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Everything will be Ukraine: In Conversation with Raihan Islam and Mariana Linichenko

Credit: Max Kukurudziak, courtesy of Unsplash License

Roar writer Samuel Teale Chadwick interviews the founders of the effective philanthropy platform, everythingwillbeukraine.org, to hear their story and learn how everyone can contribute towards alleviating the humanitarian crisis at the other end of Europe.

Credit: Max Kukurudziak, courtesy of Unsplash License

[Trigger warning: war]

Now in its fifth month, the war in Ukraine is far from over. Innocent civilians are still being killed. In addition to the casualties, the invasion has destroyed livelihoods, and forced millions to abandon their homes, or leave the country altogether. It is not distant, either, with many seeking a life afresh in the UK.

Guest speakers at a KCL Pro Bono Society event on Friday June 10 were two of them; an inspiring couple: Mariana Linichenko and Raihan Islam (Raihan sporting a traditional Ukrainian garment, a vyshyvanka, gifted to him by his Kyiv colleagues on his birthday).

Raihan completed his first degree at Carnegie Mellon University before completing his LLB at King’s College London, where he also served as a student advisor in the legal clinic of the Pro Bono Society. Shortly after qualifying with a training contract, and seeking a fresh start, he visited Ukraine for six weeks in 2015 (the year after Russia had invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine). In 2016 he started working in the Kyiv office of his current employer, an American software development and cybersecurity company.

Mariana was born and grew up in the Kherson region of Ukraine. She completed her master’s degree in animal bioscience in 2003 and obtained a diploma in accounting in 2004. She worked at a prominent Ukrainian beer distribution company for more than twelve years, including ten years in the accounts receivable department. More recently, she trained to become a software tester in 2015, and worked as a software quality assurance engineer at a small business specialising in small website projects, including both software testing and Google Analytics reporting. 

After their speeches, Raihan showed me footage from the balcony of their apartment building in Kyiv. Missiles fell not far from where they used to walk their young son, Roman, in the park.

Friends helped the family to the airport in January, and shortly before the full scale invasion, they flew from Kyiv to Istanbul. They arrived in the UK shortly after. They set up ‘??? ???? ???????’ everythingwillbeukraine.org, a platform for effective altruism which supports efforts to “resist and to persist… because it can be difficult to understand who to donate to, and why”. Its chief purpose is “to inspire potential donors to take the leap to give with more confidence, quickly”.

As Raihan said: “to defend Ukraine isn’t just defending a sovereign nation, it is also to defend democracy itself”. As Mariana reinforced, a global community of forced Ukrainian refugees living abroad can return and help rebuild Ukraine to be better than before. It was inspiring to interview them both and learn their first-hand accounts and insights. Below is a transcription of our interview.

Sam: May I start with how things are now. As you said in your speech Mariana, it was difficult to keep in touch with family in the first days of the invasion. How are they keeping?

Mariana: Yes, that’s right. I had lots of family around Ukraine. For example, my sister in Kyiv lost her job. And then after a couple of months the same company offered her work but it’s not what she wanted, but she agreed because she needed some money. 

(The worst situation is in the south and east of the country. Her extended family and university friends are in the city of Kherson.)

M: My friends don’t work; I try to send them money but the bank doesn’t give cash. They cannot pay by Ukrainian card. There’s no food [in rural areas especially]. People who live in the villages have food but they can’t bring it to the cities, because Russian soldiers won’t let them.

Russian soldiers are occupying whatever homes they like in the village where I grew up and where my mother’s home was. They just say you have thirty minutes to leave this home. There have been many explosions in that area, with nearby villages destroyed.”

(Mariana’s mother left her village and started living in Kyiv for better healthcare after a stroke two years ago.)

M: “My cousin asked me some months ago if some people could live in my mother’s home, but now there are soldiers. I don’t know if it will continue to exist or not. I will not tell my mother that: she would find it too distressing. She said: ‘how is it possible that Russia can strike? We [Ukraine] and Russia are like siblings’. But I told her already: look at what happened in Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, all already damaged. She didn’t believe me; I told her but I didn’t show her a picture. She always told me, I want to go home, I miss my home, I want to see children. This puts pressure on me. I then showed her a picture of what was happening and she started to understand. I tried to tell her some information but not all.

For 95 days, my brother was living underground in his workplace storage basement. He worked in that place, and he didn’t leave because it was too dangerous. He took some leave two days after his birthday. He needed to work to organise and help, as volunteers bought food there for people who could not go to the shops. And he wanted to work to keep job security.

How can I go back to my home when I know that soldiers, who killed loads of people, live in this home? It’s difficult to comprehend. These people [Ukrainian relatives and friends] hope the war will finish and start to build a new life. But they don’t know what to do without work or a home, hoping volunteers will bring food, clothes, medicine, for example. It’s a difficult life because no one knows what will happen tomorrow.

S: When the news of the full scale invasion happened, it was shocking but not surprising [31.20]. What was the sense amongst people then [in January 2022]? Was it believed that an invasion was imminent?

M: The shock was that all of Ukraine was invaded. We have friends and relatives all over Ukraine. My sister is in Kyiv, her husband is from Chernihiv, and other friends are from Sumy. All these places in one moment [were targeted by] these missile strikes. Everyone thought it would not go further than Donetsk and Luhansk.”

Raihan: Unfortunately without our consent, [the Russian invasion] has completely changed our lives. We’re fortunate that we’re safe, and my sister-in-law and her family. But given innocent civilians are still being killed, you do worry about what could happen.

R: Most Ukrainians will say that the war really began in 2014. The difference in 2022 is that the invasion has expanded beyond Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk. More than ten thousand people died in fighting between 2014 and February 24 2022. Back in October 2021, that’s when troop formations started to build up. This was unusual compared to the other escalations since 2014. By the end of November, I thought that it was strange, and thought to myself ‘what is Russia trying to do?’ Such a level of troop build-up was unprecedented. December came around and I was starting to say to Mariana that maybe we should go on a little trip away to another country nearby like Georgia. We talked about it but didn’t get round to it: our baby was less than nine months old then. It wasn’t that easy to just go off and fly. In January the news got more serious, but friends and colleagues, both Ukrainians and foreigners, around me seemed unconcerned. Nobody thought it was imminent, and thought I was being extra cautious.”

(They decided to go to Istanbul, Turkey, not Georgia, said Raihan, as a friend had told him that it might not be comfortable walking in the city with his young son.)

R: The plane from Kyiv to Istanbul was not full. I saw several Americans trying to leave at the airport. But there wasn’t a big rush. When Boris Johnson said that Russia was planning a lightning style strike into Kyiv, I thought ‘what an assessment’. We got out quickly not because I thought they would be rolling tanks into Kyiv, but because I thought they would close all the airports. I had to convince Mariana and my mother-in-law to avoid a situation where the airspace was shut and we’d have to try and make it out of the country by land. I can’t imagine what kind of stress that would be for everyone. At the end of January, the US embassy required family of staff members to leave and allow staff to voluntarily leave; that was my cue that we must leave for at least several months. We told people we’d be travelling on a little trip. We’d planned anyway to relocate to the US for an immigration process by the end of 2022.”

S: I read an article [in the Evening Standard on Friday 24] in which a Ukrainian remarked that as soon as Ukraine didn’t surrender in the first few days, the nation had in a way, already won. The international community may struggle to hold Russia to account, yet we can all contribute towards efforts to support the victims of the invasion. Beyond verbal expressions of solidarity, why is the role of effective philanthropy so important?

R: “Every single bit of help, no matter what it is, can make a total ripple effect on what is happening on the ground in Ukraine. Anything that allows the country to keep moving forward, and allows the country to defend itself against Russia’s totally unnecessary and criminal aggression, makes an impact. Each pound, each dollar, each euro can make a massive impact in Ukraine. The local currency is weak against the currencies I just mentioned. $100 could feed 100 or so people, or one small family for a whole month. When that family has that additional energy and aren’t worried about feeding, they can do more to help defend Ukraine.”

S: Your conversations with volunteers must have been really inspiring.

R: ‘Absolutely. Just recently I was talking with the aide of a Ukrainian member of parliament, who is volunteering in parallel with her day job. In terms of the volunteers, it’s the personal power that each person has to make that impact, to give people hope. Hope can inspire people to make the changes that make a difference. Mental health, too, is really important. To students in the United Kingdom who wonder ‘what can I do to help?’: there is so much to do to help besides being on the ground. For all types of volunteers: whatever your interest or skill is, use it. You’re defending the democracy in your own country by defending Ukraine’s.

