“We were not looking for a better life in Europe” – talk with Iryna Lisova

Commit
13 min readAug 30, 2022

--

Iryna Lisova is a Kyiv-based civil activist, translator, YouTube travel blogger, psychologist and women empowerment activist interested in eco-movement. She co-founded Creative Women Publishing, the first women publishing house in Ukraine, which recently published its third book, “Red Days. The Whole Truth About Menstruation” by Olga Kari.

Meet the fellows of the Vidnova Fellowship, an individually designed program for civil society actors from Ukraine that enables them to continue their work and network with other European and Ukrainian partner organisations.

Our publishing house has existed for two years; this is only our third book. We planned five new paper books this year, but the war ruined our plans. The book that came yesterday from the printing house was initially intended to be printed in late February in a Kharkiv printing house, which was destroyed because of the war. So this book is something we waited for a long time to happen. It is also about women’s empowerment because it’s about menstruation — a challenging topic for the Ukrainian book market.

Iryna Lisova during the Orientation Meeting of Vidnova Fellowship. Photo credits: Agata Maziarz

How did your publishing career start?

In the beginning, it was a circle of four girls. We met once a week and shared our hopes and desires. It was a self-support group of girls interested in literature — that topic united us. Then it became a powerful instrument for empowering each other. We realised it worked so well for the four of us that we should expand it to the scale of the whole city. To make that happen, we decided that we should establish an event space and coworking space for women in Kyiv. So the fifth woman joined us, and the five of us founded a place called Creative Women Space which existed for two years before COVID forced us to close. This space was a vibrant place which attracted many activists, freelancers, and even diplomats. We conducted hundreds of events for women who needed some change in their lives. Running this place was like a full-time volunteer job — we found it with our own money, without any external financial support.

At that time we had around 3000€ — with this money we paid the rent for the first month and the deposit. We created the place out of nothing. It was an incredible story.

One of our umbrella projects was publishing. We invited two more women to join us. They were also connected to literature. Seven of us founded Creative Women Publishing with zero capital.

At the same time, when we announced that we had founded a publishing house, COVID emerged. It was a parallel process, and we were forced to close our space because it was impossible to exist. Even though Ukraine’s restrictions were not as severe as in Berlin, life in Kyiv was on hold. Metro stopped for three months, and group gatherings were forbidden, so we announced the closure of our space. We said goodbye to our fantastic building and started working on publishing very actively as a continuation of our thing, yet in another form.

To publish the first book, called Unspoken: Ukrainian Women Share Their Hidden Stories (“Про що вона мовчить” in Ukrainian), we gathered money on the biggest crowdfunding platform in Ukraine, and it was a compelling campaign. We closed this campaign in two weeks (with the initial plan of 1,5 months) and were the second most successful campaign in the history of Big Idea. Can you believe it? And we understood that we were doing something right. Next, we published another book, Anatomy of a Female Writer, and our work went slower due to the Russian invasion, but we kept doing it. As a project coordinator, I’m looking forward to the next book, which is a male sequel called Unspoken: Ukrainian Men Share Their Hidden Stories (“Про що він мовчить”).

The male version was almost ready when the war started, and we decided to invite more authors to write war-related essays. We are looking for funding opportunities for this book now. Since the war began, we have sold almost none of our books. Lastly, the situation began to change, and people started to buy our books little by little. There are seven team members, and just two people remain in Ukraine. This also makes matters more complicated when we are dispersed all around Europe.

Where are you now? How did you get to this place?

I’m in Berlin. I came here on the last days of February. My story is simple. I woke up with the first explosions on February 24 in my bed in Kyiv. I was terrified for the first hours. My cognitive function fell, and I had this pulsing idea that I should run. I could not imagine the full-scale war would start and Russia would bomb all of Ukraine. I was unprepared. I didn’t have an emergency backpack.

Until then, I thought that if anything started, I would stay here to take care of my relatives. But when those explosions woke me up, I had this evolutionary fight or flight mode and made a hard decision to leave.

I learned that my good friend would be leaving in the direction of the Western part of Ukraine by car, having one free seat, so I just came along. When I was moving there by car, I realised I would go to Berlin because I had a place to stay there. I wasn’t choosing what country to go to. I was going to a place where I could go, where people could host me. And it took me 83 hours from my flat to Berlin flat. For the first four nights, I slept 2 hours per night because, like everyone else, I was reading the news and asking my friends who remained in Ukraine if they were ok.

