediscovered working in community organizations. Serving the community, your help is needed but the government can’t just provide. I will start with KaterynaYuschenko. You came to work in Ukraine in the early 1990s. Given that people did not have experience in volunteering or taking community initiative, how do you find starting community activism in those years? What was Ukrainians attitude towards volunteering, donating?

Yuschenko: Thank you, Oksano. As you and I came from countries where voluntarism and charity were very much part of society,it was a little bit difficult coming to Ukraine, where not only charity was looked down upon, it was actually forbidden during the Soviet period. In 1930s priests could be fined, churches could be closed down because of their activism in social politics. As a result, everything was top down and not bottom up, as you said. We came from a society where about 90% of people were actually involved in activism. You and I came from Canada and USA where it was expected you would volunteer. There was only way to become active in society. It was very much about you entering the college when you had to show you had been active. It was difficult coming to Ukraine where any kind of charitable activity was looked upon with suspicion. People thought if try to raise money, if you try to help there, there was something possibly illicit about it or you wanted to make money out of it. I received questions such as “Why are you doing this? Are you doing this because you are making money? Who is paying you?” When I would say not only that somebody is not paying me, but it’s the opposite. I actually contribute my own money. They thought it was strange because they had not been used to bottom up initiatives. They were used to top down approach. I think it is very important that over the years that attitude has changed.

Smerechuk: What did motivate you?  What needs did you see in the society that drew you to this work?

Yuschenko: In the 1990s there were so many needs that whatever you touched needed to be changed. I helped, for example, to start the first animal shelter in Ukraine. It was just unexpected for me to see thousands of animals on the streets. So I started with that. Then I immediately changed to orphans. Then I worked with education. I worked with many different areas but what was very strange that you would come to an orphanage and people would be wondering what you would want to gain from coming to this orphanage and what you want to see. They would close the orphanage and not let you in. Meanwhile there was a great change. Many more organizations were coming in. You could see changes right before your eyes.

Smerechuk: You ended up starting Ukraine 3000. What this organization is doing today?

Yuschenko: When we saw in the 1990s that people were distrustful. I think in 2000s people started to adapt western principals of transparency, systemic change rather then one off change, not giving just to a local person, but trying to affect with the same money many people’s lives.  As I said, giving a fishing rod, rather than giving money just to the fisherman. We started seeing large funds being created. Some of them were truly dishonest money. Just like in US, Canada and many other countries, the big oligarchs started to be oriented toward more being effective in that money is being used for more systemic change. We saw transparency. We saw an emphasis on greater impact for every kopek, every Hryvnia, that was donated. We started the Foundation because we felt very strongly that change needed bottom up and not top down. All our programs were in education, health, arts, history, and language. It was all oriented towards getting citizens involved in society. For example, we created an organization called, “Добропочинається з тебе”(Good begins with You), where we encouraged children at schools to be active in areas not because teachers told them but because they themselves wanted to work with the environment or  helping orphans or old people. We encouraged them. We tried to get them involved. In a medical area, whenever we started a program to help hospitals, we made sure it involved the entire community. When we started the program “Build the Hospital for the Future”, we encouraged crowd funding. We were the first to get involved with that. We’ve got very little from the crowed but the whole point was to get people involved in it and have a stake in change of the medical system of Ukraine.

Smerechuk: Have you noticed that these qualitative changes in the type organizations that appeared during Maidan?

Yuschenko: Absolutely. What we saw when Maidan started that there was much of doubt, concern about dishonesty and it suddenly disappeared.  People started to become active and everyone volunteered anything they could. We saw it first during the Orange Revolution of 2004. Restaurants helping when they could. Doctors were helping when they could. During Maidan in 2013-14 people also started to do everything they could.  They saw the need and it was immediate. Since then it’s been interesting because we see people coming more specialised and that is a very effective thing. Those who can provide transportation, provide transportation, and those who provide training, provide training. Those who do something else, do that. I think that is very useful. Some of it has fallen back and some people are concerned. Ukrainian people are always ready to respond to need as they come up. That is a very exciting thing. Right now we are setting an example for all of Europe and even for the United States for citizens’ activism.

Smerechuk: That is a very positive note to finish on. If I could now turn to Anastasia. We saw events on Maidan in 2013 -14, the annexation of Crimea, provocations and conflict in Donbas. Ukraine was confronted with crisis. The government was not managing with national defence, the army was not ready.

The ministries were not coping with a lots of refugees coming from the Donbass or Crimea. So, you had volunteers getting together, filling in the gap defending the country in the East. Feeding, clothing the army and helping refugees. Crimea SOS is one of these organizations that was born at this time and that is the organization that had to grow up very fast, in fact. Anastasiya, I would like to ask you a bit about how Crimea SOS was founded? How did this all start?

