"I dream of rebuilding Donetsk": the story of a twice IDP from the Donetsk region

May 2, 2023

Iurii Davydenko, the head of the NGO "Zahody," on the beach of the "Camp over Zbruch" near Khmelnytskyi

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

Iurii Davydenko was forced to start his life from scratch for the second time. In 2014, he moved to Mariupol, leaving occupied Makiivka. And in 2022, he and his wife managed to escape from besieged Mariupol. The NGO “Zahody" (“Events”) was founded in Mariupol by Iurii and his friends, also IDPs from the Donetsk region, and now continues to help internally displaced persons in the west of Ukraine. "Zahody" is restoring and equipping an abandoned children's camp in Khmelnytskyi Oblast, which will become a rehabilitation center for war victims and internally displaced people.

Iurii Davydenko, the head of the NGO "Zahody," in the renovated recreation room in the camp

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine
“I'm an IDP twice. Who will help me but myself?” says Iurii Davydenko

Iurii Davydenko was involved in camping since childhood: as a child, he was a frequenter of summer camps, and as an adult, he worked as a leader in camps in Mariupol for three and a half years. Now Iurii and the NGO "Zahody" team are restoring and equipping an abandoned children's camp in Khmelnytskyi Oblast. 

"My first summer camp was in Sviatohirsk when I was seven. Then I went to different sanatoriums and traveled to Crimea and Mariupol. It was in Mariupol that I liked the most, so from the age of twelve, I went only there. The camp was a break from learning and working in the vegetable garden. You meet people, socialize, and plunge into the different life," Iurii shares his childhood memories. 

Thanks to the support of the EU and UNDP, NGO "Zahody" renovated the ground floor and utility rooms in the basement of the camp. Now it's where one can work, hold various events, and even live for several months. The renovated camp has modern furniture, a bomb shelter, a generator, heating boilers, and satellite internet. 

Iurii Davydenko shows the new heating boilers

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

"You can help yourself when you do something for other people. I'm an IDP twice. Who will help me but myself? Who will give me a place to live or support me in a rehabilitation center if I ‘go crazy’? Where should I go? My team and I are doing what we all need," says Iurii. 

The NGO "Zahody" team does its best to turn the former children's camp in the Khmelnytskyi region into a comprehensive rehabilitation center for internally displaced persons and war victims. 

"Every good camp should combine an interesting project and comfortable infrastructure harmoniously. Now it's cozy here. There is a sense of security, and nothing can cause additional suffering during the war, and that's the main thing," says Iurii Davydenko. "There is a need to rehabilitate the civilian population, volunteers, and veterans. However, we are fully aware that we are not a rehabilitation organization. A team of professionals, e.g., psychologists, and rehabilitation specialists, will be engaged to work with us as soon as we set up the infrastructure,” says Iurii Davydenko. 

Iurii Davydenko, the head of the NGO "Zahody," inspects the new beds in the camp

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

After graduating from the Donetsk Oblast Military Lyceum with honors, Iurii Davydenko prepared to compete for a job in the local executive service. But the partial occupation of the Donetsk region in 2014 forced him to move to Mariupol. Iurii affectionately calls it "the city of buses," where he felt at home again. In the corridor of a Mariupol dormitory, he and his friends founded a non-governmental organization. 

"We thought for a long time about how to name our student association. Our team had representatives from all universities in the city, so we wanted one short name to reflect what united us. We asked each other what we were doing. And the answer was the same: we organized events," recalls Iurii Davydenko, head of the "Zahody" NGO. 

Three of the six founders of the "Zahody" NGO were internally displaced persons. Even back then, the team was involved in integrating IDPs and helped those who came from other places. 

It was only in 2019 that Iurii managed to visit his parents' home in Makiivka, Donetsk Oblast, where he spent his childhood, for the first time in five years. 

"It was my last chance to come there. Until 2014, I considered Makiivka my home. At twenty-one, I decided to leave the occupied hometown and said goodbye to everything left there", says Iurii Davydenko. 

