“Cure for Mental Wounds”: How volunteers from Kazakhstan help to restore Ukrainian schools

An interview with the organizers of the Angels of Freedom project

February 13, 2023

For eight months now, a charitable project of helping for Ukraine Angels of Freedom has been operating in Kazakhstan. Volunteers organize meetings (toloka), where everyone can make an angel doll or simply purchase a handmade talisman. The funds raised from the sale are used to restore schools damaged by Russian shelling. How the project was started, what kind of people it unites and why, its organizers, Iryna Semenchuk and Yevgeniy Ribalko, told.
For me, this is a project that unites Ukraine and Kazakhstan. I have never felt such closeness between the two countries during my life here.
Iryna Semenchuk
PR Director of Astana Hub International Technopark
Angels of Freedom — a cure for mental wounds. Everything that is happening now is a huge wound in our souls. We see the great evil, and it is very hard for all of us to go through it, it is impossible to stay away.
Yevgeniy Ribalko
Project manager
People always want to be involved, come and help on an ongoing basis.
Iryna, Yevgeniy, hello! You became the initiators of the Angels of Freedom project. Tell us a little about yourself: what do you do besides volunteering?
Iryna: I am Ukrainian. I have been living in Kazakhstan for only 4 years. All my life I have been engaged in journalism, PR and marketing. Now I work as a PR director of the Astana Hub international technopark.

