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“There can never be enough efforts for peace”

Interview with Ukrainian psychologist Olena Melnyk

The network “Empathy Ukraine” offers emotional support which many people in Ukraine urgently need now during the war. Psychologist Olena Melnyk is one of the founding members of the network and a long-standing partner of forumZFD in Odesa. In the interview she explains how empathy can make a difference in the current situation and why she still believes in Non-Violence.
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Dear Olena, it has been over a year now since Russia has launched its large-scale attack against Ukraine. You live and work in Odesa. How do you look back at the last year?

When the invasion started on 24th February 2022, I was attending a peace conference in Israel. I immediately called my mother, who felt a lot of fear because she was born in 1941, saw the war and its consequences. When I returned to Ukraine two days later, I met total darkness. There was no light, everything was closed, the banks, the shops. It was like a collapse – of everything. Nobody can be really prepared for war, because up to the last moment everybody still hopes that it will not happen. My first tears were about the efforts of people who have devoted themselves to peace. I understood that there can never be enough efforts for peace in the world. I strongly believe in Non-Violence and Non-Violent Communication. This has given me inner strength to navigate through difficult times in my life before, and it also gave me strength during the last year. When the invasion began, I received many messages of support from the international community of Non-Violent Communication. I could feel their solidarity for Ukraine and for Ukrainians. These connections to other people helped me throughout the year.

For Ukrainians, the last year was extremely challenging in many ways, including emotionally. What were the dominant emotions that you have observed?

There are many different reactions. In Non-Violent Communication, we don’t differentiate between positive and negative emotions. All our feelings are important. They actually come from unsatisfied or satisfied needs within the people. If you look deeper, you will understand why people have these emotions. War is a crisis situation. A lot of anger and hate is being born. But if we look deeper we can see that underneath there are needs and values such as love, dignity, safety, life, freedom. How can we defend these needs and values in times of war? Connecting with our needs and values gives us back our power and ability to act.

Some people feel alone with their fears and with their loss. In this situation, it can help to have a place where you know that you can always come, where you will be accepted and not judged. Staying in connection with others and finding these small islands of warmth – this gives people hope. Already before the invasion began, my colleagues from the community of Non-Violent Communication and me had started to organize circles of empathy support. During the first months of the war, these circles were being carried out every day.

Let us take a closer look at this project: Together with forumZFD and other experts, you have built up a network called “Empathy Ukraine”, which offers empathy support. This started already before the Russian invasion. How did you come up with this idea?

I founded the network together with Angela Starovoytova and Artem Sivak who are both experts in Non-Violent Communication. When the Covid pandemic started in spring 2020, we came up with the idea to support people emotionally during this crisis. Together with the project managers of forumZFD, we developed this idea further. We had already been giving trainings in Non-Violent Communication in Odesa before, and this new project was a chance to connect people who were working on this topic in different ways all over Ukraine. We call ourselves “community of practitioners”, because Non-Violent Communication is not so much about theory or being an expert – it is a way of thinking and acting. 25 people joined our network. The structure that we built up and the experiences that we collected during the pandemic are very helpful now during the war.

The team of „Empathy Ukraine“ (Olena Melnyk: upper row, 3rd from the left).

Who are your participants and how are the empathy sessions structured?

All participants are Ukrainians. Some are in the country, others are abroad. Some are also in occupied territories or in regions where fighting takes place. We offer individual sessions and group sessions. In the individual sessions, we mostly listen. At first, we might hear a part of the participant’s story, and then we ask if we may rephrase what we have heard or if we can ask a question. We always make sure that our participants lead the process. Through connecting with them and listening carefully, we are searching for their needs which may or may not be satisfied. If they allow it, we can also share how their stories resonate with us. Maybe a metaphor, a quote from a song or other special words, or a body feeling comes to us, which we can share with the participants, and they can say whether this describes their feelings. And when they say “Yes, this is it”, you can see how the tension decreases and the person relaxes.

