“People with bad thoughts or intentions do not come to tolokas

An interview with the Angels of Freedom project coordinator in Almaty

March 5, 2023

Zarina is a student-ecologist, works as a marketing specialist, and in her free time helps the Angels of Freedom in Almaty. We learned from Zarina what people talk about at tolokas, why angels are got and not bought, and how her family feels about her being a volunteer.
Angels of Freedom is a place where you find people who are close to you in spirit, with whom you can share your experiences.
— Zarina, tell us what exactly you do in the project?
— At first I was engaged in the creation of a website for the Angels of Freedom. In November, Yevgeniy and Iryna, the organizers of the project, came to Almaty for the first toloka. We got to know them personally, and they said that they would like to develop the project throughout Kazakhstan. And I thought, “Yes, I want to do this.” Therefore, now I am still editing the site and, in addition, I am coordinating the Angels of Freedom project in Almaty. I am engaged in holding tolokas, fairs and communicating with volunteers.
— Why did you decide to become a volunteer? When did the idea arise that you want to help Ukraine?
— In general, I have been supporting Ukraine since the beginning of the war. I participated in all the events that were held here together with the Embassy of Ukraine, the Headquarters for Humanitarian Support of Ukraine. I didn’t help with the organization, but I always came, donated and bought merch. Then I saw an announcement on the Instagram account @help_ukraine_kz that people were needed for the marketing team of the Angels of Freedom project. And when I found out that I could help in my own direction — marketing — I immediately decided to offer my services.
— What was your first feeling when you learned about the beginning of the war?
— Shock. This is the first thing I experienced. I arrived at that time from a business trip, arrived late at night, and therefore the next day (it was February 24) I slept for half a day. I woke up, I opened Telegram, and my sister sent me a bunch of news. For half an hour, I probably just walked around the house, did not understand what to do, and how I should behave further. I have many friends living in Ukraine, I have never met them in person — these are Internet friends. We communicated with them since school, and I immediately began to think about them. I came to my senses for half an hour, read the news for another half an hour, and then began to write to them, asking how they were, where they were. It was a shock and despair.
— How was the beginning of the war covered in the Kazakh media?
— I don't know how it was on television and other state information resources. I followed the independent media and read it like this: “The war has begun. Russia has invaded the territory of Ukraine.” Of course, many people said: “No, this is not a war, but a special military operation.” But I didn't even look at it that way. In general, in Kazakhstan, I think a lot of people support Ukraine. There are, of course, other cases as well. Even in my family there is such a person — my grandfather. He watches Russian television and, accordingly, is completely exposed to this propaganda. I pulled my mother over to my side, I constantly told her, because she doesn’t watch the news much. And it so happened that we have a trusting relationship with her, and when I showed her something on this topic, she perceived my position. And in Kazakhstan, there were many requests for a rally in support of Ukraine. Such a rally took place on March 6, 2022. Half of Almaty, probably, went to it. All were with posters, supporting Ukraine. It was very powerful and emotional.
The older boy was about table level. And he saw these angels and said to his mother: “Mom, these are the colors of our country!?” And his mother said: “Yes, my son, these are people who support our country and help it.”
— Do you have relatives in Russia?
— Yes, but they are very far away. But I had friends from Russia.
— Did they disappear after February 24th?
— I have completely lost contact with them. But after the start of the war, I talked with one of my former good friends, and he just ignored this topic. I don't know, maybe they are afraid to chat about it on WhatsApp. Maybe it's traced somehow, I don't know. But he reacted so calmly to this, saying that everything was fine with them, that I did not want to continue communication anymore.
— How do your friends and relatives react to the fact that you are actively involved in volunteer activities? Not just passively supporting, but spending your time and effort?
— Not all of my relatives know that I am a volunteer. But those relatives who know understand me. My sisters, my boyfriend support me. They understand why I do it.
— What is the significance, in your opinion, of the support of Ukrainians for Kazakhstan, specifically for its society?
— Support for Ukraine is very important for each of the Kazakhs. I noticed that after February 24, the question of respect for one's culture, one's language became very acute. We began to learn our language even more, to pay attention to it. This was not the case before. Now everyone understands that you need to protect your roots, the country in which you live. And I think people really rallied. We accept the misfortune of the Ukrainians as our own and try to share it through support.
— In the Angels of Freedom project, people make mascot dolls with their own hands. Did you yourself participate in tolokas — did you make angel puppets?
— Yes, in November, at the first large toloka in Almaty, I made my first angels. It's really cool, because this is some kind of process… a little pacifying, considering that completely different people gather there, and you talk there, find some common topics. And yes, I personally sold them [angels], because I am the coordinator of the Angels of Freedom in Almaty. That is, she not only found where we would hold fairs, but also prepared the same tags, posters. I stood at fairs and told people about the project.
