- Posted August 3, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The underestimated power of Ukrainian diaspora in the midst of an armed conflict
I am ordering a meal in a Thai restaurant with a friend of mine who has been residing for more than 15 years in Germany. We met each other at one of the protests - lately protests have become an essential part of our expats’ social life lighting up a mounting worry and uncertainty about our homeland. Glad to chat in Ukrainian for a change, which is certainly not a common component of our everyday life, I suddenly feel someone’s gaze. A guy is watching us. “Slava Ukraini” ("Glory to Ukraine”) - he smiles, having overheard our conversation. “Heroyam slava” (“Glory to the heroes”) - we both reply. Just a year ago greeting a stranger this way would have been hard to imagine.
Besides all the devastation and distress brought to Ukrainians after assassination of “Heavenly Hundred” in February and further armed conflict with Russian-led rebels, during the recent 8 months there has been an incredible rise in solidarity and reinforcement of Ukrainian identity not only inside of the country, but among diaspora communities, too. Indeed, together with providing remittances, diasporas have long played a significant role in political lobbying and have served as key players of socio-economic development. But what are diasporas’ role in political confrontations of a region, particularly when an armed conflict or human rights violations are involved? And how does political turmoil shape the way migrants see themselves?
Ukrainian diaspora’s support since the inception of resistance movement last year has been striking. While the biggest number of ethnic Ukrainians is concentrated in North America (with almost 4% of Canadian population being of Ukrainian origin), Ukrainians maintain a strong presence in the EU, particularly in Italy, Poland and Germany. Comprising of young professionals and university students, Ukrainians in Germany were among the first ones to get mobilized under the motto “Let us be creators of our own history”. A spontaneous protest took place on the 24th of November 2013 when a group of Ukrainians based in the North and East of Germany gathered in front of Brandenburger Tor, a symbol of freedom in Berlin, to show how frustrated they were with political decisions of their former government. It was shortly after the news about President’s refusal to sign Association Agreement with the EU became public.
Since then Ukrainian diaspora, connected via Facebook groups, has been forming mini-“maidans” in all Western countries. “The Revolution of Dignity”, which was a common metaphor both in Ukraine and abroad, galvanized even those who seemed to be loosing any connection with the country. Whether organizing flash mobs and awareness campaigns about the Ukrainian crisis, paying respect to the deceased in front of Ukrainian embassy with the lit candles and portraits of victims, or raising money for Ukrainian Armed Forces or for those injured in the combats - for many migrants it became a new way of belonging through participation.
“At some point of time I could not stay home alone any more. I needed to share my worry with someone. Someone who would understand my pain. And so we decided to get together for another protest” - Maria, one of the activists, confesses. For the others it was just a matter of vital necessity: “Helplessness is the worst feeling. By donating to Ukrainian army I feel I can contribute, since I am not there to join the military. My wife and I are raising money for antibiotics and bulletproof wests.” - Alexander, software engineer from Berlin explains. In fact, the bulletproof wests are not so easy to get any more in Germany - they are sold out faster than a new supply arrives.
Not all equipment or medicine is available in Ukraine either. Celox, described by nurses as “life savior”, is a range of hemostats to control moderate to severe traumatic bleeding, and is widely applied in military medicine. It is the boxes of Celox, ordered in Israel, that Ukrainian community in Germany is about to ship to the Eastern Ukraine this week, thanks to the generous donations of volunteers. The same initiative takes place among Ukrainians in the Netherlands, France and other EU countries.
As war flares, there are more social venues organized by the diaspora. “We have launched a campaign encouraging women to send letters to the soldiers who are now deployed in the Donbas area. Although many have been supplying guys with ammunition or clothes, we believe that affection and moral support are not less important than material goods”, - one of the local activists, Yevgeniya, tells me.
Besides fostering solidarity of Ukrainians abroad, the involvement into political issues back home triggered a powerful identity shift. An image of a Ukrainian abroad portrayed during the last two decades can hardly be defined as a glorious one. With the exception of invincible on Brothers Klitschko or a footballer Andriy Shevchenko, there has not been many positive references for a foreign audience, particularly when it comes to women. Depicted in the mass media either as silent domestic workers in Italy, trafficked victims of sex trade in Turkey, or “mail-order” brides far away in the States, the Ukrainian woman’s image has been ranging from an oppressed individual to a seductive gold-digger, rarely showing a proactive empowered female fighting for what she believes.
Ironically, it is these seemingly fragile women who took control of the diaspora resistance movement in November 2013 and have partially led it since then: applying for permission at a local police to carry out demonstrations, designing posters and hand-outs with the slogans, preparing speeches for the EU mass media about the current situation in the country and monitoring foreign press for inaccuracies of reporting on the ground.
“Before I was never delighted to say I was of Ukrainian origin, - confesses 29-year-old Katya, - Or let’s say, I didn’t care so much. It’s been a long time I live abroad. I came here as an Au-Pair 10 years ago. But recent events changed it all. I am proud to show to the whole world who I am, where I come from, and what we are struggling for”.
While speaking to me, Katya posts a “selfie" on Instagram of her wearing a typical national outfit: a white embroidered shirt, coral beads and flowers in the hair, as a new trend of ethnic clothing grows popular against the backdrop of war. There is an online contest for the most patriotic fashion photo shoot going on, and she is determined to win. And so it is, the diaspora carries on with its fervent involvement in Ukrainian affairs, and politics gets mingled with beauty.