We also offer group sessions, which we call “Empathy Cafés”. Here, people can come, listen to each other and share their stories. The group sessions take place twice per week and usually around 10 to 20 people join us. Twice a year, once in summer and once in winter, we also organize an “Empathy Festival”. This is one month in which we come together and share some practices of Non-Violent Communication, for example how to take care of yourself. Another format are the “Circles of Grieving”. This topic is especially important now, because many people are confronted with loss. The circles give them the opportunity to speak about this.

Do all of these formats take place online?

Nearly all of the empathy sessions are online, as our participants are from many different places. However, we also had a few sessions in person. For example, during a rocket attack one of our colleagues was stuck in a shelter with 250 people. He organized sessions in the shelter and thereby provided empathy support. And other colleagues who are now not in Ukraine work in shelters with Ukrainian people.

Do you give advice to your participants?

No, we do not give advice. We believe in the power of people. Our job is to give space for difficult emotions. In our language we say that we create a ‘container’, a special safe space for these feelings. Participants might start crying or be very angry or have other strong reactions. We welcome these feelings, and these tears become tears of release – after a while the participants breath out, the body relaxes, and they become calmer.

As a psychologist, I know that empathy is fundamental in any supporting profession. When we create a safe space where people can express themselves, where we accept them with all their different emotions and they understand that it is normal to feel this way in their situations – only then they will be able to speak about what is really important to them, to see in future and eventually find ways to solve their issues.

When someone feels lost and we say “I am here. You are not alone.” – that is empathy. When we simply stand next to someone, without speaking, just breathing together – that is empathy. When we try to check someone about their feelings and needs – that is empathy. And when we give back what we understand from what a person is saying – that is also empathy, because it helps the person to see the bigger picture of what has happened. This is not about our analysis or our diagnosis about how we see it, but to give back the person’s own perspective, the road that he or she has passed. It heals.

I can imagine that you heard many stories during the last year that were difficult to listen to. How do you and the other empathy givers make sure to take care of yourself during the sessions?

Before we can help others, we need to be sure that we are able to help ourselves. Each of us has one or two people in the community with whom we can talk – we call this “empathy buddy”. That is very helpful. We also have weekly meetings with all the empathy givers. In these intervisions, we discuss individual cases, share our visions, and give support to one another. Once or twice a month, we invite external experts or international trainers who work with us on difficult cases. In addition, we work with psychologists and psychiatrists. When we see that participants need further support, we direct them to these specialists.

What are the main topics which people bring to the empathy sessions?

One might think that because we are at war, all the topics are connected directly with that. This is partially true, but actually people also come with other topics, because the war opens up other wounds. This can be for example about relations in the family or at the workplace. Life continues even during war.

Do you notice any polarization or conflicts in the Ukrainian society due to the war?

There are definitely many different experiences at the moment: some people are abroad, others stayed in Ukraine, some men are in the hotspots of fighting, others are in the rear. Some people face the impossibility of returning, because there is nowhere to go, some have lost family members and so on. I would say that during war it can sometimes be more difficult to accept different perspectives and opinions. Everything we do is directed to the victory of Ukraine and what needs to be done so that we win. In this war, we use all our power and weapons to defend our freedom and independence. The war is happening on our territory.

In the current situation, Ukrainians need to be sure that they are seen in their suffering, that they are heard and supported. When the fighting is still going on and people die every day, we need an incredible amount of empathy and support. I think this is why it is so difficult right now to even think about dialogue with Russian people. 

By giving empathy to people, we give them the feeling of being seen and heard. Over time, this will give them the opportunity to develop this emotional container for themselves, and then they may be able to give empathy to others, to support other people within Ukraine. The opportunity to develop the skill of empathy listening is our contribution in this situation. It is what we are giving to the country – these ways through which we can support each other.

Destroyed buildings in a village near Chernihiv: "War is an inhuman test for the psyche", says Olena Melnyk.

As you mentioned, the Ukrainian society is torn apart at the moment: Some people are displaced within the country, others have left the country. Now in winter, the living conditions in Ukraine are especially hard. Are you worried that after the war people might have difficulties understanding and accepting each other’s experiences?

