In mid-2022, New Zealander Phil Johnstone took annual leave from his job at home to spend four weeks working as interim communications lead for World Vision International in Ukraine. These are his reflections on the humanitarian work, the team and the risks he faced.
Air raid sirens and 3am visits to a Kyiv hotel basement. Refugee support seen first-hand. A surreal mix of normality, bravery and tragedy. Settling back to life in New Zealand, the jet lag eases but events of the past month remain brightly lit. “Did that really happen?” I ask myself.
Here are seven impressions about an experience that was at times exhausting, always challenging and ultimately deeply rewarding.
After assuring family and myself that a visit to Kyiv would be reasonably safe, the eerie sound of air attack sirens at 3am was sobering. If a missile is coming, it’s 15-plus minutes away. Rapidly dressed, grab bag in hand, I headed down three flights of stairs with my buddy from the next room. The plan: exit the front door, walk 10m to a roller door, get around the back of the hotel and into the basement. The hotel door is locked. “Missiles are coming.” Think. Wake a staff member. The door is unlocked and into the basement we go.
We tell family it’s a bunker. That sounds much safer. The basement is a safe place if there’s an indirect hit. But problematic for a direct hit. “The building would come down on top of us,” says the security chief. “We’d climb up out of the rubble and make our way to the cars.” Yeah right, said my internal monologue.
Kyiv under curfew at 4am, following air raid sirens and sheltering in the basement.
So interesting to be part of a multi-cultural World Vision humanitarian response team. Expertise in grant management, child protection, operations, cash distribution, partnerships, security, translation, finance, supply chain, monitoring and evaluation, data protection and much more. My new colleagues are from Georgia, Kenya, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, the Philippines, US, Guatemala, Nepal. Fabulous people.
The number of internationals has been high due to the charity not having an established presence in Ukraine or several of the neighboring countries where refugees took shelter. Many staff are now returning to their home countries as qualified locals are recruited to work on the humanitarian response. A high-trust environment, with the occasional weekend BBQ at a team house. A Guatemalan teaches a Kenyan colleague some Latin American dance moves. Steam let off and friendships built. (Read here for more advice on how to prepare for work in human rights hotspots.)
Training for World Vision staff working in child-friendly spaces, and (on right) World Vision staff with an implementing partner in Ukraine.
The busyness of humanitarian work
“The work is never done,” says a colleague. Multiple Teams chat groups are efficient but create regular interruptions and new tasks. We’re all here to make an impact. The need is great and tiredness quickly sets in. The experienced ones follow the rules and take Sundays off. Us newbies here for a fixed time get through on coffee, grit and quip that sleep is over-rated.
It was fascinating to see ‘Big Aid’ meet ‘Small Aid’. Big Aid is well funded and looking to do great things at scale. Small Aid might have been set up two days after the Russian invasion. Local responders meeting urgent needs and getting support from the big players in terms of guidance, training and help with monitoring and reporting.
Destroyed Russian weaponry on display in central Kiev
Talking Heads’ Life During Wartime came to mind: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around”. Strange to be in a country at war. But in the south-western city of Chernivtsi, good coffee is drunk, shops are open and life on the surface appears normal.
Kyiv presented as a beautiful European city, akin to Paris or Prague. Gorgeous buildings, plazas and promenade walkways. Trams, young people on e-scooters. Yet some street corners retain piles of sandbags and concrete reinforcements.
On the north-west outskirts a stack of destroyed cars and blown up buildings. A cafe queue chat with an office manager in her 20’s reveals someone pleased to be back at work but scarred by having occupying forces a mere 45 min drive away. The blasts and fear have left her out of sorts. “Something small goes wrong and I find myself crying. I’m not myself.”
The scars of war on buildings in north-west Kyiv.
Inspiring aid partners
Almost all World Vision’s humanitarian response in Ukraine during June was delivered by local partners. Amazing people – coping with the impact of the conflict AND working on the conflict response. Yuliya Zdorova-Sporysch, founder of the NGO Girls, had to flee to Poland with her family when Russian troops came close to Kyiv. Now back in the city, she runs summer camps and a range of other services for displaced people for World Vision and other agencies.
Vyacheslav Nagirnyak, a Baptist pastor before the crisis, now runs an aid organisation.
Across town, Arms of Mercy volunteers collate hundreds of food packages each day, driven by brave locals to the Donbas. Money given abroad supports locals committed to helping others.
Food packages are sorted by volunteers and driven to the Donbas region.
Kids being kids
The response included 34 summer camps and activities for over 2700 internally displaced and host community children in Ukraine during June. Kids – playing, laughing, painting, learning and making friends.
A two-week camp experience runs for 4-5 hours a day. Summer camp but not as you know it. Time off for mothers to arrange support, accommodation and work. Psychologists on hand to support as needed. Some children are withdrawn. Able to name the different kinds of weapons they have seen. Separated from fathers.
Tragedy is never far away. Days after visiting a child-friendly space in Bucharest, it was shocking to hear that the father of two of the kids we met had just been killed by a Russian missile attack north of Odessa. “I can’t believe what’s happening in my country”, a 26 year old World Vision translator remarked during a visit to a response partner in southwest Ukraine. Nor can we.
Summer camps were quickly organised for internally displaced and local Ukrainian children, with psychologists on-hand.
Thankful to have the support of my employer Plant & Food Research and my line manager. Requests for leave and leave without pay were approved at short notice. Encouraging words from colleagues, friends and family meant a lot.
I feel lucky to have done something – albeit small – to support a humanitarian response to a global crisis. And it’s satisfying to see sabbatical year insights of eight years ago bearing fruit. Decisions to invest in crisis training and volunteer Nepal quake communications stints created the experience and connections that led to the Ukraine response opportunity. (Listen to this interview with Phil on Radio New Zealand for more details on how he gained that training and came to volunteer in Nepal.)
You get the career you curate (Phil explains this in more detail in this interview with Hit the Iron Bell during a visit to the UN in New York.) It may take time and go in unexpected directions, but all of us have the power to influence our career trajectory.
You get the career you curate, by gaining experience and making connections.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.