Iurii Davydenko, the head of the NGO "Zahody," is standing by the window in the camp

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine
“The occupiers told us they already took Dnipro,” recalls Iurii Davydenko

The full-scale invasion caught Iurii's family in Mariupol, and he did not want to leave. In addition to civil society work, he organized holidays and large-scale events, opened a coffee shop, and supported the development of startups. In 2020, Iurii became a deputy of the Mariupol City Council. 

"I think I needed to go through it all. Mariupol was my home, where I had many friends, almost all of whom had left. I am still in touch with some of them, yet there are people I don't even want to text. It was my home, Mariupol, it was."

In mid-March, Iurii and his wife were evacuated from Mariupol, first to Dnipro for a few days and then to Mukachevo in Zakarpattia. 

"In occupied Mariupol, we lived in a vacuum and didn't know what was happening. The occupiers told us they already took Dnipro, and we left with the idea that we needed to go somewhere far. That's how we ended up in Mukachevo," Iurii recalls. 

In Mukachevo, Iurii and other IDPs began actively volunteering and sending aid to Mariupol. Once, they managed to deliver medicine and food, but the next time they lost contact with the driver of the humanitarian aid truck and thirty other volunteer drivers for more than a month and a half. Since then, Iurii no longer believed that he would be able to help the people of Mariupol who remained there. 

The NGO "Zahody" team opened a representative office in Mukachevo, one of the cities farthest from the war zone. Some of them also moved to Khmelnytskyi. 

"There are a lot of Mariupol residents in Khmelnytskyi whom we told about the hub and housing in Mukachevo, and they instantly suggested starting something similar here. Since part of our team was already in Khmelnytskyi, we opened another hub," Iurii says about the organization operating between the two cities. 

The head of the NGO is very proud of his team, as he knows that such impressive results would only have been achieved with coordinated interaction. 

"I am very grateful to all my team members who work for the result. None of this would have happened without Petrovych, Artur, Kolia, Iehor, or Halia. Yes, I raised funds, I reported, and I checked everything. But the team implements this project, and together we can do anything," Iurii Davydenko assures. 

Iurii Davydenko in one of the renovated rooms in the "Camp over Zbruch"

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine
“Many people want to rebuild Donetsk after de-occupation,” says Iurii Davydenko

Walking around the camp, we shortly find ourselves on the banks of the Zbruch River. A red cat is circling nearby and jumps into Iurii's arms without hesitation. It seems like they have known each other for ages. Iurii pets the cat and tells us about his family. 

"We have two cats in our family; one is also red. He symbolizes our married life, and I have no one else besides them," Iurii admits. 

He is confident that Ukraine will become one of the most remarkable countries in Europe after the victory. 

"I am so excited by the projects we are running and know what some of our colleagues are working on. It's so impressive," assures the head of the "Zahody" NGO. 

The NGO team plans to train those who want to return home and participate in restoring destroyed cities and communities. "Zahody" has developed a project management, advocacy, and communication training program. 

"This is a major problem for many people I know who have great ideas but don't know how to put them on paper. They want to do it, but they just can't. We sit down and work together. And then this person wins a grant and implements the project," Iurii shares his experience. 

Iurii dreams of returning there and rebuilding the infrastructure for the community when Donetsk is liberated from the occupiers. 

"Many people want to rebuild Donetsk after de-occupation. I was quite surprised by this, and I thought I was the only one, but it turned out that many of my friends also want to return there," admits Iurii Davydenko. "I still have an apartment and relatives in Donetsk, and I want to live there and see my father more often than once a year." 

Iurii Davydenko, the head of the NGO "Zahody," at the "Camp over Zbruch" entrance

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

The NGO “Zahody” is one of the organizations that received support within the program “Response of civil society to the needs of women and men, especially those living in hard-to-reach places and representatives of vulnerable groups” supported by the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) under the EU-funded EU4Dialogue regional programme to address the most urgent needs of war-affected communities in Ukraine. The EU4Dialogue programme aims to build a solid foundation for peace by creating better socioeconomic conditions and a safe environment for war-affected communities. 

Author: Marharyta Lubkova

Photo: Artem Poznanskyi

Note: This article has been produced with the European Union's and UNDP's financial assistance under the EU4Dialogue programme. The contents do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the European Union and UNDP.