Yevgeniy: All my life I have been a project manager, a manager. Since the age of 18 I have been working with social projects, including youth ones. I was born in Ukraine, grew up in Pavlodar, and have been living in Astana since 2005.
Where did you find the news about the beginning of the war?
Iryna: I was in Ukraine. On December 30, 2021, my husband and I flew to Ukraine, celebrated the New Year in Kyiv and planned to stay until March. But on February 24 at 05:20 in the morning I woke up from explosions that occurred a few kilometers from us. At first I didn't understand what it was. I thought something might have happened at a construction site nearby. I tried to wake my husband, but he said: “Sleep, it's okay!” After 10 minutes, the explosions were repeated, and then I already knew for sure that something wrong was happening. I took the phone in my hands. There were already three messages in the telegram from my Kazakh friends with the question “How are you?” In Kyiv it was half past five in the morning, and in Astana it was already 9:30. That is, my colleagues had already started their working day, they had already read the news and knew that Ukraine had begun to be bombed. Their messages scared me even more, so I immediately ran to turn on the news on TV. Of course it was a shock.
And what did you do later, when it became clear that this was a war?
Iryna: To be honest, I remember very vaguely what we did in the early days. I remember exactly, that we went to the store — there were terrible queues and empty shelves, we tried to fill the car with gasoline, but could not. On the first day, I reassured myself that it was just a panic, people want to get away from the unknown, but, most likely, this will not last long and now it will all end. I mean, she was trying to control herself. I was very worried about my parents. They live in Chernihiv (this is the northernmost regional center of Ukraine). Russian troops advanced very quickly and reached Chernihiv almost on the first day. And that was the scariest thing. For the first three days, my mother and sister were called every two hours.
What other memories do you have of February 24?
Iryna: The basement of our house. The first two nights I spent the night in the basement, because it was very scary to spend the night on the tenth floor. In the basement there were no explosions, the rumble of aircraft. Many children spent the night with us, there was even a neighbor with a two-month-old baby. My husband lowered a chair into the basement for me, and I took a blanket — and slept like that. February 24 lasts in my life, in the life of my relatives and all Ukrainians so far. And the hardest thing was when, after several days of difficult evacuation, we arrived in Kazakhstan and saw that people led a normal life. For me, it was absolutely creepy. I wanted to shout in the street: “Do you understand what is happening in the world? How can you just go to work? How can you calmly drink coffee, smile?” For the first three months, I was in a terrible psychological state. Volunteering saved me.
Yevgeniy, with what thoughts did you meet the news of the outbreak of hostilities?
Yevgeniy: My story is more banal, of course. When the war started, I didn't want to believe it. More precisely, I wanted to believe that this was some kind of mistake and that all this would soon stop happening. Later, when every day it got worse and worse, I started thinking about going to Ukraine to help. Phoned friends, relatives. But they told me: “Come if you want, but you will be more useful in Kazakhstan.” And since I have been associated with social activities all my life, I began to think about what I could do in this situation. I had an office, and I wanted to make a humanitarian aid reception point in it.
And you applied…
Yevgeniy: I went to the Ukrainian embassy with a set of humanitarian aid. I got to know each person, explained that I wanted to make a humanitarian aid reception point, to set an example for my friends who also have offices or some kind of premises to do the same. When I arrived, there was a real stir — people were carrying a lot of humanitarian aid, asking what else they could do to help. It was cold. Nevertheless, people still loaded, packed, collected parcels in the evenings and at night, trying to get them on the plane as quickly as possible. Because it was not clear whether there would still be an opportunity to send something. And then I was inspired by people. There were grandmothers who were the last to give their medicines from the first-aid kit. People were arriving exponentially, but it had no system. And I offered my help as a project manager. A group of coordinators has formed. Iryna also joined us.
How did you come up with the new project, Angels of Freedom?
Iryna: In June, I came across in social networks the posts of my friends from Chernihiv, who launched the Angels of Freedom campaign.
That is, the idea initially belongs to Ukrainian volunteers?
Iryna: Yes, but they had a slightly different idea. A huge number of schoolchildren left Chernihiv during active hostilities in March. They went to European schools and there they taught their classmates how to make motanka dolls — Angels of Freedom — and sold them at school markets. Thus, the children collected donations for the restoration of their schools. I suggested that Zhenya [a short form of the name Yevgeniy] launch this project with us, but call for volunteers to make angels. In August, we went to Chernihiv, looked at the school, which we wanted to restore. We have identified a specific goal — the arrangement of a bomb shelter. We met with the leadership of the local education department, volunteers. That is, we did everything to be sure that our help is needed.
— Why did you choose this option, when people create something with their own hands? Wouldn't it have been easier to just raise money to rebuild schools?
Yevgeniy: First of all, for some reason I was always ashamed to ask. When we created the first market (before the launch of Angels of Freedom, we also launched a project for the production of handmade souvenirs), there was a desire not to ask, but to earn help. It is clear that people who make donations will continue to do so. But it is much more convenient to take a donation when you do not just ask, but when you offer something in return. And this is what I liked about the Angels of Freedom project. It has a full cycle, when there is a production part, obtaining financial resources and their implementation. For me, purely technologically everything is clear. And people always want to be involved, come and help on a regular basis. Many of them don't have much money, some don't have any at all. But they want to help. Our project provides such an opportunity — if you do not have money, you can come and help, spending your time.
And when so many nationalities gathered at our table, when Belarusians, Russians, Tatars, Kazakhs, Ukrainians sat at the same time, we realized that this is a very unifying project.
This is also, as I understand it, a meeting place for caring people?
Yevgeniy: Yes, toloka is a format in which people meet and talk. People tell their stories, share experiences and help each other. This is a good project. First, we help pupils. Secondly, it somehow unites different people. There are people who are afraid to take sides or express their opinions. It is much easier for them to come to make an angel than to go to rallies, for example. People say to us: “Thank you for helping to help!”