Medvid: Good afternoon! I would first make a little remark. We help not only internally displaced people from Crimea, but also from Eastern Ukraine. And how did it start? It was 2014, on February 27, the first day of annexation [of Crimea]. Three friends, Crimean Tatars, Crimeans, who had already lived for some time on the mainland of Ukraine, just gathered together,to think what can they do. They saw that the administrative buildings were captured, and the annexation was going on. That is why they created the Facebook page some things that they could do really fast and started gathering news and facts about the annexation. It was surprising how fast a really huge network of volunteers was built. Lots of people in Crimea were providing information to us about the Russian military, about [Ukrainian military] basesbeing captured, and everything. They were moving across the peninsula, and giving us the information. And on the mainland Ukraine, and also in different countries, in the United States for example, we had lots of volunteers who were checking, verifying this information, and posting 24 hours a day. That is why due to these volunteer great impact Crimea SOS became the first source of news about Crimea during the first month of annexation. But really soon we have become not only a news feed, but also an assistance centre, because the Crimean families started to move out from the peninsula and also we started gathering help on the mainland Ukraine to send to our solders in peninsula. So it all became to work.

Smerechuk: Became a meeting point for people wanting to help somehow.

Medvid: Yes, exactly. Our guys just bought a few cell phones and they were answering calls for assistance, offers with help 24 hours a day. And it was really surprising.

Smerechuk: So, how did that get from kind of spontaneous kind of organization to registered community organization?

Medvid: I would say that we became a systematic organization in June 2014, when we have become the partners of UNHCR agency. And this happened because internally displaced people from Crimea had started to move to the mainland Ukraine, and also the conflict of Eastern Ukraine had broadened. No one expected that, but there was a huge flood of people who needed help, they needed accommodation, they needed psychological help, and more. For example, for Crimean Tatars who left the peninsula, it was reminiscent of the 1944 deportation. It was a huge tragedy for them. And we understood that this network of volunteers that we had was great but it wasn’t enough. Today you have volunteers, tomorrow you don’t, but there are still people who need help. That is why we started looking for some funds to establish team members, and help people systematically. We really thought that all these things with our organization will last till the end of 2014. We really believed. So did the people who asked for help.

Smerechuk: That helping would not be necessary any more.

Medvid: Yes, exactly. We were really 100% sure about that, but as we see it is almost three years that Crimea SOS has been operating, and still the necessity of our work hasn’t reduced. 

Smerechuk: Do you still get people volunteering, the situation has stabilized, we could say, although not resolved. So, do you still get people turning to you to volunteer, making donations?

Medvid:I would say that for people who work with these things from inside, the situation is not stable at all, because we see things like all these outrageous shelling in Avdiivka. We monitor all the human rights violations in Crimea, and the situation is not getting better or more stable. It is getting worse, and we can see this from the inside. It is of course an issue that people are tired of today. They are tired of all the problems, of all the leaders. There are so many varieties of things that you could donate for, and it is really hard to motivate people to give something in this situation. But still we have lots of volunteers in our offices all across the country, these are the people that don’t go for the experience or something. They event don’t mostly have the idea what they want to do. They just see an organization they have some kind of trust to what we do. They see the results and they want to be a part of it.

Smerechuk: That’s good to hear, that there is still this interaction with the community.

Medvid: By the way, these donations, we see that in 2014 people were heavily donating to the army, to the internally displace people, and everything. Today this is not happening, but still we see that it is a challenge for NGOs to find the new ways and approaches for donations. And I have a great example of that. In 2016, in the autumn, we were gathering money for a bus for elderly people. It is a hospice. It is located near the Kyiv and thirty elderly people who don’t have families live in there, and they are taken care of. And they needed transportation to go to the hospital, to gather aid, food, and everything else. We started a crowd funding campaign to gather 100 000 hryvnas. It was a huge number, and we didn’t start to post some sad stories about that people and everything. We’ve launched a network of so called “kind events” where we gathered people to do yoga, to read poems, to watch movies and everything but not connected with problems, or some sad and painful stuff. So people just think that people liked to do, and instead of buying a ticket, they donate, and we gathered this sum of money, we gathered 112 000 hryvnas. That was really crazy.     

Smerechuk: So, I guess it is a constant process of evolution of finding ways that you can grow. So there are many other community organizations and community activism that we could talk about. But what all these organizations have in common is that I find people say ‘why doesn’t the government fix this?’ It’s people who say: “What can I do about this?’ And that is very encouraging to see this in Ukrainian society. So, thank you very much for this conversation, for sharing your stories, Anastasiya Medvid and KaterynaYushchenko. Thank you for theseinsights into your life, into the lives of your organizations.


