Oksana, UN volunteer: "I am now convinced being kind and empathetic is a feature of Moldovans"

December 5, 2022

Oksana Vlasenko (third from the left)

Oksana Vlasenko, a young woman from Kyiv, has been living in Chișinău for more than four months. She is a UN volunteer working as a Refugee Support Associate within the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative, implemented by UNDP and financed by the European Union.

Learn from the interview below about her activity and life in Moldova and what she thinks about the opportunities offered by the work in an international organisation.

What does UNDP mean to you?

It's a kind of job position where you don't just work for money, but also to change people's lives as much as you can. I am aware that one person cannot do much, but I am convinced that the change starts within each of us. This is much easier to do when you are part of a team of professionals who share common values. I am fortunate, because both in the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, I have very open-minded colleagues, who helped me to change my mindset.

When I started working at UNDP Moldova, I thought it is clear: we have a plan, we are taking concrete steps to implement it. Along the way, it turned out that things were more complex as they seemed at first glance. Being involved in a project that tests innovative approaches to solving the problems faced by cities requires a change of perspective. To convince the beneficiaries to act differently than they are used to, the project team first needs to have a common vision and different mindset that is open to changes

Where were you when the war started? How did you leave Ukraine?

I left Kyiv a week after the war started. Like everybody else, I hoped this would be over quickly. In Kyiv I spent two days in a basement, which could hardly be called a shelter, as it didn’t have proper ventilation and was not equipped. We decided to leave by train with a friend to reach our destination faster. The train finally came and we left for Lviv. The 4-seat compartment was cramped with 12 people, small children, and pets. Even though one couldn't breathe, people were happy to leave, hoping that they would be safe somewhere else. I was not afraid for myself, but for the people who were with small children. When I arrived at the station, it was unbearably cold there, the place was extremely crowded, and there was no transport.

Later I arrived in Croatia, where I worked remotely for several months. The first month my whole family was on occupied by Russian armed forces territory, and I didn’t have any connection with them. That was the most horrible month in my life. After de-occupation, I was thinking how to take my parents and sister with me abroad, but they refused to leave home every time. My father is taking care of a grandfather who has turned 103 birthday this year and moving anywhere is threatens his health, same as for my grandmother.

Later I found out that there was a possibility to participate in a competitive selection for a job position announced by UNDP Moldova, which was looking for UN volunteers.

What memories do you have of your first day of work at the office in Chișinău?

My office colleagues are extraordinary people and for this reason they remain my main social circle in Chișinău.

They welcomed me with open arms; I have never been greeted with such warmness in my life, if we are talking about the environment outside the family. They always asked me what news I had from the family, and whether I needed help.

Having received such a warm welcome, I was thinking that maybe such attitude is just a result of empathy, but along the way I became convinced that Moldovans are always open, kind and ready to help. I am now convinced being kind and empathetic is a feature of Moldovans. I am lucky, for sure. First, not all refugees have a job and especially not all have a chance to work in a team like mine and to have so much support.

What is your mission within the “Mayors for Economic Growth” (M4EG) initiative?

The initiative supports cities to implement innovative projects at the local level. When the war started, there was a need, both in Ukraine and in the Republic of Moldova, to realign the project and add a new component to support local authorities in managing the flow of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). At the first stage, the needs of the cities that received the largest number of refugees and IDPs were assessed. The goods they needed were procured, such as home appliances, furniture, equipment for access to the Internet and digital services, first aid kits, etc. Later, we realized that in each city that is part of the initiative, there is a need for a person to coordinate the support offered to refugees. Thus, we decided that we would hire 15 Ukrainian Friendship Officers, one for each city hall, and two for the city of Bălți.

In the upcoming period, we will organize Romanian language courses that will be available not only for Ukrainian refugees but also for local people who don’t speak the official language. Training in IT area (accounting, graphic design, data management, basic IT skills) will be organised for Ukrainian women refugees. To ensure better access to the Internet, WiFi zones will be arranged in the beneficiary communities, so that refugee women can work and children can attend online lessons.

At the same time, we announced the Response and Renewal Grant Programme for the host communities that are part of the M4EG initiative.

Your work at UNDP involves a lot of travel to communities. How often do you meet your nationals? What are they saying? How many of them managed to integrate?

I believe that any person who wants to work will definitely find a job. It's much more difficult for women with small children, while others do better. In my first month here, in Moldova, I met a woman from Vinnytsia, a mother of two children. I was extremely happy to learn that she has found a job in an international organisation and is helping refugees. I saw how enthusiastic and happy she was doing what she can to help others.

There are also people who have been overwhelmed by this situation, because the war has turned our lives upside down. I understand them perfectly. For the first two months, I was trying to find refuge in work, but I could hardly concentrate since uncertainty paralyzed my willpower. Not everyone has friends, relatives, or communities here to support them.

In Bălți, I met a woman from Kharkiv that really wanted to work, but she couldn't because she had to take care of her child, who is still very small. She had no one to leave the child with because she was alone in Moldova; she had no one to help her. Another woman, an accountant from Odesa, said she wanted to retrain and become a cosmetologist. She enrolled in a course and decided that this way she could get a job faster. It is easier for her because her son is already 15 years old, and he attends school.

I think everyone understands that they have to do something and contribute to the development of the community and the country that hosted us so generously.

I'm sure everyone has understood that there's no point in just sitting and waiting. We all want the war to end as soon as possible. But what if it lasts longer?

The initiative Mayors for Economic Growth (M4EG) is a regional initiative, and Ukraine is one of the beneficiary countries. What is it like to talk about development and innovation in a country at war?

We all know that this will end, we are sure of it. When it happens, we need to have ready-made projects to involve investors and companies to work with us. It will take a long time and a lot of effort to rehabilitate everything that has been destroyed, but we have become much stronger, even morally.

Many people choose to stay in Ukraine because they know they need to remain there to support the economy and rehabilitate the country. In Ukraine, the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative has been realigned, because when everything around is destroyed, you must first restore it.