Solutions 16:56 31 Aug 2023

"If not me, then who?:" Building Ukraine Together NGO rebuilds the country and eliminates barriers between people

"Building Ukraine Together" is one of Ukraine's most influential non-governmental organizations engaged in construction volunteering. They gather volunteers from all over Ukraine and almost all over the world to rebuild destroyed houses, build cultural centers, repair public facilities, and live up to their name — more than 6,000 volunteers are building Ukraine together.

What is the problem?

During a year and a half of the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation, about 2.5 million people were left homeless and became displaced people. Often, even in the liberated Ukrainian territories, people simply had nowhere to return to as the Russians destroyed their houses.

Housing reconstruction should not be a personal problem but a joint task of Ukrainians. This is not only about housing and walls but also about restoring community ecosystems and environments where young people will feel comfortable returning and developing.

What is the solution?

When Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014, Kramatorsk was among the first cities to receive the blow. From April 12 to July 5, intense battles for the city continued, ultimately ending with the victory of Ukraine. There were also the first destructions as a result of the war. When three members of the Lviv Educational Foundation, Vitaliy Kokur, Andriy Levytskyi, and Yurko Didula, came there, they wanted to help restore the destroyed buildings. From this impulse began the organization's history that united more than five thousand volunteers in nine years of work — the non-governmental organization "Building Ukraine Together."

Since the beginning of the war in the east, the NGO has been organizing BUT camps — week-long volunteer reconstruction activities with the participation of young people from all over the country and abroad, as well as short-term programs with local youth.

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BUT camp in Boyarka, Kyiv region. Volunteers and local activists build a public space for various cultural events.

BUT started as a volunteer action. At that time, BUT sought to restore the houses destroyed due to Russia's war against Ukraine in the east. However, the initiative transformed over time into an all-Ukrainian non-governmental organization. Now, BUT has regional branches, local short-term volunteer movements, long-term volunteering programs of three to six months, a project management school, a mentoring program, and other non-formal education programs. 

Service learning is an international educational practice that combines learning with public service and solving public needs. This is how BUT grew into a national organization that creates opportunities for development and volunteering for young people throughout Ukraine and contributes to the reconstruction and development of communities, says Marta Benyshyn, head of the "Building Ukraine Together" NGO.

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On the day when the Rubryka correspondent visited the camp, volunteers were working with pallets.

BUT's strong community of volunteers, partners, and friends did not get lost even after February 24, 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion. The team began to solve humanitarian issues and help members of the association who decided to defend Ukraine at the front. Since the beginning of the full-scale war,  BUT has handed over equipment worth more than ₴8 million to the army. It helped save more than one life.

Return to reconstruction

However, very quickly, the NGO fully returned to its primary program. Today, as nine years ago, BUT is engaged in reconstructing and restoring various objects. Moreover, the organization understood that today's challenge was not only the restoration of buildings in the territories from which the Ukrainian army drove out the Russians but also the psychological state of young people related to the war, the difficulty of integrating IDPs into new communities and preserving the connections of refugees and the diaspora with Ukraine and the Ukrainian context. This is how the new strategic goal of BUT was formed — to work on these problems through the involvement of young people in volunteering, non-formal education, and further community development.

For this reason, various volunteering programs have been developed in BUT so that young people can choose the most comfortable and suitable format for themselves. The most popular is the youth volunteer camp format, which unites community representatives, local youth, and those who came to help the camp from all over Ukraine and even from other countries.

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The camp in Boyarka was held during the hottest part of the summer, and the whole Kyiv region was looking for shade and coolness these days.

Immersing in reconstruction

Traditionally, the BUT camp consists of two parts: volunteer and cultural and educational. In the first half of the day, volunteers work at the facility. In the second half, they will get to know the people at the camp and the area and engage in social and other activities. If you decide to work remotely simultaneously, there probably won't be enough time. Volunteers only have a few free hours a day.

"Currently, we offer a wide and systematic range of volunteer opportunities for young people throughout Ukraine," says the head of the NGO, Benyshyn.

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At BUT, volunteers are trained to work with various tools.

Indeed, in BUT, you can choose different types of activities — a one-day event within your community's framework, a two to three-day repair program, and the reconstruction or restoration of the site as part of a seven-day BUT camp in another corner of Ukraine. This is how they arrange public spaces, youth centers, and shelters, rebuild infrastructure objects destroyed due to the war, and arrange housing for people who have lost their homes.