Iryna: For me personally, Angels of Freedom is still a huge informational support for Ukraine. We tell everyone who is interested in our project during the fairs what happened in Chernihiv, how destroyed the city is. And this informational component of the project — even if they don’t donate to us, but simply listen and learn about what is happening — is very important for me personally.
What kind of people come to your fairs and tolokas?
Iryna: Very different people come to the tolokas. When mobilization began in Russia, a huge number of Crimean Tatars came to us, talented guys from Russia began to come. And of course, always, from the very beginning, there were a lot of Kazakhs. This was an inspiring moment for me. I did not understand why these young guys empathize, come and help, although they live 3,500 kilometers from Ukraine, they have no relatives or friends in Ukraine. They always aroused admiration in me, and I was grateful to them for the fact that they are so worried about my pain. And when so many nationalities gathered at our table, when Belarusians, Russians, Tatars, Kazakhs, Ukrainians sat at the same time, we realized that this is a very unifying project. We don't talk about politics in our meetings. We tell our stories, but we certainly do not argue about the attitude to the politics of different states. The project has become a huge unifying, driving force.
Perhaps it unites like this, because people do not just communicate, but create something together?
Iryna: Of course, there is a psychological moment when you need to do something with your own hands. My work has always been intellectual. Personally, I never did anything by my hands and did not know how, but to launch the project, I had to make the first angel in Kazakhstan myself and teach others. When we started discussing the project, I asked Zhenya: “Who will teach us how to make angels?”, and Zhenya replies: “Well, you will.” It was also an interesting experience, for me it was very unexpected. So I made the first angel and taught other volunteers, it seems to have gone.
And what else did you have to do for the first time in your life, when you started the project?
Iryna: Sell. Well, just imagine. Zhenya is the head of his own business, I am the PR director of the technopark, the city is small. And when we went to the fair for the first time just as sellers, it was hard. But we could not send someone until we ourselves went this way! We ourselves made these angels at first, we ourselves went to sell them, test everything. We are still not the best sellers, of course (laughs).

Yevgeniy: It seems to me that some of my acquaintances, friends in social networks still think that I have gone crazy. I started selling some dolls, baubles. Every person has their own barriers. And for each person, our fairs are a separate type of training. When a person dares to get a little attention from another person and tells him this story, he takes great steps in terms of overcoming barriers in communication with people. Absolutely everyone who came to our fair had never sold anything in their lives.
When did you catch yourself thinking that all these efforts were not in vain?
Iryna: Actually, every day I catch myself thinking about this. And, of course, when we made the first purchase for $7,000 for the bomb shelter of Chernihiv school No. 6, we brought it all there, then the school director, with tears in her eyes, sent us a video with words of gratitude, it was a very exciting moment. To be honest, not everyone in our humanitarian support headquarters understood us — no one wanted to get involved in a long-term infrastructure project. You can also collect 100,000 tenge, immediately transfer them to Ukraine, buy a generator, give it to those in need, get a photo in a week and report to donors on social networks. And here the donors of the Angels of Freedom do not see a quick result. The lack of this result put a lot of pressure on some volunteers. But Zhenya somehow very clearly articulated how cool this project is. Food packages are temporary help, power generators are something that will remind people of the darkest times, and if we renovated the school, then it is for years and decades. And in this school they will remember and tell future generations for a very long time that it were the people of Kazakhstan who helped restore this school and equip a bomb shelter during the war.
And now we can talk about some intermediate results?
Yevgeniy: When we arrived in Chernihiv in August, we had collected $7,000 at that time. But on a school scale, it was a small amount. The school was in a deplorable state: 88 windows were broken, the heating system was defrosted, 36 batteries became unusable, the roof was damaged. We come to this school, and there the children are preparing for September, polishing their desks and windows, cleaning their classrooms, even though they do not know when they will be allowed to open. We were very impressed. And we understood that it was impossible to “close” any type of work with the money we collected, but we still wanted to do at least something for this school. Let's go to the Department of Education, we say: “We have $7,000.” They thought about it and suggested: “Maybe you can buy equipment for a bomb shelter with this money? After the repair, desks, chairs, fire extinguishers, heaters, first aid kits, etc. are needed there. And already for global work — sewerage, electrical networks, ventilation — we will look for more funding.” And in this way, with our small donation of $7,000, we encouraged everyone to come to grips with this school — both the local education department and Chernihiv volunteers. Although before that the school was not among the priorities of Chernihiv volunteers because of the complexity of the work. Its problem is that it was at this school that the basement was practically unsuitable for a bomb shelter: the building is old, from the 60s, the ceilings are low, the area is very small, the premises are located unsafely, the basement was used as a warehouse for a canteen — vegetables were stored there. And by the fact that we bought equipment for a bomb shelter, we encouraged them to look for money for repairs. And they were found. The first stages of work — dismantling — were again covered by us, having collected another $4,000, and Belgian donors are already financing other types of work. By the way, together with our volunteers, we made 250 angels for them and sent them to Brussels. And now it is such a Kazakh-Belgian project is already happening.

