“We have so much to say to the world” – talk with Daryna Podolian

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12 min readAug 22, 2022

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Daryna Podolian comes from Cherkasy. She has spent 30 years there building her personality and career. Daria is a project and event manager who loves to organize senseful events (like retreats for civil society activists, mentorship programs for NGO managers, open-air concerts and lectures in locations that need to be revitalized in Cherkasy). Now she lives in the Netherlands, in very unusual surroundings for her — in the countryside. Daria is a Mom to two small kids.

Meet 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.

What is your current situation now? How are you doing?

I live in the north of the Netherlands in Friesland, on a farm with a great host family. It’s a tricky question about how I’m doing. I’m doing very differently because some areas of my life are starting to improve, like professional. I’m volunteering and helping other Ukrainians, and I feel it is significant. It closes some of my needs in being helpful, in giving my skills to serve people in other areas of life. It’s like motherhood. I’m now overloaded, being the only adult for my kids. I have taken care of them for the past months without any breaks, vacations or free weekends. At the same time, I’m delighted that my kids are in a safe place, in nature, with good people, and they have a good time here. I have a very complicated personal situation in my relationship because I’m going through divorce now, and it also affects and impacts all other areas of my life.

Daria Podolian during the Orientation Meeting of Vidnova Fellowship. Photo credits: Agata Maziarz

How did it happen that you ended up in the Netherlands?

It was unplanned. In the beginning, when I left my city, Cherkasy, I didn’t plan to leave Ukraine. We were just going with friends to settle somewhere in the western part of Ukraine, in Zakarpattia, and to wait for weeks till the situation became more apparent in other cities and regions of Ukraine. This trip was so tricky with kids and with this feeling of danger that when we came closer to the Romanian border, I decided to cross the border and go abroad with the kids.

Our first plan was to go to Italy because I have some relatives there. It took a few days to manage all the tickets and transitions. It was a highly complex period because every day, I didn’t know where we would spend the night, in what apartment, in what house, with what people. And I planned our trip every evening to the next day, which was very stressful. But now, looking backwards, I understand that I was in such an extensive mobilisation. My brain worked very well, and I didn’t feel panic or fear. I aimed to come to some safe place and then breathe out there.

When we arrived in Italy, it took a few days more. We stayed with our relatives for a week to gather our thoughts and plan further steps.

Daria with her children, Berlin. Photo credits: Agata Maziarz
Daria with her children. Photo credits: Agata Maziarz

Then I texted my friends who live abroad in Western Europe, and I asked for help with the accommodation. I had some options in France and Germany. Still, in Italy, I understood that staying in a country where I can’t communicate in their language or English would be challenging. That’s why I was looking for a country where people speak English. At that moment, Great Britain didn’t offer any program for Ukrainians; it appeared later. I received a message from a woman from Cherkasy who lives in the Netherlands. She invited me there. She explained that everybody speaks English. I made the decision very quickly. There were two reasons: I’ll feel more comfortable and confident if I can communicate with people in English to solve my issues. And I’ll have someone I already know to feel safer and help with the first steps in a new place.

We bought tickets, went to the Netherlands, and that’s how we are here. Back then, we stayed for a few weeks in place of this woman. It was a bit complicated because they had a small apartment, and we lived as two families in a small area. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for this invitation and all the support we got in the beginning. Still, I was looking further to find better housing variants, and I had a lot of communication with Dutch families then.

Finally, I’ve found people with whom we had a good match. We have a common mindset and interests. It’s a miracle that I found such people so far from my home. And now we have lived together for more than three months and will stay here longer. I’m not returning to Ukraine mainly because of the kids’ safety. And I’m not moving to a bigger city, where I feel better and have more opportunities for self-realisation and living fully, because of our host family and good natural surroundings for kids.

How did it happen that you got to know that the war started? Can you recall the exact moment of what you’ve been doing?

