Olesya Arkhipova moved from Makiivka, Donetsk region to Ivano-Frankivsk in 2014 due to the Russian aggression in the Donbas. Over the next few years, she presented as one of the active IDPs, followed community image activism in Ivano-Frankivsk, undergone profound transformations to address the issue of non-discrimination, and sought to reduce xenophobia at the same time. Today, Olesya is a trainer and facilitator on topics such as human rights, gender equality, critical thinking, and civic education. She says that she is accustomed to a new home – integrated – but does not remove the “relocation jacket”. However, she wears it every time to address the stereotypes and prejudices that exist in the community regarding displaced persons.
On the stereotypes, prejudices, cultural and legal inequalities faced by the IDPs, we spoke with Olesya during the Kherson and Melitopol study visit for the “Diversity Ambassadors in the Pre-Carpathians” project. The “Diversity Ambassadors” project in the Pre-Carpathians has been implemented by the STAN Youth Organization with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Did you immediately move to Ivano-Frankivsk from Makiivka or were there other cities?
Frankivsk was my first and only point after Makiivka. My dad was a volunteer and killed in battle. I wanted to leave before, but whether or not I should be was unclear. After my father died, it became clear to me that I still did not want to make a life in Makiivka. Purchasing train tickets, for trains still passing through, your thoughts saying, “Please, please be a train to Ivano-Frankivsk.” I was asked, “What number?” I think I don’t know what number my thoughts were thinking of buying. I think that the axis between thoughts are that more than once you’ll need to gather the date. They ask me, “And return?” The answer is, “A return is not needed.” It is at this point when you have to say that you do not need to talk about the numbers and therefore you do not need them.
Have you ever experienced difficulty leaving the occupied territory?
At the time on July 6,2014, there were no boundaries between the occupied and unoccupied territories. But the trains left with a huge delay. There was a man at the station who was watching the time with his pocket watch as he sat and waited for 5-6 hours. My train took me from Luhansk to Kyiv. Back then, there was no direct flight. To get to the Frankivsk region, one had to do even more in Kyiv. Two trains worked without the usual delays. I waited for four years because the train was delayed because there was major fighting along the route.
There is a very personal moment, experienced by one of my visitors, that often comes to my mind. We got on a train and talked with a companion who was traveling from Luhansk from one end to the other. I had a top bunk and on the other slept the man. As we laid down, the cabin light turned off at night and the man took my hand and waved it around for a while. I’m still not clear about what was happening. My friend suggested that I should just hold his hand now. I’m already reporting that I was. I feel like this guy was kind of trying to tell me, “I’m scared. I’ve very scared to stay home.” We didn’t say it out loud, instead deciding cheerfully, but this fear that had found us was our own.
Is it very difficult for a person without such experiences to imagine how it is to move to a new place without having any support? Where did you live? How did you spend the first days?
At that time, the headquarters for working with the displaced was still working well in Frankivsk. There was a hotel where the displaced could stay for a week for free. From Makiivka, I called them and asked if I could come. They answered that they did not know if they would have a place. So, when I left home, I really didn’t know if they would house me or not. I had 1000 UAH, a suitcase and a laptop bag with me and that’s all. No work, no friends.
Although, with respect to acquaintances, apparently not quite so. I left Donetsk without really knowing anyone in Frankivsk. But while on the road, my mother’s friend contacted her longtime acquaintance and told her about me. And so, it happened that when I got off the train in Ivano-Frankivsk, I was already met by her friend, Igor Susiak. He drove me to the cafeteria to eat and then to the headquarters. The staff told me that I would be accommodated at the Banderstadt Hotel. Igor drove me to the hotel and helped me get my bags. That is, I did not know anyone in the city myself, but from the moment I got off the train, I already had a king of “support group” of people who were waiting for me and were ready to help as soon as needed.
Have you encountered any prejudice when looking for an apartment?
In general, there is a lot of prejudice. While training female IDPs, I have heard many stories about landlord biases that prevent people from finding apartments for months. But I had a different situation. In order to rent an apartment, it is necessary to pay the owner at least a month in advance, plus a realtor. I just had no money for the apartment.
Now it will be a mystical thing that I believe has literally changed my life. I met with a psychologist at the hotel where I lived. I was invited to one of these meetings. At first, I didn’t want to go because I didn’t think I had any psychological problems. But I felt in debt to the people that let me live in the hotel for free all these days. What surprised me about meeting the psychologist was that she just talked to us like people. She did not take any test, just asked, “How are you? Do you already know which buses to take?” She also asked about the resettlement. I said that I was having trouble finding an apartment. She said that she had an apartment where her friend lives now and that I can live there too for a while.
What prejudices did IDPs face in the early years of the war and what do they face now? Can we make a contrast?