It was a shock. Nothing was clear. There was no evacuation transfer on the first day. So I had a commercial bus, which got stuck on the border for 35 hours. I spent two nights on the bus, which was standing still. I wasn’t in the worst condition there. I saw many people who were crossing the border on foot. The bus drivers invited women with children to empty seats on our bus to rest and sleep and charge their mobile phones. It was warm enough inside, while outside, it was freezing.

When I arrived in Berlin, I needed a week to recover from the shock. Then there were weeks when Kyiv was bombed. Russian troops were coming to the city’s suburbs, and my closest family was staying in the capital. Every day I fought with them by phone, trying to convince them to go to Berlin. I was yelling at them that they should spend the nights in the underground. Finally, they slept in the metro for one week, including my 73-year-old mother. It was physically exhausting. After some time, they were tired of these extreme conditions and decided to sleep at home, though it was still dangerous. They were quite terrified by the risk of rockets. And actually, the story ends with them coming to Berlin around the middle of March — my three closest relatives: my mother, my sister and her daughter.

I organised to host them around. My mother is still here but will return to Kyiv soon. My sister and her daughter left in May and are doing fine.

All my memories are mixed and chaotic, but at the same time, I remember every minute of the first day of the war.

Now I feel very homesick. In the last week of July, I was in Kyiv for the first time since the beginning of the war. It was a pleasure to visit my home, my friends, to pack my stuff, because I left with just a small backpack. It may sound like not a big deal, but it’s so important to me that now I can wear the dresses I’m used to, and I brought my favourite cup, all this emotional stuff, and some of my books. Now I have a collection of my earrings and my books with me. I never regretted that I escaped the first day. I have some friends who have never left Kyiv. They were adapting to what was going on. I believe it was better not to stay there for my mental health. For the first severe weeks of the war, my residential neighbourhood in Kyiv was hit twice by fragments of Russian missiles. The explosion wave destroyed the windows of my balcony. It was very close.

Photo credits: Agata Maziarz

Do you consider coming back?

I am bad “emigrant material”. I see my future closely linked to that of Ukraine. I want to go back but cannot predict how long this war will last. I have this feeling that I live in both places now. I don’t live entirely in Berlin. Mentally and emotionally, I’m in Kyiv with my relatives and friends.

My visit to Kyiv last week was significant for me. I thought that I would come there and feel danger, I would feel anxiety, and I would see people with guns on the streets. But it was the opposite — I felt much more relaxed there than in Berlin. I had a restful sleep. The only people with guns I saw were just soldiers in metro stations and guards. Kyiv now looks very similar to pre-war time, with some exceptions, such as the curfew. All the parties don’t finish at midnight, but much earlier, around nine, because you need the time to get back home.

The problem with coming back is that I still have an illusion that when I come back, I will return to my pre-war life. And I have not yet embraced the fact that there is no life like before. It has changed. Everything has changed. I think that half of my closest friends left Kyiv, and they decided to stay in other countries, not temporarily, but forever.

When I think about coming back to Ukraine, I want to come back to my country, where I can travel freely. Last summer, I travelled around the Kherson region, which is under occupation, and it was incredible to travel around nature’s wonders. I was travelling with a female friend by hitchhiking, and I want it back. This is something I will not get back if I return now.

In the Zaporizhia region, a small town, Melitopol, is occupied, and this is the hometown of my mother, father and grandparents. I have graves of my great-parents and great-grandparents there. I still have relatives there who live in the house built by my great-grandfather. I want to be able to visit them.

When I was leaving on February 24, I repeated that the only thing that strengthened me was the idea that I would return. I’ve been to Berlin previously, and I like the city. All the time, I think that because of the war and my emotional participation, I don’t have curiosity about Berlin, the locals, and the German language. I immediately started learning German to be at least a little more independent. But it all feels like I make myself do it. It’s not out of my desire. I realised I had not visited any museums since February, although Berlin museums are great, and they are free for Ukrainians.

How do you understand the state of not being curious in the new place?

When I travel, curiosity pushes me to discover the place and people. I can only meet with Ukrainians in the same state as I am because I have tried to meet locals and foreigners recently, but we have an experience gap. They can express compassion and empathy, but they don’t live through this daily.

To be curious, you have to feel safe and relaxed. Of course, I’m 100% secure physically here. Still, I feel unsafe emotionally because I’m there every day, getting used to people killed, ruined new houses, people raped, and my friends going to the army. They are not forced. They are volunteering or mobilised by their own will. I am lucky. None of the people from my closest circle is killed at the moment. Every day I remember that Russia is committing genocide against Ukrainians, and we should not forget it’s not just Putin’s war.

Every day, I learn about more and more people who go to fight in the army. Some of them I would never expect to become soldiers, for example, the guy who works in a bookstore selling books or a vegan and animal activist protesting against fur. He’s a TikTok star now.