I remember the day before 23 February. I had such a strange feeling that something would happen very soon. Of course, we read all this news and have it always in our mind that it can happen, but nobody knows when. I remember walking on the beach on the river in my city. It was very nice weather with the sun, and I talked to my friend and said that I felt something would change. I was looking only at my personal life. I was going to change my workplace in spring, and I had some complicated thoughts about this because the project I was involved in was relatively good, but I felt like it was not my place. And I was thinking about this, relations, work, kids. So I thought this big movement and significant changes would happen here in my private life. I was looking at the sky and the water. It was very blue and beautiful. I felt this might be the last time this landscape is so peaceful that this sky is without any danger or feeling of threat. I went home, and in the morning, my husband woke me up around five or six and said: it had begun.

Are your choices related to family life anyhow associated with the war?

I think yes. We had a rather complicated relationship last year with my husband. We were living, parenting kids and running some projects together and generally had a lot of everyday things. At that moment, it was impossible to think about separation. We had solid bonds; when the kids and I were leaving Ukraine, we thought we’d be together again after returning.

Everything was the same when we left, but when we lived separately for a few months, he realised that this was the way he wanted to live. He doesn’t want to be together anymore, which is the better way for his personal life and personality. If we look at the facts, it was his decision, and he just informed me about this, so I was very stressed for some weeks.

It was shocking news, but then I think I started to think about this a lot, discussing it with my psychotherapist and friends. I understood that this quality of life in our relationship last year is not what I want to have in my future life. I think the war makes this feeling more obvious: you don’t want to waste your life for relations that are not 100% what you need.

What is your relationship with Cherkasy?

My ex-husband and I co-founded the Cherkasy Urban Institute eight years ago, and we worked on projects during this period. Sometimes he was the organisation’s CEO, and sometimes it was me. Now I’m still a board member, so I’m not involved in operating in everyday work. I need some time to understand if I want to stay as a board member or if I should leave this position. Because all the team we worked with remained in Cherkasy, and they’re working with my ex-husband, which is a little bit complicated for me now.

I don’t know how it will go. One part of me wants to be connected to Cherkasy even now when I’m abroad. I love the city and want to take care of its future. Yeah, maybe later it will be more transparent, but not now.

How did you get into Vidnova?

I read information from several sources simultaneously, like Telegram chats with our colleagues from different NGOs. I saw an announcement about this on Facebook and applied.

It was just in time because I had just started communicating with local volunteers and Dutch people who help Ukrainians, and they had some problems with their volunteering work. I understood they needed advice from somebody who speaks Ukrainian and English to help them know Ukrainians better and manage communication misunderstandings. We had several meetings, and I planned to help them anyway, but I have two kids, and the smaller one, he’s three. There is a big problem with daycare or kindergarten in the Netherlands -they are costly. I didn’t understand how I could combine being full-time with small kids and helping Ukrainians. But then I read about Vidnova and applied. I thought that it would be an excellent chance for me to just do what I plan to do with some support, not only financial, but also the support that you give us during our meetings and coaching, and all this to feel you belong, that you are not separated from everybody. After reading the description, I understood that the program fits my situation.

Daria during the boat trip in Berlin. Photo credits: Agata Maziarz
Boat trip in Berlin. Photo credits: Agata Maziarz

How do you find yourself after the Orientation Meeting?

I went to the meeting with the kids, so I was very exhausted because we had a long journey with several transitions and arrived home late at night.

It took me a few days to rest and realise I was at our temporary home again. But when I tell people here that I went to Berlin with two kids to spend three days training there, they are shocked because they don’t understand why I do such complicated things. I try to explain to them that it’s my decision. I want this. I appreciate being in this circle of colleagues from other cities and now from other countries; this is an essential part of my personality. And if I don’t have the opportunity to do it without kids, I do it with kids anyway; it shows my values that it is significant to me.

What organisation did you decide to cooperate with during your fellowship?

It is a little complicated because, formally, it’s a church, but informally it’s a volunteering group of Dutch who already helped Ukrainians in their villages. There are coordinators in every village who manage all Ukrainians living in this particular area. Back then, they tried to solve every problem Ukrainians had. When I joined them, I tried to change this job to be more sustainable, as I saw that the volunteers were very close to burnout. In the beginning, in March, they were very passionate, enthusiastic, and empathetic and tried to help solve every small problem for everyone.

