Interview with Oksana Dobroskok, coordinator of shelters for LGBTIQ people in Kyiv, Dnipro and Chernivtsi

What are the challenges faced by civil society organizations that continue to provide services to vulnerable populations in times of war?

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National LGBTI Consortium
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Hello, Oksana! Tell our readers something about yourself.

I am originally from Kharkiv, but I have recently lived in Kyiv. I have been working with Alliance.Global since the end of 2019, but I have a lot of experience in the past. For more than 20 years, I have been working on projects related to vulnerable groups, including men who have sex with men (MSM), sex workers, and people who use drugs. I have extensive experience working with international organizations and am also a member of the LGBTIQ+ community. In peacetime, I worked as a regional advocacy and MSM mobilization consultant. I actively worked with young activists in the regions, mainly on access to HIV services.

 

But now you are the coordinator of the humanitarian line and three large shelters for LGBTIQ+ people. Before the war, your organization had sheltered MSM and trans*people in Kyiv. Could you please tell us how this activity started?

Our shelter for MSM in Kyiv has been operating before me since the beginning of 2020. In mid-2021, the project was put on hold due to a lack of funding. However, with the help of our development partner, 100% Life, we were able to restart the project at the beginning of this year.

 

How did you get the idea to open such a shelter?

There is still a lot of homophobia and transphobia in Ukraine, but it used to be even worse. The idea was born in response to cases where MSM and trans* people lost their homes and jobs because of it. We tried to create a space to help victims of homophobia/transphobia or unsuccessful outings to “wait out the storm,” re-socialize and start a new life. However, in early 2022, when our shelter reopened, the “target” was community members who had lost their jobs or homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, many MSM came to Kyiv to work. A critical number of them had to find new jobs and housing because of the pandemic, and they had nowhere to return to.

 

Running even one shelter is a huge burden. Doesn’t it burden you, as you have other projects besides this one?

Initially, I didn’t feel it was a burden. But after we expanded the project to other cities, it really became more difficult. However, we now clearly understand the community’s needs. We can meet them, even at the limit of our capacity. That’s how we work.

 

Please tell us something about the dynamics. Where do the guests come from, and how long do they stay?

The dynamics change a lot over time. Initially, people from Bucha and Irpin came to the Kyiv shelter. In the Dnipro shelter, there were people from the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, especially many people from Mariupol. In other words, the “hot spots” change caused an influx of guests. Until March, we had primarily people who were fleeing the war. Now it is mostly people who have lost their homes or livelihoods. In peacetime, we used to take in guests for two weeks to three months. We want to ensure that the people who stay with us can take a break from the stress they have experienced, adapt to the new realities, get psychological help if necessary, and eventually move out of our house and into their own. We only force this process and allow it to drag on for a short time.

 

Shelters are costly to run. You already have three. You also provide guests with everything they need free of charge. Where do you get the money?

Since the beginning of 2022, our biggest donor has been the charity 100% Life, thanks to which our first shelter in Kyiv has been operating. But the entire operation of shelters in times of war requires additional support. Since the primary military operations started, we have been actively seeking additional funding. For example, the French international organization Coalition PLUS made a substantial contribution to help us open a shelter in Chernivtsi as quickly as possible. We also received funding from organizations such as Outright Action International, Aidsfonds, UNAIDS, which have set up special programs to help Ukraine, and our partners in the NGO KyivPride. We also received many private donations from all over the world. A week and a half after the full-scale invasion began, we had the first funds to provide emergency aid to the community.

 

Has the funding changed over time? Anyone involved in volunteering or other activities in any way can see that it is getting harder and harder to find financing every day.

Until the end of March, there were many private donations, and the funding system was simplified, although we tried to keep track of all the money we received and spent. Presently, private donations have almost completely stopped, but the time we had helped us get back on our feet and write new project applications with more long-term projects. Most importantly, we gathered the community’s requests and got a clear understanding of what they needed during the war.

 

What is your most outstanding achievement in this activity?

Opening a shelter in Chernivtsi. Thanks to our activist, who was already in the city, and quick help from our partners, we could open this shelter in three short weeks. We turned a completely empty room with bare walls into a cozy space with everything we needed, rebuilt the bathroom from scratch, and made repairs. After I moved to Chernivtsi, our activist joined the army.

 

What was your biggest defeat?

The fact that we were unable to open a shelter in Lviv. We weighed all the pros and cons and realized we needed to be clear about our financial possibilities. The locals in Lviv raised the property prices very much, so much that it was impossible to open a new shelter. So, we didn’t do it for rational reasons.

