Ukraine, Lviv, Drohobych, December 2017
Contrasts in celebration of a children’s holiday
The birthday of Saint Nicholas which falls on the 6th December is the biggest event of the year for children in the Netherlands. The night before on the 5th (and often weeks prior to the day) children receive presents in return for songs they sing and good behaviour. St. Nicholas day (a holy day) is celebrated in many, mainly European countries, with local variations.
Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra (now Turkey), and was known as the benefactor of children particularly, savior of lost souls, and also as the patron saint of sailors. Even though the core of the celebration once was charity, this aspect has been largely forgotten in the Netherlands where the focus shifted on the family, directly. Saint Nicholas has very much become similar to Santa Claus who, although opinions vary on this topic, actually represents a reincarnated version of Saint Nicholas.
In the west of Ukraine Saint Nicholas (Mikolai, Миколай) is still celebrated through a real charity event. His birthday is celebrated on the 19th December, due to the use of the old Julian calendar which differs in 13 days from the Gregorian one. In many families, children are encouraged to write a polite letter to the saint while the presents they receive later can be found under their pillows on the morning of the 19th. Saint Nicholas is considered to have angels as helpers and his attire is usually of a priest or Byzantine Bishop. When descending from Heaven on his birthday, he is often depicted wearing a white beard but can also wear the classic Catholic outfit. As for the children, that does not really matter.
Small scale private charity by two angels
An overwhelming number of charity organizations can be found in Ukraine. However, there is no organized form of control over them, and it is very difficult to figure out their backgrounds so even Ukrainians themselves tend to treat many of them with caution and suspicion.
In Lviv I found two “angels” who decided to dedicate their lives to charity, so I decided to investigate their work more closely. Both of them are two strong women driven not by the wish to change the world but rather to bring some good where it’s needed.
lives with her husband Victor in a small apartment inside a high rise building area dating from communist-era downtown Lviv. They look after Mariianna’s mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and has a son of 12 who displays a mild form of autism. Both the mother and the son require twenty-four-hour care. Godmother for 30 children
Mariianna works as a librarian and has also been teaching Christian education in secondary schools. Victor is a part-time professor teaching dogma at the Greek Catholic University of Lviv. In order to qualify for this position, he was trained in Rome for a period of around 10 years. Both Victor and Mariianna are deeply religious. All in all, making ends meet in their situation is, least to say, not easy.
Godmother to 30 children
Despite everything, Mariianna made a decision in 2005 that would steer their lives into a direction that not many would willingly choose. While staying with her eldest son in hospital (he was suffering from kidney disease) she met a mother with two children who also required medical care. The children were clearly in a poor state and Mariianna helped take care of them a little. Later, the mother contacted Mariianna again asking if she could somehow help them because she was hardly able to provide enough to feed the children on her own. Mariianna decided to help.
After meeting the woman in the hospital, she received a call from another single mother in the same village. From this point on she has dedicated her life and part of her family’s income to support a group of around 30 people who are clearly in need – mainly children, but also the elderly.
Mariianna and her husband try to evaluate each of the specific needs. Mariianna:
“WE DO NOT make a decision based on RELIGION, BUT SOLELY ON OUR own perception Of THE SITUATION”
Most of the children they care for live in villages near Lviv, but some also as far away as the Ivano Frankivsk region. She also takes care of 3 beggars on her apartment block, providing them with food in the hallway. The beggars are not allowed in her family’s apartment, but they are provided with food on a regular basis.
The mother Mariianna met in the hospital had two more children with different male friends in the years following their encounter, so Mariianna became a godmother to one of them. This is, actually, how she feels towards all of the people she supports
Other charity organisations
“There are other organizations which are helping or, at least, claim to be helping the children in need. They operate differently – some of them mainly provide goods once a year, solely on St. Nicholas’ day”. Such organizations do not cooperate with Mariianna, and only wish to provide goods when she withdraws her help completely.
“Children of Ukraine” and “Children’s Word” are such organizations. Some members of the Parliament also started organizations like the “Dubnewich fund”, which is named after an MP. Such organizations mainly redistribute state funds – the MP behind it gets good publicity for such an activity, and usually, that is where the story ends.
