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“The future will come from the Ukrainian basements”

In Odesa, neighbourhood activists provide much needed support to local communities

The port city of Odesa at the Black Sea is known for its beautiful courtyards. In the last years, the local NGO “Zatsikavleni” has worked on reviving the tradition of these yards as open and inclusive places, where neighbours meet and grow as a community. The network that they have built is now essential to provide humanitarian help. And despite the war, people are planting trees in their yards, activist Dmytro Kovbasyuk shares in an interview with forumZFD.
Nachbarschaftshilfe Odessa
© René Fietzek

Mr. Kovbasyuk, Odesa has always been a very multicultural city. What role do the courtyards play for the social cohesion?

You can compare Odesa to a miniature of Ukraine: For centuries, our country has been home to many different nations and religions, and this is also reflected in Odesa. If we look at the microlevel, we can see this multiculturality in the courtyards. For example, all the different religious holidays were celebrated by everybody together, from Jewish holidays to Christian Easter. It is sometimes difficult to understand what “social cohesion” means, but when you go into the yards, you can really feel it. Now, during the war, you can see for example neighbours baking bread and distributing it, or bringing medicine to people who need it, or an electrician who fixes somebody’s light when the need arises. Or the owner of the basement in the yard, who made keys for everyone and said: You can use it any time. This is what social cohesion really means.

Since 2019, Zatsikavleni and forumZFD have worked together on reviving the courtyard tradition in Odesa, and have built up a network of local community activists. What was your motivation to start this programme?

We started reviving this tradition of courtyard communities, because over the years it had become less and less. We started with small steps so that people just got to know each other in the yards. Since 2019, 43 yards have gone through our programme. The participants started to dream together about the future of the yards and to think about the identity of their communities. We have also organized the “First Odesa Festival of Yards”, a big event for the whole city with many cultural activities in the yards. And this culture of neighbourhood is now helping during the war, as it was already helping before during the Corona virus pandemic. In that time, it was not allowed for people to meet in big groups. So instead of a big festival, the neighbours organized small celebrations in their yards, which were an opportunity for people to get together.


How did you and your team adapt your work to the current situation?

The alumni of our “School of Neighbourhood Culture” are the leaders of their yards, either as official managers or in non-official functions. They know their neighbours very well, and they know their needs: They know who needs food, who needs medicine, or who simply need somebody to talk to. This makes it possible for us to provide very targeted support. Humanitarian work is new for us, we are not professionals in it. So at first we had to work out a system to make sure that everybody gets what they need. One of our team members coordinates all the different needs coming in from the yards, and then we organize the supplies. We are a team of six people and eleven coordinators, who are organized among geographical clusters, each one being responsible for one yard and the surrounding neighbourhood. This way we can provide support for about 4000 people.

What kind of support is needed most at the moment?

Our main focus are basic needs such as containers for spare water, in case that we are cut off from the water supply, and a minimum stock of long-lasting food. At the moment, there are enough food supplies in the shops, but with medicine it is more difficult: Not everything is available in the drug stores. We help people who do not have easy access to the supplies that they need, for example because they have lost their jobs and have no savings left, or elderly people who do not know how to order medicine online. I want to add that we also care about the safety system of our communities, and provide equipment, such as additional fire extinguishers and fire hydrants, video surveillance, autonomous flashlights, crowbars, shovels as well as conducting first-aid medical care courses.

In addition, people also need safe spaces for the night or during emergency situations. When the air raid alarm starts, you have about two to three minutes to get to a shelter, and the professional shelters from the city are too far away from many neighbourhoods. That is why we are turning basements into shelters and equip them with all the necessary supplies such as food and water. We also plan to have children corners in the basements, because sometimes the people have to sit there for long hours in the cold dusty cement rooms, and we want to make it a little bit more comfortable for the children.

Zatsikavleni not only distributes food and medicine, but also organizes meetings for psycho-social support. Can you share some impressions from these gatherings?

There is a saying: If you want to help others, first you have to help yourself. It means that a stable emotional state is required to be able to help others. Simply meeting and talking is already a big support for the people. It is very important to have safe spaces where the yard leaders can articulate their worries and talk about the painful questions that are really bothering them. We organize meetings for our team as well as for our activists, and we teach them how to provide this kind of support to their communities. The yard leaders have already organized such meetings in which the neighbours were able to share their experiences and emotions. Such gatherings can take half of your day, but it is very important to provide these spaces. For example, the yard leaders knew that there was a lady who lives alone and needed to speak with somebody – so they just went to her and talked.


Your first language is Russian – a language that is now painful to hear for some Ukrainians, for example those who have fled from occupied territories. Are you worried that Odesa might lose its multicultural character?

What is happening during a war is very particular – everybody reacts differently and has different emotions. Now, some people might refuse to speak Russian because of their experiences. I can still freely communicate in Russian with the communities we work with in Odesa. After the war, much work will need to be done to make sure that there is no hatred. There should be a lot of interaction between the people to develop tolerance again, so that many languages can be spoken. Right now during the war, it is difficult to develop this tolerance. But I also see that people move closer together during these times, and that there is in fact more social cohesion on the microlevel of the courtyard communities. For example, the people get together on weekends and do something, like cleaning up the yards or planting trees and flowers. This “Saturday work”, as we call it, continues even now during the war, and we actually see an increase in people’s involvement. If you just sit at home and think about the war or read the news, it is difficult to live. So the people really need this kind of distraction.

Is there something that helps you to cope with the current situation?

Humour helps a lot! For example, it is very common now that when people leave the city, they leave their pets with their neighbours. And then we joke about how to decide which cat to lock into which room, or how to manage having a cow or a goat on your balcony... For me personally, it is very important to know that my wife and my daughter are now safe in Germany. They are taken good care of, and knowing this helps me a lot, because I am less anxious and can focus on supporting other people. There is one very short poem from a Belarussian writer, Dmitry Strotsev, which goes: “The future will come out      from the Ukrainian basements and will squint from the sunlight”. This resonates with me, because at the moment we deal so much with basements. And you can really feel the social cohesion there: When people go to the basements during the air raid warnings, they start singing together, they play games or read books. And when the alarm is over, they do not want to leave the basement, because it is such a feeling of community.

Ada Hakobyan and Hannah Sanders (forumZFD) spoke with Dmytro Kovbasyuk on 14th April 2022.

About the project:

Historically, daily life in Odesa circulated around the yard communities. In a multicultural environment, people knew their neighbours and interacted with them on a daily basis, sometimes in a cacophony of languages, including Yiddish, Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Moldovan, Ukrainian and many others. However, the Second World War and multiple waves of Soviet repressions changed the city’s social fabric and contributed to a sense of alienation.

With the support of forumZFD, the NGO “Zatsikavleni” in partnership with NGO “Odessa development fund” initiated a project that aimed at empowering local communities to transform their yards into open and inclusive spaces. The project strengthened the social cohesion and community spirit in the neighbourhoods. In the “School of Neighbourhood Culture”, local activists developed ideas for ‘their’ yards and learned new skills such as non-violent communication, conflict resolution, and inclusive decision-making. One highlight was the “First Odesa Festival of Yards” in September 2019. 17 yards opened their gates and presented projects they had started to implement after the graduation from the Programme.

Click here to learn more about the project

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