By Lynellyn D. Long | Project Leader
"Breaking the Wall"
In September 2021, Kiev felt like the happiest, most upbeat place to be since the beginning of the pandemic. The contrast with the optimism and vibrancy of this past autumn and the messages we have received these past two days is hard to imagine. Each evening in September there were musicians and entertainers on the streets of Kiev, the city’s central fountains flowed, and the lights illuminating the domes and spires of church and basilica lit up the streets below. People of different nationalities were on the streets at all hours of day and night. The buoyancy, youth and optimistic atmosphere belied the negative international reporting of the country’s political corruption. The young Tunisian Uber driver who met us at the airport, was studying IT in Kiev. He warned, “this city doesn’t sleep.” Even with autumn approaching, the days were warm, and meetings were held in outdoor cafes. Tonight, as I write, many of the women entrepreneurs we met then are sheltering in one of Ukraine’s underground stations and it is three degrees outside. As one wrote earlier today,
We have a real war going on, a lot of blood and destruction around. We are often in hiding. Our employees are in a panic, because everyone is out of work, without a source of income, in danger.
This past September three HERA USA and France Association members travelled to Ukraine for eight days to assess some 20 past and present women-led ventures. Although new COVID cases remained high in Ukraine, the country had an estimated 30% vaccination rate (higher than Armenia, Georgia, or Moldova, where we also worked). Most of the women entrepreneurs were vaccinated. By the end of the visit, we awarded 13 grants to Ukrainian women to buy essential equipment and/or upgrade websites for their ventures. Our 2020-21 program in Ukraine cost a total of EUR 12,226.14 of which EUR 8,518.07 was used for grants and EUR 3,710.07 (30%) covered our assessment costs.
Our first night out in September was a lesson in Ukraine’s contemporary history. The Ostannya Barykadda Restaurant was clearly located somewhere on Maidan Plaza, the main square of Central Kiev. However, our phones led us to a closed, central stone monument representing the city walls that withstood the 1240 siege of Kiev. Following some written directions, we found a nearby service elevator to the shopping mall below. While others in the elevator continued to the mall below, the directions took us to the service floor that opened onto a dingy corridor. Heading down the corridor, we came upon a steel door (see photo above). A woman at a desk instructed us to push open the steel wall, which I later learned symbolizes “destroying the wall”. The steel wall, representing the Iron Curtain, was decorated with 72 lit silver hands representing the years under Soviet rule. We entered into a series of rooms each providing food and drink and successive museum quality installations. Going from one inner room to the next, each installation depicted artifacts (e.g., a copy of the Constitution) from Ukraine’s recent revolutions: the 1989 Student Revolution, the 2004-5 Orange Revolution, and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. In the last inner sanctum, a glass shaft opened to the stone gates of the monument to the 1240 siege above.
According to the restaurant menu:
Ostannya Barykada is a place for open-minded people who are ready to protect their values, take responsibilities and change their country,… This is our fortress, a frontline where society is able to discuss long-term strategies of the country policy and work on the mistakes…. We want to preserve that spirit of sympathy, altruism, social alertness and uprising which helped to create Ukrainian Revolutions of the last three decades (hi.traveltales.com).
Should I be surprised that despite the odds that some of the young grantees we met in September are ready to stand their ground with so many Ukrainians resisting the Russian forces tonight?
With COVID and continuing hostilities in Donetsk, we did not travel in September as far as we would have liked but covered Kiev, Cherkassy, and Zhytomyr (all under siege now). Applicants from other parts of the country travelled to Kiev to meet us. Three came on an overnight train from Donetsk (745.2 kilometers) and one from Poltava (342.3 kilometers). A fifth drove from Ivano-Frankivsk (452 kilometers). The women brought products and materials to show us their work. No one was worried, or did not discuss then, the possibility of an invasion. In the past two days, explosions have been reported in Zhytomyr, Ivano-Frankivsk and Poltava and Kiev is under full scale attack by air and land. In Donetsk, an entrepreneur writes, “Here is a war. The state is quite alarming, we do not know what to do next.” Everywhere we went, we met passionate women entrepreneurs and could well have funded more women entrepreneurs.
In September, we were also still hoping that Russia would not invade. Many of the 13 ventures were launched during COVID, had hired young women; and were already yielding returns that the women were re-investing in their businesses. A majority focused on children’s education and included preschools, family club, home schooling, after school tutoring, junior business school, services for children with disabilities, and language teaching (English and Spanish for all ages). The women entrepreneurs had organized services both online and in person and were expanding into new areas, e.g., adding a math component to the curriculum or services to support parents. A woman entrepreneur was also manufacturing tents for holding outside events during COVID. As she observed, there would still be a demand for this product in the future.
The other manufacturing ventures included a women’s dress/cashmere knitwear firm, a small enterprise garments factory, and a leather products venture. All three were trading online and international – the dress/cashmere firm in Europe, the Middle East and North America, the garments factory with major stores in France and Germany, and the leather products on ETSY. Two young women in Donetsk had organized a mobile cleaning company, which met an important need during the conflict. Another small patisserie/bakery that we had supported online in 2020 was expanding and opening a new shop in a nearby mall.
This year we again visited or spoke to several women entrepreneurs funded in the past. All we were able to meet were still operating. A young woman displaced initially from Donetsk had had to shut two of her three stores during COVID. Having been displaced and restarted her business once, she was optimistic it could be done again.
Since February 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, there has been sporadic fighting in Donetsk. Many of our post 2014 grantees are refugees (displaced persons) from the Donetsk region. They have already experienced uprooting and had to start over again. They will do so again, and we will continue our efforts to be there for them ahead, wherever they may land next. [see Figure of HERA Ukraine Program from 2012 - 2021]
Looking ahead, we will continue to support women entrepreneurs in hard as well as good times. The women entrepreneurs we supported after the war in Georgia and that we are currently supporting during the ongoing Armenia-Azeri conflict are going strong. A few have returned to Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh while others resettled and restarted ventures in other regions of Armenia. During COVID, many women opened new businesses or reconfigured their operations to respond to the new demands. Moldova women entrepreneurs report that their country is opening its borders to the new refugee flows from Ukraine. After all what choice would any of us have in such circumstances?
A former Donetsk grantee, who has an architectural firm Kiev, wrote back yesterday:
Our country is going through a difficult time. Thank you for your attention and concern. We believe in a better future that will make us even stronger. Take care of yourself and your loved ones. People's lives are the most valuable.
In September Kiev seemed one of the happiest places in Europe where people were out and about and enjoying life again. Was I just witnessing another Cabaret? As the shelling continues, how far will it go and when will such times come once again?
 The description of the restaurant comes from our visit and the specific details from https://hitraveltales.com/discover-the-secret-ostannya-barykada-restaurant-in-kyiv/Attachments: