Stand By Me in Cluj

Olena Koval her Daughter thumb

A case study from The Duke of Edinburgh International Award Romania1st of February 2023

Collected and edited for DofE Romania by Anca Doczi Luchian

About Olena Koval

Olena Koval is a Ukrainian Cultural Mediator now based in Cluj Napoca, Romania. She acts as a UN volunteer for WHO Romania, supporting the Ukrainian community where she is based.

Olena is a psychologist, specialising in trauma therapy. She used to have a private practice in Kyiv, working with adults and teenagers. Her working methodologies are based on neuroscience and art therapy, also including mindfulness practices.

Currently she is delivering trauma therapy groups for women and mental health support education for adolescents.

She has become a valuable informal ambassador for the Award Programme in Cluj and she has supported the Romanian DofE team to reach members of the Ukrainian community in Cluj, from teachers and young people to parents and other members of the community.

We discussed about her life before the war, what did it mean to leave her country, why did she choose Cluj or what it means for her to be a cultural mediator in these difficult times

Olena Koval her Daughter feature

How did life look like before and after the war started?

I didn’t take it seriously because I could not believe in war…21st century, civilised countries, neighbours/friends/relatives — and war? No way!

I’m divorced and having a 10-year-old daughter called Yaroslava. Life looks pretty usual and simple: work-home-school-weekend. I’m focused on work and raising my daughter. Finally life feels stable for the last couple of years: my private practice becomes more structured and organised, as well as personal life and schooling process for my daughter. We just bought a puppy; it was Yaroslava’s big dream. I feel my life is organised, I’m satisfied with every aspect of it, so I can relax a bit…

Around 2-3 weeks before 24th of February I started to feel a certain tension in the air. It’s difficult to describe it but feels like something invisible and heavy is laying on your shoulders, pressing you. And you can’t get rid of it. It interferes with your dreams and makes them superficial. And it’s not clear what is it, you never felt something similar. At first, I thought it had something to do with my own personal psychological mood or state of mind; I’m in therapy for many years already, so I am trying to digest this tension in the well-known ways which always worked for me before. We were told at the news to prepare a full tank of benzine and emergency luggage with documents, cash, medicine, some canned food etc. I didn’t take it seriously because I could not believe in war…
21st century, civilised countries, neighbours/friends/relatives — and war? No way!

On the early morning of 24th of Feb I was awake after having sleeping issues and by accident I saw my phone ringing; usually my phone is switched off during the night. A friend was calling to say war has started and I needed to pick up my daughter and drive out of the city to the western part of Ukraine for a couple of days. We were convinced it was for a week maximum. So, I took Yaroslava, passports, puppy, 2 toothbrushes and 2 T-shirts and in 30 minutes we were already in the car. It took 4 hours to exit the city — thousands of people were escaping.

We stayed a couple of days in the western Ukraine watching the dynamic of ongoing news. Every single Ukrainian was monitoring news from all possible channels and constantly checking on friends and relatives «Are you ok? Where are you? » In a few days it became clear: war was not going to end, we need to move further. But where? Before the war I was thinking at moving to Turkey. I love a certain place on the seaside and my sister and friends are living there. So, I decided to follow this plan. Finally, a dream is coming true but…I am not happy about it at all.
My route was leading through Romania. While I was driving, somewhere in the mountains, closer to Cluj, I started to realise there was no future for me in Turkey at the moment. Their economic situation wasn’t good, I won’t find a proper job to survive. Before the war I was planning to switch my private clients to online and live in Turkey, but now my private practice was gone as most clients were Ukrainian citizens. If not Turkey — where else?
It’s a tragedy! All doors are now open for us and everything we want is just being back home.

How did you choose Cluj to settle?

Me and Yaroslava stopped in a hotel in Cluj for 2 nights to take a rest. Some friends offered their apartment in Bratislava to stay for a while. Bratislava and Turkey — 2 opposite directions from Cluj. What should I choose? I was stressed and couldn’t decide, both options were similar, so I decided to toss a coin in the air and let the fate decide for me. But it did not happen this way. I had a small car accident in a parking spot close to the hotel and a local guy, instead of calling insurance company, offered us house to live. So, it was my sign to stay for a while here and have some rest at least.