To select objects for reconstruction, the organization collects community applications to restore sites or create other projects with BUT. In the questionnaire, activists or community representatives describe the need and details of the site they want to work on. They also outline the idea of volunteering to solve a social problem in the community.

Next, with the selected communities, the organizers outline the scheme of future works and prepare an estimate. BUT seeks funds for implementation or attracts them from the currently won grant. Next is the most exciting thing: attracting volunteers and starting cooperation.

Volunteers at BUT build and paint walls, restore windows, and clean. It all depends on what the restoration facility itself needs.

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For the public space in Boyarka, volunteers built tables, benches, deckchairs, and even a stage from pallets.

Each camp is a collaboration with those who are activists in their community in the first place. Other NGOs, local activists, representatives of local self-government bodies, and educational institutions can also partner with BUT. 

How to become a BUT volunteer?

To do this, you need to go to the website of the NGO in the volunteer section, where there is a calendar of current volunteer activities. Depending on the season, there may be up to ten of them at the same time of different durations in different regions. Choose a date, duration, and region and apply.

One session lasts seven to ten days. The initial task and complexity of the site determine the number of sessions. Something can be restored in a week, and something needs a month or more. Benyshyn notes that it is difficult for volunteers to allocate more than seven days, so long sessions are divided into visits. The BUT itself provides accommodation and meals for the volunteers. Professional masters work at each camp and teach volunteers the necessary skills and knowledge.

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The process of building a stage for a public space.

"It is important that people from different parts of Ukraine come. The participation of residents interested in rebuilding and restoring their communities is valuable. We are also actively developing long-term volunteering," Benyshyn told Rubryka. Participants go to the chosen community for three months to help develop youth initiatives on the spot: participate in strategic sessions, organize events and career guidance projects for schoolchildren, develop youth centers, or launch a youth council.

This is a new trend for Ukraine, and BUT is the first NGO that systematically offers this type of volunteering and self-development. The organization strives to develop practical skills and social mobility and promote the change of social roles.

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The number of volunteers at each session is calculated so everyone has a job and the team meets the specified deadlines.

Benyshyn adds that for BUT, an organic combination of two components is essential: building physically, that is, working with hands, and carrying out the restructuring of consciousness, that is, strengthening the understanding of the importance of personal responsibility in the restoration of the community, the formation of the state at various levels. A cultural and educational program is being prepared at the volunteer camps. Participants listen to lectures on current topics and participate in interactive activities and reflections. They watch films about historical events, have tours of the region, etc.

Leadership development is another community challenge. Therefore, upon completion of the camps, BUT volunteers have the opportunity to further develop with BUT, take on more responsibility — become masters or camp leaders, complete a project management program, and even apply to organize their own camp.

Does it really work?
Change yourself and the country for the better 

From 2014 to 2017, most camps took place in the east. Now, the movement has expanded to the west and north. The next step is to work in the south. BUT is already carrying out activities in this direction, and they recently carried out an Expedition to the South, identified and evaluated sites for the potential restoration and reconstruction of housing. Camps are supposed to start there in September, while the community is actively looking for funds for their implementation.

This year, BUT has already held 21 volunteer reconstruction and recovery camps. By the end of the year, more than 90 are planned in more than 50 communities. The results of the community's activities are impressive — for the entire time of its existence, with the help of more than 6,000 caring people, BUT has created comfortable living conditions for more than 5,000 people from communities affected by the war.

According to Benyshyn, there were many interesting facilities in the last year. This is, for example, arranging a shelter in Kolomyia for people from affected communities or those who were forced to leave their homes; restoration of the school in Hostomel; reconstruction of the family's house in Lukashivka, the Chernihiv region, after being hit by a shell; reconstruction of the part of the State Emergency Service in Makariv, the Kyiv region.

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Each BUT camp has different jobs, depending on the facilities where the volunteers work.

The camp in Odesa ended very recently. Here, volunteers worked on restoring and furnishing the premises for the first Military Leadership Center in Ukraine — a space for informal education and leadership for future officers. The activities of this center will be aimed at developing essential skills among cadets of military educational institutions and military personnel. A volunteer hub will also function on the basis of the center.