The first toloka in Almaty.
November 27, 2022
— How do people react when they see such a fair?
— There was no negative. We had only one situation, when a woman came up to us at the fair and said that we were “propagandists”. I don't know what we are “propagandizing” (laughs). And another woman came up and showed us that this money supposedly does not reach Ukraine. A lot of people, when they see the colors of the Ukrainian flag, come up and consciously donate. There are more positive emotions and people there.
— What questions do people ask? How is support expressed?
— There was one situation, I remember it very well. We were at the first fair. It was at the mall. We were approached by a family — a mother and two children. The older boy was about table level. And he saw these angels and said to his mother: “Mom, these are the colors of our country!?” And his mother said: “Yes, my son, these are people who support our country and help it.” And when I heard this… I even shed a tear.
— What do people talk about at the tolokas?
— To be honest, the conversations are very different. For example, recently we talked about who invented the baths and who goes there. And just the day before yesterday, we were talking about piercings and tattoos at the toloka, and how parents reacted to this. That is, these are absolutely sincere gatherings where you can find friends.
— Did it happen when Ukrainians, Russians and Kazakhs met at tolokas? Were there any conflicts?
— There were such situations, but there were no conflicts. I really like the way Yevgeniy says: “People with bad thoughts or intentions do not come to tolokas. They are always kind people who want to help.” For example, at the first toloka, a Ukrainian woman, several Kazakhs, Russians (namely from Russia) and a Belarusian sat at the table. We all got to know each other, told who was doing what, told each other that the war is very bad and that the people who unleashed it do not think about anything except, I don’t know, themselves and something else. The only thing I noticed is that when people ask: “Where are you from?”, and a person names the city in Ukraine, people are sympathetic, but do not know what to say. And a similar reaction occurs to people from Russia. Also… it's like sympathy, and you feel embarrassed too, and you don't know how to react.
— Is it difficult to sell angels? Did you have to overcome a psychological barrier?
— There was a barrier. Because at the first fair, I was very afraid of people's reactions. I was afraid that there would be people who would speak in these “from TV”. But this was not the case. When I finally understood for myself why I needed it, I already became calm. Again, we decided to move away from the fact that we “sell” angels. It sounds like it's some sort of commodity. It's more about “getting” an angel. We indicate on the site that people can not “buy”, but rather “getting” an angel. An angel is a symbol of freedom, a symbol of kindness, this is what we explain to people at fairs. I say: “You can make a donation and pick up the angel. It will remind you of the good that you have done by donating the amount that you can donate, and which will go to help people who really need it.”
— Did you receive feedback from the students of the schools you help, or from Ukrainians in general?
— Yes, we do. We have a video with feedback from Chernihiv School No. 6 when we purchased a batch of equipment for its bomb shelter, as well as several videos with the progress of repairs in the bomb shelter. It is very nice. Again, you again understand why you are doing this.
— Have you thought about leaving volunteer work?
— There was no desire to quit. At all. I understand that sometimes I get tired, sometimes I don’t have time. But we have people in the team who understand. You are a volunteer, you do everything in your power and at will. And everyone understands this. If I don’t have time to do something on a particular day, I can always say: “Let me take a break now, and then I will do it better.” Yes, the war has dragged on, but I know that I will continue to help. I like the project, I found very good, nice people here.
— How has your participation in the project changed you?
— I have learned to take responsibility for myself, for what I do. This is where I feel a very big difference in myself before the project and now. Of course, I used to be responsible for my work, my life. But when I decided to become part of the project, I was afraid that I would not be able to keep up. In the end, I cast aside all doubts and made it clear to myself that I am not afraid of such responsibility, that I should do it well and help people. Plus, I began to learn what different people are. I made many new acquaintances, although before I didn’t really communicate with anyone. Angels of Freedom is a place where you find people who are close to you in spirit, with whom you can share your experiences.
I really like the way Yevgeniy says: “People with bad thoughts or intentions do not come to tolokas. They are always kind people who want to help.”
— You actually answered my next question. I wanted to ask you to continue the phrase “The Angels of Freedom are…”, but you beat me to it. So I will ask about something else. What would you like to say to the people of Ukraine or the Ukrainian children you help?
— I wish all Ukraine patience and strength. It is most important. I just want people to hold on and not lose (I don’t know how this is possible in a war) their optimism, I guess. When I communicate with my friends from Ukraine and say: “How so? What is going on at all?”, they answer me: “Don’t worry, everything will be fine, everything will be great, you need to endure it.” They find the strength to see the positive side. I am sincerely with every Ukrainian, and I sincerely wish the war to end.
Author: Tatyana Pravdina
Angels of Freedom
Interviews with volunteers