The “Navy Seal” who Dreams of Lavender Fields

“My mother said that when I was a child, I liked to dig the ground. They say that plants help reduce stress. You go to your garden, you sit a little on the swing, and feel relieved," said Andrii, a former Ukrainian "navy seal" and grantee of the IOM’s project on veterans reintegration. "When a person is 24/7 stressed for a year and a half, they need a little peace and quiet."

In his village yard near Lviv, there are two greenhouses with a total area of 500 square metres, and over 5,000 thuja seedlings lined up in front of the house. “Potatoes were always planted here, but I finally convinced my parents that it was a waste of time and money. We should better grow something that needs less care and makes real profit. Then we will be able to buy beets and potatoes as much as we need."

Andrii is a radio engineer and controller of radio electronic equipment and devices. However, after graduation he could not find a job in his field. He mostly worked in construction in Ukraine and abroad, and had his own business selling doors and windows. In 2013, he went to work to the Russian Federation, but returned to Ukraine as soon as Maidan protests started in Kyiv. In 2015, Andrii started military service in the 73 Naval Special Operations Centre and performed military tasks in the east of Ukraine for over a year. Upon returning home, he wanted to earn a living again, but his health was severely affected: “I had to sleep where the night was, in snow or swamp. We had to spend up to ten days with a 40-50 kg backpack."

Andrii decided to do what he liked. As a veteran, he got a plot near his parents' house, and within a few weeks, with the help of his father, it was cleared of shrubs. Inspired by the experience of another veteran, Mykola Stetskiv, the well-known owner of a strawberry plantation, he wanted to grow strawberries as well. Andrii and his father started building their first greenhouse. "It was autumn and it was muddy," laughs Andrii. “People were passing through and asking: "So what, you build a greenhouse for the flowers?" Everyone asked that, and until spring came, we decided that we should grow flowers.

In the summer, seedlings of eustoma, the so-called Irish rose, ordered all the way from the Netherlands, flowered in the greenhouse. At first, selling expensive flowers did not go well, but after some TV channels aired the news about Andrii, wholesale buyers reached out to him and the business began to grow.

Andrii built another greenhouse, and in February started growing lettuce. “We haven’t slept at nights because it was necessary to heat the greenhouse. Midnight, 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and you throw fuel into the boiler. Well, it’s no big deal, lettuce grew, green and red ones."

After the lettuce season was over, a friend of Andrii suggested that it was worth planting cucumbers and helped with the seedlings. Cucumbers grow in special conditions. The boiler, heat fans, up to 500 metres of warm floor, buried in the ground, so that the plants "keep their feet warm", as well as insulation with a special filler and cladding – Andrii is proud of his solar greenhouse. He says his knowledge as an electrician and construction specialist helped a lot. He learned something from YouTube videos, something was suggested by his friends: “Don’t be afraid to try. Well, made a mistake, well it happens. You learn from doing."

Andrii and his wife raise two daughters, and for this reason they grow only organic products. "Business is not as important to us as it is to prevent our children from getting poisoned," Andrii says. Together with his partners he is also engaged in landscaping, pruning gardens, and lawn care. They have a website for the sale of ornamental plants, which next year will help them to sell the thuja seedlings that grow in front of Andrii's parents' house – when they grow up to half a meter or more.

Another business for Andrii is lavender, which he planted in one of the greenhouses. He says he really likes the smell. Next year, he also plans to plant lavender bushes in open ground and create a photographic zone for agritourism. To take care of this "corner of France", everything is ready: as an EU-funded grant from IOM, Andri received a lawn mower, pruners and other ever-needed small garden equipment.

The EU-funded veterans reintegration project has been implemented by IOM in three pilot regions – Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Lviv. It lasts from January 2019 until June 2020. The project supports social cohesion activities, such as sports events, masterclasses, round tables with representatives of local authorities. Qualified psychological assistance is provided by professionals, who passed trainings on psychosocial support provision to veterans and their families. Another project component is career development and self-employment trainings, followed by grants provision. Up to 400 veterans who pass the competitive selection will be provided with grants of up to EUR 400 for vocational courses, re-qualification or advanced trainings. As many veterans will receive grants of up to EUR 1,000 for business development.