State children homes exist, but the families Mariianna and Victor support belong to an earlier stage than that. Taking care that the children do not end up being sent to such state homes is an achievement in itself. The state children homes, most of them being remnants from the Soviet era, are notorious places.
“We stay in touch with our children, visit them twice a month and they are allowed to call us in case they need our support. We provide counsel for the mothers and help them raise their children and create their own organizations at home”. This kind of moral support is crucial. It represents a lifeline for many of them, and they all lean on Mariianna for support.
Victor and Mariianna run the whole enterprise by themselves but do receive help from a wide circle of friends, Victors’ students (some of them being nuns) and other sympathizers who mainly provide second-hand clothing and sometimes raise financial support. Mariianna and Victor deliver those goods themselves in their old car, as that is a good moment to have face to face contact with the children.
After my interview, we visited two families and brought them presents. Both families live in villages not far from Lviv. One family of five lives in a single room (two parents and three children, lead picture).
Mariianna realizes that what she and her husband are doing sometimes only provides a “patch”. Mothers suffer from alcohol-related problems, make bad decisions on how to spend the money and/or the way they raise their children. “Even if we only make some moments in their life brighter, that’s already good. Some children manage to get out of this circle of poverty. Even if just one of them succeeds in that, it was all worth it”.
lost her husband during the fights in East Ukraine. He served as a border guard. She herself has two children and lives in Lviv now, after she had to leave the area now occupied by Russia like so many others. There are around 1,5 million internal refugees in Ukraine and tens of thousands of widows like Olena, mostly living with their children. In many buildings, the portraits of the fallen are displayed and honoured, just like the case is here, in a post office.
The internal war in the east still continues and hundreds of casualties are added to the list every month. The state provides a basic pension for the refugees but the suffering of their loss weighs heavily on them. A single woman with children is considered to be in a bad position in any society almost anywhere in the world, but here in Ukraine, that is definitely visible.
In 2015 Olena decided to do something for such women and started a charity organization “Sad Flower” Sumna Kvitka. She managed to register as a branch of Unesco, and nowadays spends most of her days in both gathering donations and organizing support. Today we met in Lviv to go to Drohobich where Saint Nicholas celebration would be organized for the widows and children.
War widows feel alone
“Apart from necessary goods, the moral support is of key importance”, Olena says. “Those widows feel left alone with their grief and Sad Flower provides some comfort for them.”
“Most of the ATTENTION IS GENERALLY GIVEN TO THE CHILDREN, while the WIDOWS themselves ARE OFTEN FORGOTTEN”
Her activities are confined to Lviv region and some of the neighbouring areas as her resources are limited. To Olena’s knowledge, hers is the only organization in Ukraine which focuses on helping the widows.
In 2017 she organized a summer camp so that the widows and the children could meet and share their feelings among each other. The camp was made possible through the aid of one generous individual from the UK.
Olena runs Sad Flower by herself and dedicates all her time to it. She visits official institutions and goes from door to door trying to secure donations.
Mainly private donations
Municipality offices provide her only with the names of the widows so she could make contact with them. Unfortunately, the information provided is quite often inaccurate.
Saint Nicholas celebration I witnessed started as a logistic operation. Her father rented a van and the Municipality of Drohobich approved the hall to be used in the local registry office
The meeting was very formal, officials occupying the first row. A group of some 10 widows gathered and their children were handed the packages by a Saint Nicholas impersonator. A video can be seen here: Saint Nicolas
Some children sang a sweet song and tears could be seen in the women’s eyes. A well-known writer of poems and children books gave a moving speech full of encouraging words and stressed that they were not alone. There were presents for the widows as well, not only for the children.
Another government official showed up and exchanged a couple of words in a formal manner with Olena. The whole session lasted about an hour. It was not just about handing out presents, but rather about togetherness and sharing emotions.
Olena returned with an empty van to Lviv and prepared for her next visit. Next year she’s hoping to organize another summer camp and she’s fighting to gather the resources necessary to do that.
Should you after reading this wish to support Mariianna or Olena contact me Insights