I personally encountered prejudices about IDPs when looking for work. My potential employers were afraid to hire me because it seemed to them that if I was from eastern Ukraine, I would speak with clients in Russian, which would damage the image of the company. I explained to them that I had studied at a Ukrainian-speaking university and not only could I communicate but also keep documentation in Ukrainian. However, it was still one of their greatest fears.
In my private life, I have been confronted with the stereotype of displaced persons. When people in my area learned that I was a displaced person, many of them immediately began to pity me. They refused to accept me as an equal, treated positively though superficially. For example, I was given a lot of old clothes. When I said, “Thank you, but I don’t need clothes. I have good things that I brought from Makiivka. I have something to wear,” people would say that they didn’t understand why I didn’t want their help. But no one asked what I needed. They brought me jam, sacks of potatoes, like the things they usually give to the poor. The displaced persons were perceived as someone who was below the poverty line. At the outset, such help could have been helpful. However, very soon the sense of poverty and helplessness that you were getting with your pack of clothes became an obstacle on the way to a normal life. And it was worth it to someone to overcome this obstacle. But what began was people saying, “Look! It turns out that they are not poor at all. They sat at the administration, but in reality, they just pretended to be poor.” There was a sense of frustration and even deceit in people who felt sorry for you yesterday. This is the first moment. The second moment is when people talk to you and then they learn that you are from Donetsk and there is a feeling of discomfort. The level of trust falls, and they begin to “suspect” you to be a separatist. Then you have to prove to them for half an hour that this is not true. The explanation that my dad was killed in the ATO, that we went with him to the pro-Ukrainian rallies, when it all started, I literally started to remember. At some point, I realized that I would repeat them every time I met someone.
When you keep hearing, “I don’t like displaced people at all, but I like you,” begins to persuade a person to say, “You can say these words to any of the displaced persons. There is no general image of pattern of behavior. Everyone is different.” And they stop you in the middle saying, “No, no! It’s okay with you, but don’t tell me that I have to “rotate” for all displaced persons.” I don’t want to blame people since they turn to natural defense mechanisms. Speaking of stereotypes and prejudices as of 2014, it was a natural process. Imagine we are sitting on a train. Five strangers come on at one stop and take up space in one section. They go together for a while, they start to get to know each other, they have common topics for conversation, and they make contacts. Then another person comes onto the car from another stop. The last available seat is in their section and despite the fact that this person is sitting in his place, not a stranger, but for the rest of the people in the section, that’s what he is. Several stops were enough to form a group identity, which they protect. Each of the five understand that as it will be gone soon. Their group identity will change. Maybe that sixth person will ask some other topics, other conversation flows and, of course, each of them, if not afraid, then fears or feels less comfortable than before the “new” person got onto the car.
For me personally, the process that was initially (not always pleasant) was a natural integration process that needed help. Many organizations and activists have been involved in the integration of IDPs. They worked not only with IDPs, but also with communities where IDPs should integrate. But the fact that stereotypes are not being dispelled now, I take as a personal responsibility of every Ukrainian and for every Ukrainian because the way we treat other people is not just about them, but about us. The problem with prejudice against IDPs today, as for me, is far less organic.
Do you feel that they are not dispelled? Even though IDP activists work to create a positive image of their community?
Now in 2019, this is different. Today, many of the IDPs who have integrated into the new environment have stopped calling themselves IDPs. But it’s not because they stopped feeling that way. People just realize that they will face many prejudices if they show this identify. They think, “What kind of displaced person am I? I have been living here for four years. I’m almost local.” The focus changes. Those who feel more integrated “remove” the identity of the displaced person. After all, the situation is that stereotypes continue to work, but not against all IDPs, but against the less integrated.
That is, if you have succeeded, you will “remove” that identity. And as a consequence, is the word “IDP” now only about those who have failed?
Yes, but you don’t remove it because you want it. It’s like a dirty jacket. When you were cold, you put it on because you had to warm up. But at some point, when it got a little warm, you took it off not because you wanted to take it off, but because it was dirty. And when the wind blows again, you will be cold again, but you will no longer wear this jacket. For the last three years, I have noticed on the projects carried out by the state that when submitted, people do not indicate that they are displaced persons, but in a personal conversation they share that they lived in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kramatorsk. I ask them, “Are you an IDP?” And they answer, “Well, I’m already a displaced person!” People are tired of this term, tired of carrying the luggage that society hands over with the label “IDP”. Hearing, “You are an IDP, is you are such, such and such…” If I have lived in this city for several years, have housing, work, local acquaintances, I know where the buses go, I just take off my jacket, hang it away somewhere and that’s it.
To be continued…
The interview was created within the framework of the Diversity Ambassadors in Carpathian region project implemented by the STAN Youth Organization with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Content is the sole responsibility of the STAN Youth Organization and does not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.