How can Europeans actively cooperate with local actors in Ukraine and evaluate the needs of people suffering from the war? Benjamin Abtan is co-founder of the award-winning project “Europe Prykhystok”, funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. In our interview he talks about the importance of active listening, international cooperation in times of war and providing perspectives for children.
Benjamin Abtan: When Russia invaded Ukraine I witnessed the historical wave of support among the population of Europe for those affected by the war as well as the decrease in support after a while – although there were still lots of needs in Ukraine. We wanted to provide a more sustainable support system for those who suffer from the war. We identified that there was much potential in mobilizing and connecting local actors like authorities, regions, cities or associations from Ukraine and France to work together and find solutions.
We actively talk to local authorities in Ukraine and listen to their needs – that’s our core value. The people living in Ukraine are the ones suffering the most, especially priority groups like children. When we met with local authorities in Ukraine, we expected to listen to needs of long term relocation. But in fact, what they really needed was support for the children. They needed them to get away for a short period of time. So we started organizing holidays for children. We did so by matching those needs with local partners in France and potentially other European countries.
For example: We arranged an agreement between the city of Montpellier and the region of Lviv in Ukraine to give children the opportunity for a holiday stay. This is an innovative approach: Usually there is hardly any international cooperation between local actors in the time of war nor regarding human mobility. But the institutions in Ukraine still work and the state is robust despite the war. This gives us the opportunity to develop a decentralized governance which is able to respond more thoughtfully to the challenges people are facing.
“The holidays help children to regain some strength and find ways not to collapse personally.”
They are a huge relief for the families. The holidays give children the space to breathe and provide an opportunity for them to share their feelings with others. Let me share a story to underline this: At a dinner in France which was organized by a local association to welcome the children, I met a tall 16-year-old boy originally from the East of Ukraine. He was very shy and didn’t speak much. An adult later told me that he had just lost his father.
I saw him again a few days later. He was among a few people being interviewed by a local TV station. The speech he gave was very impressive, he was in a strong fighting spirit. I was told that the holiday had allowed him to find a group of people with whom he could speak about war and loss. Thus, the children were able to find more energy for their families, their communities. They gained agency to not only be victims but also resistant and not to collapse personally. The biggest impact the project has is the human one.
“Europe Prykhystok” (“refuge”, “shelter” in Ukrainian) is a regional effort initiated in April 2022 to support the most vulnerable victims of the war in Ukraine, especially children. The project was selected by the Paris Peace Forum, a platform supporting initiatives developing coordination, rules and structures that answer global problems.