I prefer not to call myself a refugee. I know that in Ireland, they don’t say “you are a refugee”; they say “you are our guest”. There could be different terms. For example, we can use the word “people who rescue themselves from the war” (ті, що рятуються від війни), and this phrase keeps dignity.

You are expected to behave in a particular way when you are a refugee. Ukrainians don’t fit the stereotype of a refugee. Of course, I can only judge based on my bubble, but those who arrived here have been pretty successful. We have had flats, friends, jobs, and education and were not looking for a better life in Europe. Westerners make mistakes when treating Ukrainians as a homogenous group.

Another mistake is to make Ukrainians integrate. Instead of the integration course, there might be a welcome course: because many of us will return home as soon as the Russian war ends.

And another mistake is to think of Ukraine as an underdeveloped country. I experience now that many institutions and services work on a much more developed and client-oriented level in Ukraine than in other European countries. So this exchange of the best practices should work in both directions.

Part of me, even now, after five months of the war, doesn’t believe it’s all happening. In the first months of the war, I understood that I felt very similar to when my father died around ten years ago. For some time, it felt like that. It’s not real. It’s not happening. It was the phase of denial. And even now, part of me is denying the war. So what kind of integration are you talking about? I’m forcing myself to go to German class every day, and I think I’m doing fine. I’m a champion here.

What brought you to Vidnova?

Vidnova Coordinator, Maryna Goncharenko. She spread the word about the Zoom call before the big open call. I took part in this event and then applied for the fellowship. I met Maryna two years ago in Khata Maysternya during training on facilitation. When I was in Berlin, I kept an eye on my bubble, which was probably how we were in contact.

Vidnova Orientation Meeting, Berlin. Photo credits: Agata Maziarz

What convinced you to apply?

Several things. The offline networking part excited me: I realised I already knew 30% of the participants from previous projects and training. It was a powerful comeback to pre-war life.

It is an opportunity to end with social payments. I chose to apply for social costs because of Germany’s mandatory medical health insurance. The job centre situation looks like this: they invite people several times weekly for interviews and neverending appointments. They demand more and more papers and forbid leaving Germany for more than 21 days per year. I’m a travel blogger, and I was terrified of them then. I know it’s incredible support for people since the job centre pays for apartments. But I felt it was like a prison. I was trying to figure out how to live further with the uncertainty. Will I go back to Ukraine soon? Should I look for a job in Germany right now? Am I ready for long-term work commitments when I am already busy with a German course, 4 hours per day, taking care of my elderly mom and our publishing company, and making helpful YouTube videos explaining German bureaucracy for Ukrainians? It seemed like quite a lot of work already. So I was happy to enrol for the Fellowship to be able to continue the activities I had in my pre-war life and liberate myself from the social welfare system.

What organisation will you apply to, and what project will you do?

It’s Vitsche e.V. At the moment, I’m so focused on Ukraine and everything Ukraine-related that I could not imagine looking for a host organisation unrelated to Ukraine and the war topic.

It’s not yet confirmed what kind of project I’ll do. We have only a draft idea. The idea is on the border of my interests and the interests of Vitsche, which is fighting for the subjectivity of Ukraine in German society. I have a background in women empowerment, and with my mentor in Vitsche, we discussed a series of videos with Ukrainian females who have been living in Germany for a long time, are self-realised, and have brilliant careers and projects. We would like to show the diversity of German society and contribute to the image of Ukrainian women here.

How do you imagine the outcome of your fellowship?

I want to do something meaningful. When I learned about fellowship, I focused on the next book we wanted to print. At that moment, I thought I could apply for this fellowship and finance our book, so we don’t need to look for any other funding. So it was the first impulse in me. Later, when I got accepted, I learned that this project’s money could not be directed to book printing because the money couldn’t be used commercially.

Even though you can’t complete the plan about the book with the money from the fellowship, do you feel you can take something out of it?

Yeah, for sure. I want to return to the story of social welfare. It was emotionally crucial to finish my relationship with the job centre. I have my activities within the fellowship, I’m not on social welfare, I’m doing well, and I have my project ideas. And also, when I meet people, it gives another dimension to my portfolio. It’s also about networking. It allows me not to feel like a victim who was forced to leave everything behind and run away from her home. Now I have projects here. I’m busy here.

Also, the Orientation Meeting in Berlin was very inspirational because I met some people I knew from my previous life and some new people I’m curious about. I’m grateful for this opportunity; it makes me feel less alone. Another pleasant story is that I took my mother on the boat trip organised for Vidnova fellows. It was so lovely to incorporate my family life into my bubble.

--

--