Exactly one year ago, I visited for the first time Ukraine. The country has left a mark on my heart and soul. I have experienced how a new generation is eagerly waiting to discover the world, but doesn’t have a clear perspective to do so. The feeling of neglect is setting in, as only few foreigners find their way to Ukraine and opportunities to travel remain scarce.
I am so fortunate. Several times during my stay in Ukraine, I have found myself incredibly lucky to travel, to study and to have the chance to constantly develop myself as a person. Every time I spoke to one of my pupils, they confronted me unintentionally with my privileged position. Even during my trips to Ukraine, I had the good fortune to be surrounded by the most wonderful people, who took care of me as if I were someone very special.
That is definitely one of the reasons why I am biased when I write about Ukraine. I have only seen the country through a positive lens and know that the daily reality is different from the idealised life I have lived. When a taxi driver charged me 100 UAH extra, I didn’t bother too much. When I had to run through the mud after a rain storm, I loved the adventure. When I stood in a packed marshrutka, I found it something unique. But I realise that living every day in such conditions is often frustrating.
The capital Kyiv is probably the perfect example of my idealised view on Ukraine. It seems like I know the city better than my current home Brussels. The Kyiv-Mohyla University has become my second alma mater. And I cannot stop talking about Kyiv’s architectural and subcultural diversity. The neighbourhood Podil with its beautiful Andriyivskyy Descent is more inspiring than the most hipster areas of Berlin. The atmosphere on the river bank in summer beats the relaxing mood on the sunny riverside in Lisbon. Overlooking from Volodymyrska Hill the scenic panorama of the left bank of Dniepr, no other word than ‘magical’ comes to my mind. Kyiv is an undiscovered pearl.
But I doubt if everyone in Kyiv would say the same. The grey building blocks in the sleeping area of the capital shine another light on the vibrant feeling I had when talking to the high-educated young Ukrainians. I experienced at the same time the huge potential of a new generation university students and the impotence of still corrupted institutions. With my generous Belgian salary I could enjoy a quite luxurious life in Kyiv, about which most Ukrainians can only dream. It made me feel uncomfortable. Was I moving in a Ukrainian bubble?
It was therefore an eye-opener to visit Eastern Ukraine, and discover the outskirts of Kharkiv and provincial city Hadiach. I was catapulted back in time when I arrived at my host family. Riding on unpaved roads, living in a 50s-style room and eating home-grown vegetables, I saw that Kyiv is not a benchmark for the whole of Ukraine. The most confronting experience was, without any doubt, the fact that I was followed by three teenagers when I had bought something in a shop in a remote village. Afterwards, they told me I was the first foreigner they had seen.
During long conversations with my teenagers in Kharkiv and Hadiach, I realised even more that what divides me from them is the chances I got and they don’t have. They dream about travelling to France, the UK or Italy. Most them hadn’t even been to Kyiv. But it doesn’t mean they are not informed. They know very well what is going on in the world. Instagram is part of their daily life. Netflix is well-known and Vkontakte is their Facebook. And that’s what frustrates them at the same time: why are we stuck here? They have so much talent, but cannot develop it fully.
“Why is nobody coming here?”
The feeling of neglect is omnipresent. And therefore I was, paradoxically, so welcome. I have visited several schools and always I was touched by the honest interest they have shown towards me. When I was speaking to one of the teachers, she asked why nobody was coming to eastern Ukraine. “We are the same. We are all humans. Why are so many people afraid to meet us?” She gave me five big sheets of paper with photos of the pupils’ hobbies with their contact details and asked me to bring them in contact with Belgian pupils. So far, no Belgian school has been willing to get in touch.
I am still writing regularly to my Ukrainian pupils, but with a certain unease. I am disappointed I cannot do more than talking, than supporting them with words. I cannot create the chances they need and deserve. I cannot take away the feeling of neglect alone. Politics can help, but foremost it’s about showing the same honest interest towards Ukraine. Towards people who aren’t that different from us, Western Europeans. I don’t know what the future holds for Ukraine. I am not an expert when it comes to Ukraine. I only remember what I have felt and still feel. Maybe I have indeed been living in a kind of bubble, but I am still convinced that the deep Ukrainian soul exists and is worth discovering.