“I just can’t sit by indifferently, indifference can kill”
An interview with a volunteer of the “Angels of Freedom” project
December 18, 2023
Zhanibek Madenov became a volunteer for the non-profit organization Angels of Freedom in October last year. He only has two days off a month but still finds time for volunteering and church service. The war became personal for him since his close friends were in Ukraine at the time of the full-scale Russian invasion. He shared with us how his life has changed since the start of the war, his crisis of faith, who inspired him to become a volunteer, and why he will continue to help.
— Zhanibek, tell us a little about yourself.
— I am 36 years old. I was born in Kostanay, Kazakhstan. I joined the project last October. Although I am not Ukrainian, I always heard Ukrainian spoken in my childhood, and it felt so close to me, like something native. Some Ukrainians living in my area were forcibly deported due to repressive measures in the Soviet Union. Others arrived during the Virgin Lands Campaign and subsequently settled in Kazakhstan.
— What is your profession? How long have you lived in Astana?
— I lived here before, then moved to Russia for work. I returned to Astana last February. I am a color-mixing expert who works with paints for wood and metal. I work every day and only have two days off a month.
— What connects you to Ukraine now?
— I have many friends there. These are our Kazakh guys who moved to Ukraine many years ago, started families there, and settled down. I also have friends from Donetsk and Dnipro. We've been in touch for over 15 years.
Zhanibek with an angel at the Garage Fest fair in Astana
Zhanibek and his friends from Ukraine in Portugal
With a friend from Ukraine in Portugal
— Can you recall when you learned about the start of the war in Ukraine?
— I was in Kostanay when I found out the war had started. A friend from Donetsk texted me in the morning: “Kharkiv is being bombed.”
— Do you remember how you felt at that moment? Were you scared?
— I planned to go to the Donetsk region in 2022, but it didn’t happen. When I found out the war had started, I was terrified. I couldn’t sleep or eat, and I was restless. Upon arriving in Astana, I discovered the opportunity to volunteer. I found out that I was not the only one experiencing this terrible anxiety for the Ukrainians, and I began to help. At first, I participated in collecting humanitarian aid for Ukraine. I saw how our Kazakhs and Russians helped — they brought food and clothes. All these people did not remain indifferent.
— How did you learn about the Angels of Freedom?
— I saw a post in a volunteer chat. There was a meeting, I went there and stayed.
I enjoy making little angels by hand, pouring my soul into each one. Initially, I wouldn’t say I liked it much as I wasn’t very skilled, but now I’ve grown to love it. It’s a beautiful and creative process.
— What do you do there?
— I make handcrafted angels and participate in fairs. I answer questions from people at fairs and talk about our work, donations, and where the funds go: equipping shelters in schools and kindergartens. That we are doing all this for the sake of children because they are innocent victims of this war. Children’s tears are louder than our words.
— At these fairs, do you encounter support or condemnation from people?
— There are different reactions. I encountered primarily positive things in the spring at the beginning of this year. But now I don’t see such support. Perhaps people are just tired.
— Do you often meet war supporters? Maybe among your friends?
— Well, I’ve lost many. They weren’t really close friends, more like acquaintances.
— And how do you feel when you meet such people?
— It hurts. It’s such a strong feeling of helplessness and powerlessness that you can’t do anything to persuade them. People are dying in Ukraine. How can you be on the side of war? It’s very scary. It’s heartbreaking.
— Did your friends support you when they discovered you volunteer in a non-profit organization that helps Ukrainians?
— Yes, many of my friends supported me, but some blocked me. They did not want to communicate with me anymore, indicating that our paths had diverged.
— This didn’t stop you, and you continue to help. That means a lot.
— How could it be otherwise? It seems to me this is like an indicator of sanity. I am not a supporter of war. This is a humanitarian mission. I choose kindness.
— You said that you have friends in Ukraine. Are they very close to you?
— Yes, indeed. With some, I’ve worked for many years, while with others, I’ve grown up together. They inspire me to volunteer — especially a friend from Kramatorsk who survived the war in 2014. Thanks to them, I find strength and inspiration. Knowing they are having a hard time now, I can’t just sit idly by. My indifference and inaction will kill me. I just can’t forget how, at the very beginning of a full-scale war, a friend from Kharkiv wrote me that he was scared. He was just near Kyiv at that time. We called each other. During the conversation, he asked if I was in Ukraine since I was also scared. He felt it and already supported me. This is what happened.
This year, I was in Portugal, talking with girls from Ukraine, and when they found out what we were doing in Kazakhstan, they cried. I have never met such grateful people. Believe me, I’ll never forget those tears.
