A human rights activist, who became a campaigner against human trafficking when he was only 15, an education reformist using innovations to teach English and an influencer helping youth to become pro-active. To celebrate UN Day, we share stories about activists who have been supported by IOM, the UN Migration Agency, took inspiration from the UN values and became change-makers in their communities.

Half-life journey

 “I fell in love with civil activism when I was 15. I was an ordinary teenager, interested in meeting people and opening new horizons. One day, I was invited to participate in training organized by IOM to raise awareness about human trafficking, and this became a turning point in my life. People think that this so-called “training tourism” does not bring about any results. I would argue — it brings motivation which makes you capable to achieve success,” says Maksym Studilko. At the training, Maksym met volunteers from all over Ukraine who discussed how to bring positive developments, and this convinced him that he also can be an agent of change.

He is now 31 and spent half of his life working in the area of human trafficking prevention in his hometown Vinnytsia. In 2006, Maksym co-founded the human rights organization Spring of Hope. With support from IOM, other UN agencies and international donors, this NGO implemented over 60 projects helping survivors of human trafficking, as well as displaced and conflict-affected persons from Crimea and eastern Ukraine, to rebuild their lives and find new hope.

As a teenager, Maksym also became passionate about Plast, the leading scouting organization in Ukraine, and helped to found its division in Vinnytsia. Since then, he tried himself in the civil service, working in the local youth policy department, which resulted in the creation of an innovative youth centre Kvadrat (Square). The hub, fully refurbished from an unused underground building, has lecture rooms, a laboratory, a networking area, a recording studio and a space to host events for up to 300 people.

Through his activities, Maksym Studilko visited all regions in Ukraine and 28 countries. Discovering other cultures has made him realize that resilience and ability to self-mobilize are defining characteristics of Ukrainians: “While I mainly focused on prevention of human trafficking, in my work I have also dealt with IDPs, orphans, women affected by domestic violence. Their resilience and ability to start a new life, grow new roots, open businesses after going through such traumatizing experiences, impress me every day.”

Inspired by Ukrainians’ potential, Maksym shares his recipe of success with young people who also dream of changing the country for the better: “Get involved in civil society life in the area that you are passionate about, travel, learn foreign languages and believe in yourself. New opportunities open only for those who are bold enough to dare.”

“I dream of Ukraine where people do not have to migrate to fulfil their potential”

“Place your bets on youth”, recommends Bohdana Bespalko when asked what she would advise the UN agencies seeking to reform in order to keep up with time. Bohdana is the head of the youth council in Dzvyniak amalgamated territorial community (Ivano-Frankivsk Region) which includes five villages with over 8,000 residents. Until recently, a local youth initiative group even had no proper place to meet and held their strategic sessions outdoors.

Under Bohdana’s leadership, the community was selected to participate in a USAID-funded IOM project which supported areas with high level of out-migration. Through this initiative, a youth centre “Komora” (“The Garner”) was established on the premises of a local library. Using the 1+1 modality, refurbishment and purchase of equipment were co-funded by USAID and the local community. In “Komora”, residents of all ages can find something to enjoy – from a gym and computer classes for the elderly to crafts workshops and robotics courses for the youngest ones.

“Thanks to this youth centre, we were able to engage the local youth into the community life. We regularly organize youth days at the village council. This is an opportunity for young people to have informal meetings with authorities and discuss their initiatives. They feel that they matter, that their opinion counts and there are ways to make changes come true. When given an opportunity for development at home, one would think twice before leaving the community and going abroad. I dream of Ukraine where people do not have to migrate to fulfil their potential,” said Bohdana.

Just after the opening of the youth centre, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the entire world to a halt. However, Dzvyniak activists found their way to continue organizing activities despite restrictions. To ensure social distancing, they held regular cinema sessions outdoors, also screening educational videos about waste sorting. “Green initiatives” have already taken roots in the community as activists organize regular cleaning of the local lake area.

The road to success starts with being a “black sheep”  

The “Discovery” is an education centre founded by the former labour migrant Anna Bondar who worked several years in China, teaching English, before deciding to come back to Ukraine. With her, Anna brought a newly-started family, innovative education methods and a will to launch her own business.

The family settled in Anna's small homeland in Henichesk where her parents still live. Anna found a three-floor building — the ground and first floors became a space for an education centre, and the family settled on the upper floor. “I live at work and work at home”, she jokes three years later when the centre grew up to provide language courses (English, Chinese and Spanish) to over a hundred children. This year, Anna also launched a full first-grade school for seven students.

“I am considered a “black sheep” — I speak Ukrainian in the predominantly Russian-speaking community. Moreover, I motivate children to look for new horizons. Before we opened our centre, no one in Henichesk had ever heard of exchange programmes, such as FLEX, funded by the U.S. Government. This year, one of my students applied for this programme and we have very high hopes for him,” said Anna.

The road to this success was not all roses: Anna admits that starting a business in Ukraine was challenging, despite her experience and skills, gained while working in China. In 2019, Anna was among 260 labour migrants who applied for the IOM pilot initiative, providing them opportunities to invest money earned abroad in the development of their own business in Ukraine.

Based on the “1 + 1” principle, for each dollar of own savings invested in their business, the initiative allowed for participants to receive a non-refundable grant for the purchase of equipment. With this assistance, Anna purchased an interactive board to support children's interest in learning.

Anna admits that the education in Ukraine needs to go through radical transformation and despite positive changes, a lot has to be done, in particular on the regional and local levels: “To raise a new generation, we need to transform not only the education system but also the mentality of teachers and even parents. Labour migrants who worked in the education sphere like myself can make a significant contribution to this process as they have confidence and ability to use teaching methods outside of the box.”