Voluntary skills sought by everythingwillbeukraine.org include:

  • Due diligence / extra vetting of organisations and impact
  • Finding and connecting stories of Ukrainian residents (including interviewees)
  • Social media promotion of relevant material to support the overall initiative
  • Research / journalism on topics relevant to Ukraine, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law
  • Legal advice and proxies (supporting Ukrainian refugees in the UK and elsewhere)
  • Web development and other technical support to enhance the above items
  • Translation from English to Ukrainian and/or Russian
  • Modules / lessons about practical business or other skills to teach to Ukrainian students

S: Definitely. You hear in the media the number of refugees being spoken about like it’s an achievement, but as well as the numbers we should consider the lived experiences of refugees, and how best to provide a welcoming environment. How can we best welcome and support refugees? (This question means both refugees already here in the UK, as well as those who are yet to arrive.)

Mariana: ‘The word for refugee in Ukrainian, sounds like, ???????? [bizhenets]. The first part of the word is from the word ?????, meaning to run. Who will run from their country if everything there is good? And who will call themselves a refugee? As Raihan said, we planned in the long-term to emigrate to the US, but we didn’t plan that we’d be here [in the UK] just because we are refugees. It’s difficult to call ourselves refugees because, as I’m reading now, many non-Ukrainians say that life is difficult, prices are going up for everyone. But have people really thought about what it means for a Ukrainian to put all their life in a small bag that they need to take with them? In Kyiv, we have a flat that we bought in 2019. I have been saving money for a flat since 2004. Many people also saved up money to buy their own property and then in one moment, someone came and destroyed everything and they needed to put quickly, for ten minutes, whatever they could take: their life in a small bag. Many people don’t want to be in the UK, in Germany, or in another country. These people didn’t expect their life to suddenly change. Nobody’s asking you or anyone to go to Ukraine to help on the ground, but if you can help from outside, you can help however you can. Forgoing the price of a coffee can help change a life.

M: ‘I always believe that Ukraine will win, and we will look back, and Ukraine will be not only good, but even better than it was. I was saying with my friend in Italy: there are so many Ukrainians in different countries; they need to see how it works in different countries, and return to Ukraine, and make Ukraine the greatest country in this world. And then people will want to get Ukrainian citizenship.

Raihan stresses that he is in a relatively privileged position to other refugees, having lived here in the UK before. But with his wife and son as refugees, the circumstances are wildly different in 2022 compared to 2014. ‘These families are in difficult and horrible situations. We spoke about privilege at the Pro Bono Society event; people with the means to alleviate suffering should do so. It’s a struggle; there’s a real sense of adjustment we have to do here [as a family in London]. Our son had his first birthday in Turkey [which was unexpected]. But what we have gone through is nothing like what other Ukrainian families have. We are very fortunate.’

Raihan remarked: ‘I think UK society is trying hard as a whole [to help refugees]. There are some teething issues but the intent is great. Mariana said that the UK moved very quickly and did a lot in four months.’

Mariana alluded to the difficulties of adjusting, finding work and study, as well as having to make telephone conversations. She added: ‘I have a friend who wants to come to the UK with her children but cannot find a sponsor here. Many Ukrainians say that some UK sponsors told them, after a couple of months, that they need to leave and find another place. Sponsors don’t know how they might change their thoughts and reactions.’

R: ‘They want to help but they don’t realise what a responsibility it is.’

Raihan points out the advice and guidance for potential sponsors provided by the UK Government, and that he and his volunteers will also provide a guide on everythingwillbeukraine.org. He has since shared an article reporting evictions, homelessness, and a lack of care and foresight experienced by some Ukrainian refugees. Mariana and Raihan collaborate with volunteers to help ensure the information on everythingwillbeukraine.org contains up-to-date reporting on the activities of helpful charities.

‘There does need to be a safe way for sponsors to connect with refugees, especially women and children forced to leave their country who could be exploited. Once they’re here, they need guidance on life skills training and so on. No-one expects to be living in someone else’s home. There are considerations for both refugees and sponsors. That’s why they’re having that problem that Mariana just mentioned.’

S: How do you cope and what gives you hope?

Raihan: ‘I cope by keeping busy and not doing nothing about the situation.’

Mariana: ‘For me, I cope by seeking to speak English with a range of people.’

In a statement, KCLSU said KCL was in direct contact with students from the region. KCL Ukrainian Society has shared a link to the Ukrainian Institute London with a list of resources for people able and willing to help Ukrainians. People should only donate to verified charities, and be vigilant of scammers.

 

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