Light that never fades: What impressed me about Ukrainians over this year

Reflections of my first year in office as UNDP Resident Representative in Ukraine

November 10, 2023

Originally published in The New Voice of Ukraine (in Ukrainian) on 9 November 2023

On the wall in my office hangs a painting, a gift from Vasyl Shulhatsky, who was a student under the renowned Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko. This piece, entitled 'Let the Sun Always Shine!', serves as a vivid memento of my visit to the Ivankiv Community in the Kyiv Oblast, an area that endured the heavy impact of the early stages of the Russian full-scale invasion. The artwork echoes the spirit of the resilient people I've had the privilege of meeting during first year in Ukraine.  

November 2022 found me in Kyiv, amidst a backdrop of cold, somber streets. With mass attacks crippling the energy infrastructure, a majority of the city lay in darkness, save for the occasional flicker of lanterns and candles. 

As I navigated the semi-dark streets, the faces of strangers emerged, each engaged in acts of mutual support. The rumble of a generator coming to life, the beam of a flashlight cutting through the gloom, the glint of a reflective vest slipped over a child’s shoulders — each action was a testament to resilience. Even shrouded in near-total darkness, the indomitable spirit of the Ukrainians was unmistakable. It was in these moments, amidst the shadows, that I observed the inherent qualities that would undoubtedly see them through any ordeal. Such warmth, such light emanating from within, it was enough to kindle hope in the heaviest of hearts.  

Before coming to Kyiv, I held various positions within the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), including serving as a programme manager, deputy resident representative, and country director. However, this marks the first time I've taken on the role of Resident Representative. This is by far the largest country office I've had the privilege of working in, and with its size come both challenges and opportunities. 

In my initial months during the challenging winter, what became clear to me about the Ukrainian people was their remarkable resilience and unyielding spirit in the face of adversity. Despite undeniable challenges, there was a prevailing sense of hope. It was an attitude that proclaimed, 'We will overcome this, and we will emerge from it even stronger and better. 

I recall the story of Yuri, an electrical engineer, whom we met as part of our programme to support Ukraine's energy sector. His workplace became a target for rocket attacks on multiple occasions. The substation where he worked was hit three times. He calmly stated, "None of us quit despite the constant danger and tension. Some of our colleagues volunteered and went to the front lines. But no one shied away from the responsibility that fell upon the shoulders of energy workers."  

Yuri's story is indelible, a stark embodiment of a trait I have come to admire deeply in Ukrainians: an unwavering sense of responsibility. They carry this weight not just for themselves or their kin, but for their nation and its fortitude. 

One tangible reflection of our programme's success is the delivery of critical components for the energy grid—autotransformers and substantial generators. These devices are more than sources of heat; they are beacons of resilience, fortifying the infrastructure. Our swift procurement and winterization assistance are but threads in the larger tapestry of ongoing support and recovery. 

There's a strong willingness from UNDP and the entire international community to support Ukraine in overcoming these challenges. We've learned a lot from our experiences, and Ukrainians have proven their ability to adapt swiftly. So, another superpower of Ukrainians, I believe, is their incredible ability to learn quickly and find unconventional solutions to tackle challenges. 

This year has brought an unexpected revelation: the remarkable adaptability and dedication of our team. As our operations have scaled up—taking on an array of new projects and initiatives in response to the evolving situation in Ukraine—so too have the demands on our team. The surge in our workload is a direct reflection of our successful efforts, particularly in fundraising to support Ukrainian resilience. 

Amidst this rapid expansion, my colleagues have absorbed the increased responsibilities with extraordinary grace, fully embracing our core mission. Their willingness to extend themselves, to persistently go above and beyond for the welfare of the Ukrainian people, is nothing short of inspiring. 

Our team at UNDP, nearly 400-strong, derives its strength from its rich tapestry of diversity. Our members hail from various cultural, gender, and educational backgrounds, and are dispersed across different oblasts in Ukraine, each facing its distinct challenges and contributing its unique perspective. This diversity unites us and enhances our dedication to achieving our goals. As our journey continues with such a dedicated team, we are making a lasting impact.  

I have come to learn that the heart of Ukraine beats with a profound humanity, empathy, and warmth. In collaboration with the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, we've been involved in procuring crucial equipment and protective gear for demining operations, sourcing alternative energy solutions, and leading training sessions. The tales of these rescuers alone could fill volumes. 

Among these, the account of Lyubov, a psychologist with the State Emergency Service, remains etched in my mind. Amidst the chaos of full-scale invasion, Lyubov has offered urgent psychological support to hundreds, guiding them through the trauma of war and toward a path of healing.  One poignant story he shared with me was of a young girl who had lost her mother to the shelling. This girl grasped Lyubov's hand tightly, searching for her mother in the bustling confusion of a train station. Tragically, her mother had not survived. This moment, a stark reminder of the war's personal cost, underscores the crucial role of support services during such crises and the indomitable spirit of those who provide them. 

Of all the Ukrainian words and phrases I've learned, "Dyakuyu" stands out as my favourite (thank you). I use it dozens of times a day with my team, our partners, and representatives of the Ukrainian government.  

Ukrainians excel in building solid partnerships and exhibit incredible openness to changes and reforms that can secure a better future. This is evident in various areas, from Ukraine's recovery and rebuilding to human rights, anti-corruption efforts, media literacy, inclusion, accessibility, and many others where we collaborate. Therefore, the "build back better" principle is converted into tangible actions, made possible only through robust collaboration and cooperation.  

What is needed for everything to succeed in Ukraine in the future? I believe that Ukraine has everything it needs to make its path of transformation swift and effective. The country is already demonstrating its most vital qualities, even amidst the ongoing war. Of course, there is still much to overcome, understand, change, and learn on this challenging journey. However, what Ukrainians are currently demonstrating underscores the strength and effectiveness of their determination for a better future and the country's prosperity. 

November 2023. Kyiv. This year's autumn has unfolded as an unbelievably warm and sunny season in Ukraine. Amidst the constant stream of emails and the daily whirlwind of essential meetings, I sometimes turn my head towards the gift on the wall. Right now, it's glistening in the warm sunlight streaming through the window, reminding me of all the people I've met and will continue to meet in Ukraine. Brave, resilient, intelligent, compassionate, and courageous. Let the Sun Always Shine for brighter, stronger tomorrows for the resilient and incredible people of Ukraine, even if the winter is coming.