How have those Ukrainians on the ground committed to integration reacted to the invasion? Stories from its Intercultural Cities network offer inspiration.
Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, in flagrant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and international law, has not only compromised world human, political and security relations but also caused the largest displacement in Europe since World War II. The immediate consequences of this war for Ukraine are devastating, in terms of lives lost, cities destroyed and families uprooted. Its implications for Europe and the rest of the world are profound, and still to be specified.
Since the beginning of hostilities, nearly one-third of Ukrainians have been forced from their homes. By the end of October, more than seven million Ukrainian refugees had crossed the border to other European countries. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine is not far from that.
In 2015, in association with the Council of Europe Intercultural Cities programme (ICC), established eight years earlier to promote the good management of cultural diversity in urban milieux, an Intercultural Cities network (ICC-UA) of six cities was established in Ukraine, following a pan-Ukrainian forum in Melitopol—now in the zone of Russian occupation. As with many other communities, the network members have been hosting a growing number of IDPs, increasing their populations by some 10-15 per cent. While their jurisdictions and infrastructure are in constant danger of being attacked by the aggressor, these cities continue to provide the newcomers with shelter, food, necessary services and humanitarian aid.
How have these intercultural communities withstood the harsh realities of war? How have the residents and administrators of these cities drawn on deeply rooted intercultural values to cope in what have often been very dangerous circumstances? And how has the established presence of an intercultural narrative in these cities within the last decade helped to ensure the mutual care and support of members of diverse minority, cultural and religious groups? Evidence comes from stories collected in the Ukrainian intercultural cities since the beginning of the war.
As of November 3rd, the United Nations reported that 7,785,514 Ukrainian refugees had been registered across Europe, with around 6,243,000 IDPs still inside the country. The member cities of the ICC-UA are among those hosting large numbers of IDPs. They do their best to provide housing, food and other essential services and humanitarian assistance—although their facilities are not always large enough or adequately equipped to meet the growing needs of their increasing populations and their communities experience continuous Russian military threats and attacks.
Among ICC-UA members, the highest density of IDPs (see map) is found in and around Pavlohrad (20 per cent of the city’s population and between 100,000 and 195,000 people in the region), with somewhat lower impacts on Vinnytsia (15 per cent of the city’s population and 75-100,000 people in the region), Odesa (75-100,000 people in the region), Lutsk and Sumy (50-75,000 in the region). As IDPs continue to arrive daily and require some time for registration, their actual number in these cities is however likely much higher.
The pattern of displacement in Ukraine
Examples of intercommunity support in Ukrainian intercultural cities are legion. In March, as the first IDPs began to arrive, their communities, administrators, volunteers and services worked day and night to provide support. The IDPs needed timely assistance to meet their basic human needs, such as for food, shelter and medication, or even just to find out what to do next—whether to stay in this city or move further to western Ukraine, elsewhere in Europe or other countries in search of safety. Different minority and religious communities in the cities mobilised to help.
Lutsk: joint prayers for peace
Since the beginning of the war, regular joint prayers for peace and Ukraine have been held in the famous Lutsk Castle of Lubart by the representatives of different religious confessions within the Council of Churches in the city in north-west Ukraine, such as that pictured in May. The head of the organisation Crimean Tatars of Volyn and the Muslim religious community Rakhma of Lutsk, Server Zeynidinov (far left), recited the first sura, Al-Fatihah, of the Qur’an, with translation to Ukrainian. He spoke about how Muslims of Ukraine perceived the war with Russia and defended the territory of the sovereign Ukrainian state.
Rakhma has been working continuously to provide humanitarian aid and food to the city population and IDPs, in conjunction with the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. During Ramadan, the Crimean Tatars of Volyn, together with the Turkish foundation Diyanet, distributed food packages to everyone in need in the city.
Since the beginning of the war, the Volyn Religious Community of Progressive Judaism in Lutsk has been very active in supporting displaced persons and the most vulnerable: preparing hot meals for IDPs, setting up temporary shelters in the city and offering entertainment for the youngest, as well as helping rehabilitation centres, orphanages and hospitals.
Its building was transformed to accommodate IDPs in transit or seeking accommodation during their first days in Lutsk.
Thanks to the co-operation of the community with various charitable organisations, a children’s camp has been operating in its courtyard for many years. A special playground was also set up in the summer for local and displaced children, with art-therapy, creative and computer workshops for children, youth and adults.
With support from Israel, the community provides assistance also to orphans, people with disabilities and prisoners. It also regularly supports healthcare institutions with medicines, food packages and hygiene products.