The United States and Russia continue to clash over Crimea.

Ukraine and Crimea continue to come up in US-Russia relations. The first high level meeting since Trump became president, happened this week in Germany, on Thursday, during the G20 Summit. US State Secretary Rex Tillerson met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Bonn. The two were smiling and shaking hands for the photo op.  Afterwards Tillerson told reporters that while the US will consider working with Russia, it also expects Russia to abide by the Minsk Agreements, and work to de-escalate the violence in Ukraine. Earlier in the week, White House spokesman Sean Spicer had said that Trump was taking a tougher line with Russia, and expected Moscow to withdraw from Crimea. Russia responded by saying, “Crimea is part of the Russian Federation. We are not returning our territory.”

Ukraine’s Parliament Appeals to Parliaments of the World

Ukraine’s Parliament reconvened last week, and a group of MPs sent an open letter to their colleagues in what they called the free world. They appealed to the world’s parliaments to call upon Russia to fulfill their international obligations regarding Ukraine. The letter states, “We are forced to state that Russia, as the aggressor country, continues to further escalate the conflict in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. This is proven by a critical situation, which has emerged during the past days and which is turning into a humanitarian disaster as a result of systematic attacks by illegal armed groups near the town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region.”


Meanwhile, in Crimea, journalist MykolaSemena is facing a court date on February 17th. Last year Ukraine Calling reported that he was charged with ‘separatism’ for his reporting. The charge carries a sentence of up to 5 years imprisonment. Semena issued a statement this week. He explains that he is a Ukrainian citizen, whereas in all the documents related to his case, he is listed as a citizen of Russia. After Russia annexed Crimea, it imposed Russian citizenship on all residents of the peninsula. Some, like Semena, have resisted.

Also this week, Ayshe Seytmuratova, celebrated her 80th birthday. She’s a Crimean Tatar living legend, former dissident, human rights activist, historian, and veteran Elder of the Crimean Tatar national movement. Her friends threw her a party in Bakhchysaray, Crimea, once the capital of the Crimean Tatar Khanate, where they enjoyed traditional food and music. Ayshe herself danced with most of the guests. We’ll post a video of the event on our website.


Ukraine’s Prime Minister Groysman is confident that the next IMF loan tranche will be released to Ukraine by the end of the month. He was in Brussels last week meeting with EU and NATO officials, and made positive statements about Ukraine and the IMF. The country’s Finance Minister Oleksandr Danyliuk was also giving interviews, saying that negotiations are in the final stages. The challenging issues are pension reform, judicial reform, and fighting the deficit. Ukraine, like all post-Soviet states, have unrealistically low official retirement ages, and this causes severe strain on the budget. However, raising the retirement age is an extremely sensitive issue in any country, not only Ukraine. PM Groysman said that although Ukraine is moving forward on all the issues, that deadlines need to be realistic. The next tranche of the IMF loan to Ukraine was scheduled for last November, but has been delayed due to a lack of progress on necessary reforms.

The War

A return to the abnormal normal. That’s how OSCE spokesperson Alexander Hug described the war in Ukraine’s east this week. The de-escalation became noticeable over the weekend, and continued through the week. Heavy shelling decreased by 75% from the previous week, but it continued, and in the Mariupol area, it increased by 20%. During the week 1 Ukrainian soldier was killed, and 7 were wounded.

Culture & Music

A group of Ukrainian musicians from various bands and genres got together and are working on some new songs for the army. Some of them do rock, some folk. But all very successful musicians. Taras Chubai, FOMA, Taras Kompanichenko, Ivan Lenio, Sashko Polozhyns’kyi, Oleh Skrypka, This past week photos of their recording session began appearing on FB, and in Ukrainian media. Taken in Chubai’s home studio. The latest high tech recording equipment in a beautiful country home built of logs.

Another interesting event is an unusual exhibition. Two journalism students from Mariupol University are preparing an exhibit of love letters that were written but never sent. It will be called Про (ко)хання мовчати, Being Silent about Love. These are real letters, some of them have photos, some from the war zone. The organizers are Patricia Hevorkian and Anastasia Byrdina. We’ll keep you posted about the date and location of the opening.

And this week’s song for you is EbediySevgi, sung in Crimean Tatar by Alfa Leo. It means Eternal Love:

Tune in next week for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at [email protected]. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.

Interview transcribed by LarysaIarovenko and Ilona Sviezhentseva. Headlines by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Natalia Kucheriava.