Olena Kulyhina, Ukrainian volunteer 

By Svitlana Dukhovych

Feb 23 2024

In an interview with Vatican News, a young woman from Kherson recounts her and many of her compatriots’ choice to dedicate themselves to helping soldiers on the front lines in this time of war, and explains that volunteering is a relatively new phenomenon for Ukrainians, developed especially in the last two years.

“When I woke up that morning of Feb 24, 2022, and began to watch the news, I learned that my hometown Nova Kakhovka, in the south of the Kherson region, where I was born and lived for twenty-five years, had been occupied by the Russians.”

This is how Olena Kulyhina’s story begins, a young Ukrainian who at the time of the invasion was in Lviv, in the west of the country, where she taught at the Catholic University. Her mother, her 85-year-old grandmother, and her brother, with his own family, as well as many childhood friends, found themselves under occupation.

“This awareness,” she recalls, “was so paralyzing that I couldn’t think of anything else. I had to do something useful to reduce my anxiety by helping our country in this struggle.” This initial impulse led the young woman to try different ways to be useful: from spreading news, to arranging medical kits for soldiers, to sending medicine to civilians in territories occupied by the Russians, to what occupies her today, providing medicines and medical equipment to healthcare workers who treat wounded soldiers on the front lines.

“This,” she explains, “is my way of saying ‘thank you’ to our soldiers who are liberating our country. They are helping me and my family return home, and I try to help wounded soldiers heal so they can recover as quickly as possible.”

The phenomenon of volunteering in Ukraine

Olena Kulyhina is one of the many Ukrainians who volunteer, a relatively new phenomenon in Ukraine, for which there was not even a word in Soviet times.

The Soviet state had abandoned the principles of civil solidarity to introduce the principle of communist social protection, according to which every needy person, disabled or unable to work – adult or minor – could only count on state assistance. Volunteering resumed in Ukraine in the early years of independence.

The Revolution of Dignity, between the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, represented an important impetus for the activation of the volunteering movement: citizens, communities, and associations provided food, clothing, and funds to volunteers who delivered and purchased everything necessary for the Maidan protesters. This movement continued to develop during the war in the east of the country, which began thereafter. The subsequent growth of volunteering in the country was associated with the beginning of the large-scale Russian invasion.

From February to April 2022, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, including those traditionally distant from volunteering, began to help the Armed Forces and fellow citizens in organizing resistance to the Russian aggression. In the initial phase of the war, volunteers organized various types of assistance to victims, evacuated and hosted millions of internally displaced persons, and so on. According to data from “Democratic Initiatives,” a Ukrainian sociological research center, about 61% of Ukrainians have been involved, in one way or another, in volunteering activities.

Today, volunteer organizations largely compensate for the state’s inability to provide full medical assistance to the wounded and material and psychological support to displaced persons. It is the survey of the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies “Razumkov,” published in October 2023, that shows the level of trust of Ukrainian citizens in various state institutions and civil society organizations: the Armed Forces of Ukraine are in first place (93%), while volunteer organizations are in third place (84%).

The beginning of the journey

For Olena, the first approach to volunteering was in 2016 when, in collaboration with Bishop Jan Sobilo, Auxiliary Bishop of the Latin Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia, she was involved in the “Pope for Ukraine” project. Many of the people she worked with then went to the front lines immediately after the invasion, and many others came to replace them. “Almost always, behind every soldier,” Olena explains, “there is someone who, by supporting them, starts volunteering.

“They can be,” she points out, “their family members or colleagues, or, for example, people like my university students who, in the early days of the war, were very confused and went to volunteer wherever they could: some welcomed displaced persons at the Lviv railway station, others collected food and clothes in university classrooms, wove camouflage nets, and so on.”

Olena describes “an entire category of volunteers” who are the wives, mothers, or sisters of soldiers who often gather, also at parishes, do some manual work (for example, knitting socks or camouflage nets for soldiers), and at the same time, pray and support each other. There are those who sew clothes suitable for the wounded, visit soldiers hospitalized in hospitals, prepare food for them, or provide medicines. “There are many ordinary people in Ukraine,” the young woman continues, “who have no experience of volunteering, who work, raise children, and who, at the same time, seek an opportunity to be useful.

Even children, young people, often draw pictures and send them to our soldiers on the front lines along with other gifts their parents collect. This, too, is a great support because, visiting hospitals near the front lines, I have seen entire walls with children’s drawings, and this is important for soldiers because they understand that their children and others’ children remember them and wait for them at home.”

Supply of medicines

Olena Kulyhina carries out her volunteering activity together with a friend of hers with whom, at the beginning of the war, she sent medicines to civilians in the occupied territories of the Kherson region, where her family remained, who managed to escape seven months after her. Now the two women help military doctors.

“We study the lists of medicines they need to save people’s lives,” explains the volunteer, “and in these almost two years, we already have permanent lists that repeat 90% of the time. Then we look for funds or partners who can buy medicines abroad and send them to us, or buy them in Ukraine and then send them even faster.”

“What we are looking for,” she said, “are personal protective equipment, i.e., so-called tactical medicine for first aid after an injury when it is necessary to stop bleeding and save a person’s life in the pre-hospital phase, i.e., before the wounded person is hospitalized for more professional treatment.”

Olena explained that they have about 150 doctors working in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine “whom we constantly help.”

The two volunteers have a large community of people who support them, who come not only from Ukraine, but also from Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United States.

“For these people, we have become a reference point, their representatives on the front lines,” explains Olena, “because when I show them photos of people receiving the aid they sent from their cities and countries, then a synergy is created in which each one does their part.”

“…Let life prevail.”

Despite all the horrors of war, in Ukraine, young people fall in love and start families. Olena herself recently got married, her husband, as well as her brother, is fighting on the front lines.

“Of course, it’s tough for every family divided by war,” she admits, “it’s very difficult for families where women with children are forced to go abroad while men go to the front lines. For men, it’s often safer to know that the family, especially the children, are safe, but physically, it’s very difficult to be at a great distance, not seeing each other often. Some brave women, if they don’t have very young children, approach the front lines to spend some time with their loved ones.”

Indeed, it is very important for boys and girls on the front lines to have this support, knowing that their family is with them. For those who remain in the rear or even abroad, it is truly a great challenge, especially when there is no connection and communication is not possible.

“My family has only been married for a month and a half,” the volunteer continues. “We got married in the last week of 2023, we made this decision realizing that we shouldn’t wait for another moment because this is our life, we are living it now.

“At the beginning of the war,” Olena explains, “we thought it would be a short war, that we would put all our forces, all our resources together, and with the help of the international community, we believed that maybe in six months, a year, we would all return home and continue to live as before. But now, at the end of the second year of war, we look at time, at every day we live, completely differently, and every day is important. In the last year, there have been many losses among acquaintances on the front lines, doctors I knew, friends, relatives of my friends, they have all given their lives for us.

“And when I look at this news,” she recognizes, “I understand that we don’t know how long we still have to face this trial. Therefore, every decision we make, including our decision to get married, is a sign that life prevails over death in our hearts, in our faith, in our plans, and that each of us is doing everything possible to ensure that this life wins.” – Vatican News