The international community is becoming aware of the human cost of the war but the level of trauma Ukrainians have been experiencing and the damage to their mental health are yet to be estimated. From the first days of the aggression, Ukrainian intercultural cities saw the need for psychological assistance to different segments of the population with different cultural backgrounds.
Support groups were organised with the help of local administrations or nongovernmental organisations. The cities disseminated online information about the availability and location of psychological help units, or simply published instructions from professional psychologists on how to remain stable in a critical situation and how to help others.
These ‘psychological first-aid instructions’, as in Lutsk, reflect understanding of and respect for the diversity of cultures populating these cities. The ‘instructions for psychological assistance’ read: ‘Move the affected person from the scene of the threat or tragedy. Give support, sit or let the person lie down. Respect and protect the person’s dignity, rights and possible cultural differences. Ask permission if you need to touch the person …’
Odesa: Azerbaijanis raise funds
The Azerbaijani community in Odesa came up with the idea of asking Odesa residents and guests to donate a small amount—just the price of a cup of coffee—to raise resources for medical and other vehicles. The amount was small but, added up, it could help save lives. The organisers placed barcodes in more than 200 restaurants so that anyone could pay for this ‘cup of coffee’. Many did.
A ‘coffee for friends’ challenge was also held: people could record a video naming three of their friends with whom they would like to have a cup of coffee, and then ‘treat’ them by donating the price of three cups. As a result, the Azerbaijani community provided more than ten much-needed vehicles to the city and its defenders.
For centuries, representatives of different cultures and religions have enjoyed peaceful coexistence in all the Ukrainian intercultural cities, including Odesa. According to a representative of the Odesa eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, ‘We represent different denominations, but the desire for peace and for being good neighbours has always been part of the city of Odesa. And today our common prayers are for Odesa and its people to be safe. Peace is so necessary for all of Ukraine and its people, regardless of their cultural origin or religion.’
On March 16th, just three weeks into the war, the leaders of the different Orthodox eparchies and the Catholic, Jewish and Islamic communities of Odesa called for unity and peace in a common prayer in the city. They also recorded a video message. Not only civilians but also soldiers from different backgrounds joined in the prayer for peace.
Vinnytsia: Jewish community organises
Among the first to respond in Vinnytsia, in central Ukraine, was the organisation of the Jewish community, VEMO, for whom helping IDPs, regardless of age or origins, had long been a priority. Through the efforts of the community and partners from the Czech Republic, Poland, the United States, Germany and the Netherlands, a volunteer hub was created. As a result, 400 tons of humanitarian aid were transferred to eastern Ukraine during the first four months of war, as documented in relevant videos.
The volunteer hub of Vinnytsia Jewish Messianic Congregation continues to contribute to logistics co-ordination and the unloading and delivery of aid. It also supports Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia, as well as cities in Luhansk and Donetsk. Chaplains of the Vinnytsia Jewish community help displaced people, low-income and vulnerable groups and the city’s hospitals. They also provide psychological assistance to those who have lost loved ones.
Just one person can however make a difference. In March, Vinnytsia City Council received a letter from Selim Darkan, a German citizen of Arab origin in Bad Kreuznach, offering to help. Together with his Ukrainian wife and circle of friends, he collected aid in his town in Germany. Within days, his home turned into a humanitarian hub, where people brought goods and supplies for Ukraine. Over time, the contributions extended to neighbouring towns and villages.
All this Salim managed to deliver to Vinnytsia. To the question ‘Why Vinnytsia?’ he replied that the first displaced people who had arrived in Bad Kreuznach had come from the city. They had told him their stories, inspiring him to help.
Pavlohrad: intercultural connections
Many IDPs arrived in Pavlohrad, in eastern Ukraine, suffering from trauma, needing psychological support—particularly children. In April, the city’s intercultural team and local librarians organised an art-therapy initiative which became a local project. They created a mobile group who organised regular workshops, playgrounds and consultations for minority children, unaccompanied minors and displaced families—with a particular focus on persons of different cultural backgrounds—in the resettlement areas in and around Pavlohrad. The goal was to provide psychological relief to help IDPs cope with stress and the challenges of the current situation.
Having received training in intercultural competences through Pavlohrad’s participation in the ICC-UA, city librarians took the lead in developing the idea. Simultaneously, as network co-ordinator I reached out to the ICC member Stavanger in Norway for assistance. Its officials reacted promptly.
Within a few weeks, with Stavanger’s tangible support, Pavlohrad launched the ‘Heart to Heart’ project. The necessary equipment and materials—laptop, speakers, books, paper, pencils, paints and other materials—were acquired, which helped the librarians start immediately. A local television company made a report featuring interviews with the organisers and participants.
