We all need leaders. The UK’s Institute of Leadership & Management says that leadership is everywhere, and I fully agree with that. Each one of us is unique, bright, and can lead.
Those ideas are the answers to why I wanted to provide online courses for young people in my home country of Ukraine. I wanted to inspire the younger generation – to make them see what they could achieve in their lives, and dream about how far they could go.
I focused on young people from nine-to-16 years old. The courses trained their main personal qualities such as positive mental attitude, conflict resolution and how to implement leadership skills in everyday life. I also provided a specialized course on etiquette. Like an artist, I wanted to show my young learners that life is like a canvas: you decide which colors you want to use – and what masterpiece you want to get.
In the process of drafting my etiquette course plan, I found webinars from the Institute and connected with the organisation. In 2020, they invited me as a speaker for International Leadership Week.
On 24 February, I had a 6am phone call from a friend saying that war had begun in the East of Ukraine. Although I lived in the Western part of the country, some miles away from where the war started, life changed immediately.
I put all the necessary belongings into my hand luggage: documents, medicines, warm clothes, a traditionally embroidered shirt (vyshyvanka), a prayer book, water, and some money. You can't take everything, only some things you need. Our mindset about the value of different things changed completely at that time. I also added some skills and knowledge around problem solving.
The annoying alarms in the air made everybody feel stressed. Sometimes, they lasted an hour or even more. The sound of danger and rockets made us run to a shelter, carrying our stuff, and stay there wondering whether our home existed or not. Nobody could keep calm at night or in the daytimes. Shots tore the air, and the sound of the explosion in our airport brought horror to our life.
Something I’ll remember forever at that time: my son Vlad fell to his knees and prayed loudly for help and peace. He is nine years old. It touched my heart so much – and I decided to leave the country for our safety.
We lived very close to the border with Belarus. On 27 February, my son, my friend Marina, her dog, and I left Ukraine for obscurity. We started our trip at 9am and crossed the Slovakian border at 3am the next day, on foot. The next day we got to Poland – then, through a combination of plane and train, we arrived in Belgium, where we are now.
One thing I was so grateful for at that stressful time was the immediate support I received from the Institute. The staff kept in touch with me, asked me how I was doing, and wished me all the best.
Chaos and continuity
It was important to me to carry on the work I had done with my young learners before the war. As soon as we organised our routine in Belgium, I resumed contact with my students. Their lives were disrupted, but that stress supplied new experience while we created our courses, and we helped each other cope with our different situations. Despite all the chaos that had happened in Ukraine, I wanted to provide them with some sense of continuity.
The young people were dealing with a lot of fear. When they were in public shelters, they didn't know whether they would have homes to go back to. And when they were in their homes, they were afraid to go out. That kind of fear is paralysing – you don't want to move. So, I made sure that the courses included physical exercise routines so they could let their tension out and feel more relaxed and comfortable.
Another huge role of our online meetings was providing them with a place where they could talk about what they were going through – and when we were together online, they talked a lot. That was very important because they were not ‘staying with themselves’ – or keeping all their worries locked inside. They had a way of speaking about what was happening with people who could relate to their experiences. That gave them an outlet for their emotions.
To balance that out, I started asking members of the group to be responsible for planning and preparing what we had to do during our following lessons. That gave them something constructive and positive to focus on that would take their minds away from the terrifying things that were happening around them, and gave them something to look forward to.
Meanwhile, we hear inspiring stories about how the younger generation, the future of my country, is carrying out heroic deeds. For example, a young boy nicknamed Cosmo Maks (Maksym Brovchenko) is drawing and selling pictures, then sending the proceeds to Ukrainian troops. A girl who is only seven years old, and whose father died in this awful war, is creating wreaths and has already sent 7 million hryvnias (our national currency) to the Ukrainian army. I could add to my list constantly…
These children are showing leadership skills and facing their fears and uncertainties in their actions. They are our heroes. Recently, some of them were awarded the National Children’s Presidential Award for Heroism. We are proud of them.
A safe place
Unfortunately, as the conflict in Ukraine has continued, the young people I was working with have dispersed and fled to other countries, such as Poland, Germany, Spain, France, Italy and Portugal. As their living space is limited, a lot of them don't have good internet connections – but we try to make the best of the situation.
In September, they will go to school in the countries where they now live. I hope after the summer we will be able to plan our online meetings more often and stay focused on skills relating to flexibility and adaptability during wartime. We would be thankful for any support from different communities.
I would also like to start doing courses with the Ukrainian children who live in Belgium, including my son. I believe it is important to give them a safe place for talking about not only fears, pain, troubles, uncertainties, and worries but hopes, wishes, love, plans, dreams, happiness, smiles, jokes, and many other positive things.
All the Ukrainian children who are now living abroad have a big wish to return home and help to reconstruct the country with our unique culture and traditions. They show the example of how children can survive and inspire each other to believe in our victory. They still make history by doing their best – even in today’s troubled world.