It is true that in different parts of Ukraine there seem to be different realities, and yet another reality for those who find themselves outside of Ukraine – and it is not always easy, as it sometimes seems. And, of course, we have to talk about this. It will take time to find common ground to move ahead. This winter is really hard: In Odesa, we only have two hours of electricity per day and two per night. But at the same time there are cultural activities, theatres are working, schools work both in online and offline format, kindergartens are open. We have power outages, but the city and businesses have put up “Invincibility Centres” where you can come to charge your electronic devices and work. As for me, I feel that I have adapted to the situation and I have a lot of empathy for those who are going through more difficult experiences than mine.

Many people in Ukraine have relatives in Russia. The war separates these families. Can these relationships ever be normal again?

Right now, the pain and the loss on the Ukrainian side is so big that for some people it seems easier to just cut off the relations. In addition, the information spaces are so different – what the relatives are hearing and then using in conversations stands in stark contrast to the reality in Ukraine. This brings even more pain. If the connections within the families have been built on love and care, they can still exist through the pain and through joint grieving. But if the connection and trust in a family are not so strong, connection might get cut off.

I also noticed that since the beginning of the invasion many people here in Ukraine have started to speak Ukrainian. This is not forced onto them in any way, it is their free choice. It is a sign of solidarity and belonging to this country and the awareness of Ukrainian identity.

In a country at war, is there still room for Non-Violence and Non-Violent Communication?

Non-Violence is very important in the current situation, because it is not only about self-care and empathy – it is also about the power of defence, choice, honesty, responsibility and also about including people in decision-making processes. Through Non-Violent Communication, people can understand each other and try to find solutions together.

One example: In another project with forumZFD, we work in the yards in Odesa and received the request to improve the communication within these neighbourhoods. We organize circles in which the neighbours can discuss conflictual questions. Non-Violent Communication is very helpful in these situations – because when our brain is full with emotions, we cannot think clearly, but when we accept our emotions, our brain is ready to generate new ideas and solutions. We had one yard nearby a big 16-floor building. There was only very little communication among the neighbours. We also organized a circle for them to discuss whether the underground basement could be turned into a shelter. People talked and tried to understand one another, and in the end, they did not only turn the basement into a shelter, but also started to organize other community activities, such as putting up benches in the yard and organizing master-classes for children. People started to communicate more and more with each other. This example shows how Non-Violence can help to achieve improvements which are useful for everyone. The methods of Non-Violent Communication can help people to hear each other’s needs and make decisions together.

"Maybe what keeps me going is my belief in the future", says Olena Melnyk.

What projects do you plan to work on the future?

We have a lot of ideas. The first thing is to continue the empathy support and make our network even bigger, because many people need this kind of support right now. I would also like to work more with children. There is a big need, because many of them are traumatized by the war.

Another idea is to work with teachers. Together with forumZFD, we have worked with schools in the past, and teachers were very grateful for the opportunity to learn about methods of Non-Violent Communication. I think we need to continue this work, especially as teachers are doing an incredible job at the moment – throughout the pandemic and even now in the war they keep teaching, even without electricity, online to offline at the same moment, even in the face of reduced funding for education. You have to be very strong to do this work, and I think we should support teachers as much as we can.

Finally, I think we should find ways to support soldiers, veterans and their families. War is an inhuman test for the psyche, in which people mobilize their resources for survival and struggle. This is a constant risk of death and stress, which is why it is so important for society to take care of their warriors and help them deal with the consequences of their traumatic experience. This will help us as a society to quicker return to peace.

So there is a lot of work ahead of you. What gives you hope or strength to continue you work?

Maybe it is my belief in humanity. I am convinced that if we speak openly with one another, we will find ways to communicate. Maybe it is also my belief that at the moment nobody knows the correct way – but there is creativity and there is an open space for new ideas and new ways. I can see that this tragic time of war unites people, opens talents, creates new initiatives, and gives birth to a lot of very useful ideas. This is inspiring. Maybe it is my belief in cooperation. In life, sometimes I cannot do much on my own, but on the road I meet other people and we can work together. Especially in the first days of the war, my main need was solidarity. I could almost feel it on my skin, and inside of me. And I understood that I needed to be with other people, to work together, to build something together. Maybe what keeps me going is my belief in the future.

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