— Have you lost your faith in goodness since the war began?
— Regarding my current state, I must admit I’m experiencing a crisis of faith. I continue to serve in the Catholic Church, yet increasingly, I find myself leaning more towards agnosticism than Christianity. Some priests understand my struggle. They advise, “Learn to see through the eyes of Christ. Christ always forgave his enemies. Try to do the same.” However, I find that I cannot. I cannot feign love or forgiveness where there is none. There is a lack of inner harmony. Despite this, my faith in goodness hasn’t waned. I still witness it through our Angels of Freedom foundation.
— Can you tell me a little about the church? It is very interesting. What is your service?
— In the Astana Eparchy of the Roman Catholic Church, there is a rule: the liturgy can be performed by clergy or persons who have undergone special training. I am one of those specially trained individuals. I am fluent in Kazakh and typically read a prayer in Kazakh every Sunday, such as ‘The Our Father.’ During the Holy Mass, I serve in the church. In the Eastern (Orthodox) Church, such a person is called an altar server, while in the Latin rite, they are referred to as a minister. I usually ring the bells. During the Holy Eucharist, I assist with water and wine. During solemn feasts, I swing the censer. If it's the Way of the Cross, I carry the cross.
Zhanibek in a church with his friends son
In the church
Zhanibek with a Ukrainian priest
— You only have two days off a month, so how do you find time for volunteering and church service?
— Honestly, sometimes I lack the strength. But when I think about what my dear friends in Ukraine are going through, my efforts seem like a walk in the park. They are regularly bombed there. This year, I was in Portugal, talking with girls from Ukraine, and when they found out what we were doing in Kazakhstan, they cried. I have never met such grateful people. Believe me, I’ll never forget those tears. These people and friends inspire me to keep going and help.
— Are you still fulfilling your duties in the church?
— Yes, but I do it despite internal resistance. Honestly, it’s difficult for me. Once, at a rehearsal for a music service in the Kazakh language, the leader criticized us for helping Ukraine. I repeatedly asked her to stop, which led to a serious argument. However, a Russian who overheard our conversation was moved by it and subsequently became our regular volunteer. Sometimes, such conflicts lead to positive outcomes. This volunteer later brought in another Russian, and eventually, they both became active participants. Witnessing such fruits of our efforts is uplifting to the spirit, especially when you hear that another kindergarten or school has been launched. It’s truly inspiring!
Every volunteer contributes their part. If we rely on our neighbors, we will get nowhere and achieve nothing. It’s better to do something within our power. When my friends are hiding from bombings in basements and shelters — I can’t just do nothing. I need to do something with my own hands.
— What do you dream about?
— Like many sensible people, I dream of a world without war and violence.
— What was the most important experience you gained during your volunteer work?
— Learning to restrain myself from making harsh statements.
— Why is it important for you not just to donate, but to participate in the life of the Angels of Freedom?
— Well, you know, every volunteer contributes their part. If we rely on our neighbors, we will get nowhere and achieve nothing. It’s better to do something within our power. When my friends are hiding from bombings in basements and shelters — I can’t just do nothing. I need to do something with my own hands. I believe that indifference to friends in need makes us, to some extent, complicit in evil deeds.
— Do you have any other interesting hobbies?
— I work every day, and I have no free time. Look at my hands (shows hands stained with paint). I work with my hands. I usually do something in my free time. I don’t sit idle.
— What do you like most about your volunteer work?
— I enjoy making little angels by hand, pouring my soul into each one. Initially, I wouldn’t say I liked it much as I wasn’t very skilled, but now I’ve grown to love it. It’s a beautiful and creative process. Additionally, participating in fairs and interacting with various people is something I really cherish. It’s inspiring to see that not everyone is indifferent or uncaring.
— What do you wish for the Angels of Freedom?
— Development. Far-sighted strategy. That we continue to grow. To help even more and not only restore shelters in one Chernihiv. Our help will be needed even after the war — it will be necessary to rebuild destroyed cities.
— Have you developed friendly relations with other volunteers?
— Yes, sure. These people inspire me a lot. I am especially happy when I meet sensible guys from Russia here. They sincerely help and empathize with our organization, and we do important work together.
Witnessing such fruits of our efforts is uplifting to the spirit, especially when you hear that another kindergarten or school has been launched. It’s truly inspiring!
— What is the most important thing in life for you?
— Safety. Truth. Mercy.
— Is it possible to have mercy on those who support the war?
— Speaking of my current feelings, I find showing mercy to such individuals challenging. I choose to restrain myself and remain silent, as I cannot yet forgive them.