Oksana Vlasenko, UN Volunteer with UNDP Moldova, is standing in front of a backdrop with her colleagues in UNDP Moldova office.
Oksana Vlasenko supported UNDP Moldova's goal to help refugees during their Ukraine crisis response as a UN Volunteer.

Oksana Vlasenko: "I'm sure everyone has understood that there's no point in just sitting and waiting"

Oksana Vlasenko, a young woman from Kyiv, has been living in Chișinău, Moldova, for more than four months. She is a UN Volunteer Refugee Support Associate within the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative, implemented by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and financed by the European Union. In the interview below, Oksana shared from her life in Moldova and her experience serving in an international organization.

What does your assignment with UNDP mean to you?

To me, this assignment is an opportunity where you don't just serve for livelihood, 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 serving 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 than 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 crisis 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. On the train ride to Lviv, our four-seat compartment was cramped with 12 people, small children and pets. Even though one could hardly 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 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 my grandfather, who turned 103 years old this year, and moving anywhere could pose a threat to his health, as is the case for my grandmother.

In my efforts to stabilize, I took part in a competitive selection for an opportunity with 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 colleagues welcomed me with open arms. I have never been greeted with such warmness in my life; outside of my 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 livelihood and especially not all have a chance to serve in a team like mine and to have so much support.

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

What is your mission within the Mayors for Economic Growth initiative?

The initiative supports cities to implement innovative projects at the local level. When the crisis 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.

In the first stage, the needs of the cities that received the largest number of refugees and internally displaced people 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 there was a need for a person to coordinate the support offered to refugees in each city that was part of the initiative. 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. We will also offer training in accounting, graphic design, data management and basic IT skills will be organized for Ukrainian women refugees. To ensure better access to the Internet, we plan to arrange WiFi zones 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 this initiative.

Your task 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 serve will definitely find an opportunity. 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 organization 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 crisis 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'm sure everyone has understood that there's no point in just sitting and waiting. We all want the crisis to end as soon as possible. But what if it lasts longer?

The initiative Mayors for Economic Growth 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 in crisis?

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.

This article was first published by the UN Development Programme in Moldova and has been edited slightly.