Food packages are temporary help, power generators are something that will remind people of the darkest times, and if we renovated the school, then it is for years and decades.
How did you choose the school you were going to help?
Iryna: When we started a dialogue with Chernihiv volunteers, they had several schools as a priority, which could be done quickly enough and launched on September 1st. And then there was this situation. The pupils of the 6th school somehow learned about our initiative through acquaintances. And they wanted to be helped so much that they recorded a video with a request to restore their school, drew drawings and sent them to us in Kazakhstan. And our Chernihiv colleagues say: “Yes, this is the 6th school! It needs so much money, it has so many problems.” And we, you know, had such moral pressure: the children asked us, but we received a request from them! And we very much asked everyone to take up this “difficult” school.
That is, the equipment for the bomb shelter has already been purchased?
Yevgeniy: Yes, it already exists and is waiting in the wings. And since the first days of January, the repair itself has been actively going on. I think the school will be ready to open in a month.
What goals do you set for yourself for the near future?
Iryna: At first, we developed the project exclusively in Astana and did not even think about the regions. Then we took a chance and went to the regions. And there they met just an incredible wave of support. Everywhere there are people who want to help Ukrainians. And we are doing this project just for them — so that they have the opportunity to come, do something with their own hands and, at least, get spiritual relief. The people in Kazakhstan are really very responsive and ready to help. In addition, we understand that we will most likely not stop at the Chernihiv 6th school, because there are a lot of destroyed regions and destroyed schools in Ukraine. And why don't we think beyond one school and rebuild schools in other regions as well? In Bakhmut, for example, many schools were also destroyed. Therefore, if the Kazakh people support the project and there is a need for it in Ukraine, we will deal with other regions as well. The goal is to move on, albeit with small steps, small donations, but, nevertheless, do not stop and slowly restore schools and kindergartens.
What discoveries in terms of people did you make during the project?
Iryna: I have been living in Kazakhstan for four years. Before I started working on this project, I didn't know so many very talented people. Even in Ukraine. The team that we have now gathered is very professional people. I think that if we had implemented the project on some commercial basis, we would never have been able to assemble such a team. We employ the coolest marketers, SMM specialists, PR managers. Every day we discover incredible people at our meetings (tolokas) — decorators, architects, historians, writers, screenwriters, engineers, successful businessmen, employees of various embassies come. All are just unique people. There has never been such a concentration of talented people in my environment before this project.
Continue the phrase “Angels of Freedom are...”
Yevgeniy: For me, Angels of Freedom is a cure for spiritual wounds. Everything that is happening now is a huge wound in our souls. We see the great evil, and it is very hard for all of us to experience it, it is impossible to stay away. Therefore, “thank you for helping to help” is the phrase that most clearly describes the essence of the project.

Iryna: I won’t be so original. For me, this is a project that unites Ukraine and Kazakhstan. I have never felt such closeness between the two countries during my life here. Angels of Freedom is a charitable project that strongly links the two countries and makes the physical distance between them almost imperceptible.

Yevgeniy: Angel is also a reference to childhood. Angels of Freedom is a time machine that allows you to return to childhood, at a time when we believed in miracles, made wishes, asked higher powers to fulfill them, dreamed of something bright. After all, from birth, no person is evil, just over time, some people forget that they are kind. And our Angels of Freedom remind us of this.

Iryna: By the way, we were worried that angels would not be accepted as a symbol in Kazakhstan. But, oddly enough, Muslims also have angels. They are different, but they are also angels. And it turned out that angels are also a unifying symbol for religions.

Yevgeniy: Angels of Freedom is a dialogue.
Author: Tatyana Pravdina
Angels of Freedom
Interviews with volunteers