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Volunteer Sonia works at one of the BUT facilities. Photo from Sonia's archive

Many volunteers become participants in BUT camps more than once. Volunteer Sonia visited the camps in Motyzhyn (Kyiv region) and Mshanka (Lviv region).

"BUT warmed my heart to the temperature of absolute self-belief. Like in childhood, it lit up my eyes from the diversity of people, opinions, and stories. This community is incredible, and this admiration for all people helped me a lot morally," Sonia shared with Rubryka. "I received enormous support in creativity, for which I am infinitely grateful. Before BUT, I was on the edge because I felt no opportunities. Here, I gained experience, faith in my abilities, and feedback, thanks to which I noticed previously invisible sides. Another plus is that participation in BUT also helps me a lot in other projects. The most important thing: BUT gave me the opportunity to contribute to the support of the country!"

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Vyacheslav is a professional builder and a soldier. After his injury, he joined the long-term volunteering program of BUT. Photo from Vyacheslav's archive

Vyacheslav joined the long-term volunteering program after returning from the service. For three months now, he has devoted himself to working with the community and with teenagers in Berezhany, in Ukraine's Ternopil region in the west. Vyacheslav is a professional builder graduate from Lviv Polytechnic. After February 24, he went to serve, was wounded, and underwent treatment. For several years, he followed the activities of BUT on social networks. During rehabilitation, he learned about the long-term volunteering program and decided to join. He wanted to be useful and needed physical but also moral and psychological rehabilitation. He called volunteering in BUT a step towards returning to normal life. Previously, he had prejudices about the effectiveness of NGO activity, but during the war, he appreciated the importance of such work.

"Now I'm interested in getting out of my bubble, and I want to expand my worldview and interact with young people. We have a lot to share and learn from each other. We always have a work plan: we develop a strategy, communicate with city representatives, and solve tasks," says Vyacheslav.

Locals, who at first were wary of the appearance of a camp on their territory, gratefully accept the help of volunteers. Someone can come up and ask what and how is happening here, offer support, and bring food or materials. In the villages, they often treat people with jam or bring fruits and vegetables from the garden. Some offer a ride or a tour and tell interesting facts about the community and its residents.

Sometimes, the BUT team admits, there are not too friendly people and rather curious cases.

Once, in the Chernihiv region, the BUT team was making a fire, and one of the neighbors came to argue with the volunteers because he mistakenly decided that they had damaged something near the well. The conversation began with aggression and attacks, but in the end, it was possible to convince him that the camp participants were not involved. As a result, the man joined the volunteers, shared his challenging experience of life in the occupation, and later, he and his family supported the volunteers in every possible way — shared fresh vegetables and milk and brought tools.

The head of BUT adds: "It is important to communicate with people, to listen to others, to conduct educational work in any way, because we can influence the worldview, support each other and in this way change the country for the better."

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The volunteer team of the BUT camp in Boyarka.

Even more useful solutions!
If not us, then who?

"Our mission is to create a country of capable citizens included in public life. Now, Ukraine needs united actions, and the youth is the driving force that is able not only to implement the necessary changes but also to master the key principles of proactivity and personal responsibility regarding their role in the future life of the country and community," says Benyshyn. The slogan of BUT is "If not me, then who?" could now be supplemented with a quite appropriate continuation: "If not now, then when?"

She believes the main thing is the desire to participate in changes, and the tools can be selected according to desire and opportunity.

"You can take part in the long-term volunteering program, become a friend of BUT, and send a certain amount every month for the reconstruction of the country — every ₴100 counts!" Benyshyn told Rubryka. Currently, a large community of BUT friends will donate monthly, participate in networking, receive gifts, and meet together at various locations. These are mostly those who seek change and share the team's values but have a heavy workload and cannot volunteer physically.

In addition, BUT invites you to initiate changes within your community, find a project or a facility that needs changes, and submit it to the BUT camp. All programs are described in detail on the BUT website. You can familiarize yourself with them and learn more about the projects and opportunities of BUT on the website and social networks of the community: Instagram, Facebook, and Telegram.

*Veronika Karachevska, PR-lead of BUT, helped Rubryka learn more about BUT.

The material was created within the framework of the Life of War project with the support of the NGO Laboratory of Public Interest Journalism and the Documenting Ukraine project at the Institute of Humanities in Vienna (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, IWM).


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