In a kids club I meet other Ukrainian women with children who run from the war; they were full of feelings of loss and uncertainty, no idea how to deal with it, or whom they could talk to about it…It felt like an unbearable burden in the air…Beautiful women and their children in a foreign country, people who suddenly don’t know who they are anymore or where to go… Thousands of uprooted women today, same women who had a normal life yesterday…I just wanted to say “Girls, I’m here, we can talk” but realised it was just the wrong moment and place…

In few days, again by chance, I met another wonderful Romanian citizen who offered to organise psychological support groups for the Ukrainian women. Together with her husband they had lots of experience in organising educational projects in Romania, therefore I felt it was an easy born project – groups for emotional support. It went by itself. It just happened. And afterwards I got in touch with the whole association who was taking care of the Ukrainian refugees in different ways: homes, food, jobs, medical support. It was another perfect match and meeting – ‘let’s see how I can be even of more help’. The road in front has widened.

Cluj is a comfortable city to live in and we feel safe here. Although we don’t speak Romanian, our English is enough to establish a life here. Of course, sometimes when I’m trying to detail my discourse with nuances — its challenging; English isn’t my mother tongue, and it takes time to choose right word.

Soon life became more grounded after renting a comfortable apartment, getting my daughter to a local school, and signing a working contract as UNV for WHO Romania.

How did you speak to Yaroslava about the war?

How did I speak with my daughter about the war? In a very simple way «It’s war here now and we have to leave, darling». That’s it. It was enough for her. She didn’t get to experience anything related to war like sounds of bombarding, air alarms, injured people, or damaged buildings, so it was easy to talk to her. Now she is totally adapted to new life, she found friends of her own and she is studying in a new program. The only thing she is missing is her dad who is still in Kyiv.

Tell me about the Ukrainian community in Cluj?

I’m not saying we should forget about our homes and start to build a new life here, no. All I’m telling them is that we should start to truly live here, accept the reality as it is with its daily joys and sorrows. It’s the only way to feel alive again.

There is quite a big Ukrainian community here, not sure about exact numbers, but around 3500 people including children. People are coming and going, for some of them Cluj is just a transit to their destination. When I’m taking to Ukrainians a lot of them are focusing on the moment of the future Victory and to be back home; they don’t feel grounded here, they are freezed on the 24th of Feb 2022. It’s difficult to integrate and feel grounded when your attention isn’t here and now. I’m not saying we should forget about our homes and start to build new life here, no. All I’m telling them is that we should start to truly live here, accept the reality as it is with its daily joys and sorrows. It’s the only way to feel alive again. And, yes, it’s challenging to accept this reality; we should have enough inner capacity for self-regulation, but for some of us, this mission is impossible, nobody instructed us to self-regulate in times of war.

For my point of view integration, not just a formal temporary living, starts in the moment when we manage to see what we really have in the present, not what we hope for or what we had before war. What is our reality now? Our grieves, sorrows, uncertainties, hopes, losses. There should be empathy and space for that, from the inside and from outside. Integration in a new society should definitely include inner integration of all our mental states. Otherwise, we will be living with one foot in Romania, with the other one in Ukraine, hands doing physical tasks without awareness, mind freezed in the past. Integration it’s a process of putting together separated parts, creating a unique ornament. The connections between parts should be comfortable and designed in a special way, convenient for every connected side.

Why do you think the Award programme can help the youth of the Ukrainian community?

This generation is going to build the future Ukraine, right?

It will stimulate integration by bridging Ukrainian and Romanian communities, not just the youth, but adults as well. We don’t even imagine yet the beauty of the future ornament forming right now.
The challenge now is to discover ways to build connections, match it with the unfulfilled needs without pushing, but encouraging interests and the inner activation in Ukrainians.
I see a lot of value in the Award programme. It can influence Ukrainian youth in a good way. And it can change their state of mind. Our society did not use to be very proactive before the war. I noticed a change that gives me hope, we started to donate, to support our army, to help each other. But this is just the start. With a programme like the Award, Ukrainian young people can continue to be active in their communities and take responsibility for themselves and their lives. I find this topic extremely important in the case of my community, we need to change something about our post-Soviet narratives. So why shouldn’t we start with the youth? This generation is going to build the future Ukraine, right?

Young Ukrainians need to meet peers with a different way of thinking, it will widen their understanding of life, give more freedom in their thoughts. And I also think a programme like the Award is a valuable contribution to the new Ukrainian society. We didn’t have such projects in Ukraine before, and it’s a great opportunity to design a new way of living, no matter when and how this war will be finished.

How does future look like in Ukraine?

About future in Ukraine… Of course, I’m hoping for the soonest victory and for a fast and easy recovery process in terms of economic, social, psychological or development means. But I do understand some processes will not be fast; to digest the collective psychological traumas – it will take generations. As society, we didn’t integrate the burdens from the Second World War yet and now there is another one happening. But to end on a note of hope – I do understand as well there is a certain power hiding behind any trauma. We need just to face it and integrate it.