 

But you still managed to open an HIV, hepatitis, and STI testing center there.

Yes, it is much cheaper financially than opening a new shelter. Several organizations in Lviv work with MSM/LGBT+ people. For example, a young organization called Impulse opened in 2021, and we provide them with resources and expert support.

 

Have you ever turned away shelter seekers?

Unfortunately, yes. “After the war, quite a few people tried to take advantage of organizations that help others for free. These were the “fraudsters” who asked all the coordinators for money at the same time, separately, for unclear needs. Don’t get me wrong, we never refuse people who meet our criteria: being LGBTIQ or their relatives, having a genuine need for help, etc. But there have been cases, for example, where we have had to evict people for breaking our rules. These are both the rules of the shelters and the regulations of wartime – it has happened that people have left the shelters during curfew, endangering their very existence.

 

You told us earlier that you run psychological groups in the shelter in Chernivtsi. Can you tell us more about them, and do you plan to extend them to your other shelters?

Nowadays, online counseling is a more developed practice, but we were lucky. In Chernivtsi, we had an employee who could conduct group psychological sessions in the shelter. This is not deep psychotherapy but a solution to acute stress processes that prevent a person from adopting and socializing in new conditions. It can even be a solution to everyday problems. We plan to extend this activity to other shelters and seek funding. In the future, it will be linked to personal development, community mobilization, and deeper resocialization. This will involve psychologists/psychotherapists, HR, and coaches.

 

You said that you help your guests to re-socialize in a new place. Do you have any successful cases?

It is pretty tricky to talk about rehabilitation in a time of war. We are still determining what will happen tomorrow and cannot guarantee that our efforts will bear significant fruit. For us, success means that the guest stops being “depressed” and “lying on the bed” and starts seeking employment and a new place to live, which we help them to do. We have our chats, separate for each hostel, where guests share information about finding work with each other. In other words, the success of socialization is the ‘release’ of a guest into the world, preferably into their accommodation and with a new job under their belt. There are cases in all three shelters, most in Kyiv and less in Chernivtsi, but we are working on it.

 

Do most guests come alone or with their families?

Mostly alone. But the requests are different. Whole families have lived in Dnipro. Most of them are MSM boys with their mothers. Of course, in these cases, we wondered if the mother knew about her son’s orientation *laughs*. Our shelters are organized so that most of the time, young people live there, and it can be a bit unusual for an older person to live there. However, we have seen time and time again how having relatives living together in our shelters have changed older people’s attitudes toward LGBTIQ+ people for the better. We also provide equal support to all family members, regardless of their community affiliation. This includes both psychological support and resource support, such as medication.

 

How do you work with other organizations?

The LGBTIQ+ community has responded very well to the challenges of the war. Each organization has its own ‘scope,’ but this has not interfered. It has helped us to pool needs and help each other. We diverted people somewhere, and we diverted resources somewhere. So, I sincerely thank all the organizations, whether we interacted or not.

 

Which organizations did you work with?

KyivPride was one of the first organizations to support us financially. This allowed us to help the community in the “hot spots” from the beginning of the Russian invasion. We worked closely with the NGO Insight, and I am deeply grateful to Olena Hryhoriak, the coordinator of their shelter in Chernivtsi. Her example showed how it could work in the city and helped us organize our shelter. And while ours was still being repaired, we quickly redirected people to their shelter. There were also NGOs, “Cohort” and “Convictus Ukraine,” with whom we worked on issues related to the transgender community, even at the stage of opening a shelter in Kyiv. The LGBT association LIGA, also helps us with humanitarian aid, although they have a separate line. They also have a hotline for psychological crisis support. As for foreign partners, I would like to mention the oldest Polish LGBT organization, Lambda Warsaw, which helps us a lot with the humanitarian needs of the shelters.

 

What will happen to the shelters after Russia’s defeat in this war?

As I said, we did not open the first shelter in Kyiv because of the war. And thereafter, we will have long years of reconstruction, and many people will have nowhere to return to. We hope to continue this work. We had an idea to open a shelter in Kharkiv; if the situation there were not so dangerous, we would have done it. But we are not rejecting these plans, and a new shelter may open one day. We see the ones already open as long-term initiatives and have yet to make plans to close them. These shelters may become ‘community outposts’ in the future, especially in western Ukraine, where the community is traditionally closed. For us, this is a chance to change attitudes towards LGBTIQ+ people there for the better, both at the level of public perception and at the level of providing public health services, social support, and community mobilization.

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