Now we ask how we can do it differently. How can we give more responsibility to Ukrainians to solve their problems? What are the ways we can do this? My work now is to help them organise their work better. And sure, I’m in touch with all Ukrainians living in our area, but also, it’s a perfect exercise to set my borders and keep a work-life balance.

A lot of people used to think that they were helpless. They couldn’t do anything on their own. They are in foreign countries, don’t know the local language, and just don’t take any steps to figure out anything. They wait for somebody to come and tell them what to do. I understand why it’s happening and feel sad about this situation. But other volunteers and I don’t have enough life force and free time to help everyone personally with everything. So I aim to organise this work between local government, local volunteers and Ukrainians more systematically and sustainably.

How do you imagine the outcome of the fellowship in terms of your personal goals and the goals related to your expertise?

I don’t know how much time I will be in the program now. It’s for half a year, and maybe it will be a year. For me, it’s essential to prove my capability to be a manager and a leader on my own, without my usual professional surroundings. I have enough experience, skills, and talents to manage complicated situations independently. So is this about emancipation? Yeah. And about professionalism. It’s challenging to handle people older than I am — the age of volunteers we have here is between 65 and older. It’s challenging to be with them on a peer-to-peer level and to offer and convince them of digital instruments for communication and gathering information, for example. It’s also challenging because I always worked with young people, and we had similar skills. From my current perspective, I think it’s beneficial because, in Ukraine, we were talking about ageism, that there is a gap between generations. And now I see there is not such a big gap between the generations. We can work together and have a common language, even if English is not the native language for all of us. So it’s challenging, but I like it. I think it will give me a lot.

Photo credits: Agata Maziarz

How do you see our closest future? What is your wish?

On Monday, my friend from the USA will come to visit me here. She was a Peace Corps volunteer a few years ago and worked in our organisation in Cherkasy for two years. She is a great person. She left Ukraine in 2019, but now she just messaged me that she would be in the Netherlands so we could spend some time together. And I appreciate this friendship so much now because I don’t have any close friends here. All my friends are in different countries now, and it’s probably a perfect moment to spend some time with your friends from your previous life. So I’m excited about this meeting. And if we are looking a little bit further, like here in the Netherlands, the season of summer vacations is kind of a dead season because nobody wants to work, nobody wants to organise anything. Everyone is on vacation for three weeks or more. I understand I can just take things as they are, not plan many work activities for this period, and enjoy that summer, even if it’s a rainy and windy Dutch summer. Therefore, I am happy with what I have.

Usually, people think we can take some best practices from western European countries and bring them to Ukraine. But now, in my situation, in my communication with the local government, municipal institutions and volunteers, I understand that in Ukraine, in the last eight-ten years, we have developed and implemented a lot of innovations. Things work well in Ukraine, and now we can share them here. It’s an actual intercultural exchange instead of just taking something from here. I feel like I can share Ukrainian projects daily in my communications.

A few days ago, I told a story about how we celebrated Independence Day in my city. On the 24th of August, a volunteer team led by a famous event manager from Cherkasy, Olga Kasyanova, connected groups of 30 different festivals in the Cherkasy region. There were no official ceremonies or pathetic speeches — it was a holiday for people made by people. Everybody could find a place and activity due to their interests. ‘ManyFest. Festival of Festival is a festival that unites the initiatives of people who shape the image of Cherkasy and the region with their projects. It is an opportunity to visit the best festivals of Cherkasy in one day. It is about a day without formalities. It’s about independence. It’s about each of us and you.’

People here were amazed because it was a great idea we realised last year they don’t do anything like this here. It’s not just about managing projects. I talk with people about Ukrainian culture, music and history. I think it’s very honourable and precious for me to open Ukraine to people. I do it on a tiny scale with not a lot of people. However, I think this is enough for a better understanding between our two countries. And I’m proud now. It’s a period in my life when I’m proudest of being Ukrainian than ever. We have so much to say to the world.

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