Melitopol: Bulgarian society leads evacuation effort
The head of the Bulgarian Balkan Culture Society in Melitopol—whom we are not naming because of the risks to herself and colleagues stemming the city’s occupation—remembers ‘the green corridors’ opened in Melitopol at the end of March. ‘We managed to pass three of them. The last one was on April 9. Inside these corridors, the evacuation of ethnic Bulgarians, Czechs, Germans and many other minorities was organised.’ The society became the centre of the evacuation of ethnic groups from the occupied territories of the Zaporizhzhia region, including representatives of 25 ethnic groups comprising the Council of National Minorities of Melitopol (a particularly multinational city).
Beginning the day after the invasion, the society collected lists of those who wanted to leave the city. Its representatives appealed to the Association of Bulgarians in Ukraine, to the MP of Bulgarian origin Anton Kise and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria. Through joint efforts, they managed to evacuate more than 1,500 people. ‘We helped everyone who asked, regardless of nationality, because we are one community!’
Despite the challenges temporarily-occupied Melitopol is experiencing—early in the war its mayor was abducted for a time by the Russians—the Council of National Minorities, in co-operation with the city council, continues to provide solutions and address the needs of members of the various ethnic communities, whether remaining in the occupied territory, displaced or exiled. And since last month, the psychological centre of Melitopol State Pedagogical University has been providing assistance to representatives of ethnic communities, wherever they now are, through online consultations and individual meetings, training and group discussions.
Key topics of these consultations include ‘psychological condition and interaction between and within ethnic groups in emergency situations’, ‘diversity management in the condition of crisis’, ‘the impact of trauma on the psychology of human behaviour: focus on minorities’ and ‘ability to meet personal basic needs in critical situations’. The goal is to prevent destructive psychological influences on representatives of ethnic minorities in conditions of war, occupation, internal displacement or forced emigration.
Representatives of national minorities and cultural societies in Melitopol have participated in regional, national and international events advocating for minority rights and the sovereignty of Ukraine. Olena Arabadzhy, representative of the Karaite indigenous group and member of the Board of the Union of Karaites of Ukraine, took part in the human rights dialogue during the 21st session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in late April and early May.
‘Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 broke the centuries-old family ties of the Karaite ethnic group, and Russian full-scale aggression since February 24 2022 has expelled the Karaites from their native Melitopol and scattered them in the cities of Ukraine and countries of the world,’ she said.
Arabadzhy experienced the occupation in her hometown of Melitopol, where her family has lived for almost two centuries. ‘Children and grandchildren no longer have the opportunity to learn the Karaite language; access to the Karaite cultural centre is blocked. Under the Russian occupation, which I experienced myself, we are forbidden to express our opinion, to participate in meetings. Other indigenous peoples of Ukraine—Crimean Tatars and Krymchaks—are in the same situation,’ she said.
Sumy: from Jews to Roma
In Sumy representatives of the Jewish community helped members of their and other minority groups to leave the city through green corridors at the beginning of the war. Aware of the needs of the Roma community, thanks to the intercultural work carried out in Sumy, the Jewish community also organised humanitarian aid for the Roma, providing food packages and medicine.
In addition, the Jewish community managed to obtain resources (human and external financial) for the reconstruction of three apartment blocks damaged by explosions. These buildings are inhabited by representatives of different nationalities, as well as elderly people who often live alone and are not able to repair their apartments themselves.
None of the ICC-UA team members, except in the occupied territory, has left Ukraine. (Many residents of Melitopol, including the municipal administration, have moved to Zaporizhzhia, the closest municipality.) They have remained on the ground, offering help and support to those who need it most in their diverse communities, as well as to those displaced and injured. Since February, they have been through some very difficult, life-threatening times and the challenges are not over. Yet they stay courageous, strong and motivated.
A team member from Sumy posted this in March:
I have remained in Sumy since the first day of the war. No, I will not use the green corridor. This is my decision, which was made consciously: I will meet everything here, and I will take the blow here, whatever it is. I will not pack my suitcase, as no suitcase is big enough to pack my parents, all my family, friends, Ukraine, home, and everything we have achieved. I am staying at home. Here. In Ukraine, with God, with peace, with Ukraine in my heart.
Looking to the future beyond the occupation, at the end of August representatives of national minorities from three intercultural cities participated in a round table on protecting the rights of national communities, including the Roma. The goal was to prepare proposals for the human-rights section of the draft Plan for the Recovery of Ukraine. The recommendations were processed by the secretariat of the Ukraine’s commissioner for human rights and sent to the government in Kyiv.