Volunteering is its own reward
When her homeland invaded Ukraine in 2022, Russian-Australian woman Victoria’s world was rocked.
She was devastated and revolted by the brutal attacks on innocent Ukrainians unleashed by Vladimir Putin through his euphemistically-named ‘special military operation’.
But Victoria was able find a sense of meaning and redemption through volunteering to help Ukrainian families who had fled the conflict and found refuge in Melbourne.
“Being able to volunteer to help people saved me when I was so devastated by what was happening and knowing I couldn’t do anything to stop it,” Victoria said.
“I just wanted to do something to counterbalance the evil my country was doing.
“It almost destroyed me. But because of the people around me I was able to recover. I couldn’t do anything to stop the war but at least I could help people who were suffering as a result of it,” she said.
Victoria says another thing that buoyed her spirits was seeing family members reunited.
“Many of the people arriving initially were split families. I saw a woman I had supported on her arrival months later and she told me she son had arrived. She was so happy – a changed person
“To see families reunited is rewarding. To see the change in them – and often it’s a physical change – is just wonderful.
Victoria arrived in Australia with her family in 2010.
“In helping people settle I could immediately could see the difference between me, who made a decision to come to Australia, and the Ukrainians who were forced to flee their homes.
“Some have had their houses destroyed and others had a just a few days to find safety and were lucky to escape.”
Victoria says her becoming a volunteer was almost accidental.
“When the war started, it came as a shock and I was probably crying for a month,” she said.
“I saw a protest group on Prince’s Bridge near where I live. They were Russians protesting against the war. I just went up with them and said ‘can I stand with you?’.
“They became my initial support.”
Victoria became part of a network of Russians and Ukrainians coming together to support families arriving from Ukraine.
“It was as we were coming out of the COVID restrictions and initially were providing basic things like cutlery, saucepans and towels,” she said.
“But one thing led to another and I met a woman who said her kids had lost their iPads in fleeing Ukraine.
“We put out a request on our Facebook group. People responded and a guy in Sydney came up with six iPads and then another six. So were able to give the woman’s kids some iPads.
“People also had problems with English, not all of the arrivals could speak English. You can imagine how difficult it must be for people arriving in a foreign country not to be able to speak the language.
“I thought that’s something I could do,” Victoria said.
With this in mind, she approached refugee and migrant settlement agency AMES Australia to offer services as a volunteer interpreter.
“Initially, there was some concern that people from Ukraine, who may have suffered trauma, may not want to hear the Russian language. But that was not my experience,” Victoria said.
“In many of the places worst affected by the war, like Mariupol, 90 per cent of the people are Russian speakers,” she said.
Victoria began volunteering every day for a few hours at the Melbourne Multicultural Hub, in the city, which had been set up as a relief and resource centre for Ukrainians by AMES Australia.
“I would accompany clients to Centrelink to resolve issues.” She said
Victoria says that at the beginning of her volunteering journey she was helped by friends and family. But the support effort soon burgeoned out across the community.
“People came forward to help me with donations of money or clothing and it snowballed from there,” she said.
“One Ukrainian woman told me her kids were missing buckwheat – a staple food in Ukraine and Russia.
“I went to a specialist Russian shop. I arrived with a trolley and when the owner found out I was buying it for Ukrainian refugees, she sold it to me at cost price.
“Other customers overheard this and they chipped in to buy some too.
“This sort of thing happened so many times. People would find out we were supporting refuges from Ukraine and they would just give.
“There have been lots of people involved from different communities and backgrounds.”
Victoria said the volunteering and support effort eventually evolved into support for Ukrainians to find opportunities to study and learn English.
“This meant we needed computers. My husband is on the board of directors of our children’s school and he was able to get 30 surplus computers from the school for AMES’ Ukrainian clients,” she said.
“It was amazing and shows sometimes miracles happen. Getting very involved and seeing the impact and simple things can change people’s lives is really very rewarding.”
Victoria says she continues to be horrified by the war in Ukraine and worried for the future of Russia.
“It’s like both countries are being destroyed; Ukraine physically and Russia by being cut off from the rest of the world and through the blocking of truthful information and the suppression of protests,” she said.
“Even the church in Russia is involved. They have been praying for ‘victory’. When one priest substituted the word ‘peace’ for ‘victory’, he was expelled.
“There are lots of new laws that prevent any dissent, some of them ridiculous. Like you can get into trouble for wearing Nike shoes with yellow and blue colouring.
“Thirty years ago after Perestroika we had hopes of a better society. But things changed for the worse after 2012 and have been going downward ever since.
“Russia and its social institutions haven’t been working. The situation between the government and people has been like an abusive relationship.
“It’s surreal. The same words that were used as slogans by the Nazis in WWII are now appearing on billboards in Moscow.
“Germany banned books in WWII and Russia is effectively doing that now; and criticising the army has become criminal offence,” Victoria said.
She said she had lost some friends back in Russia because of her support for Ukraine.
“It’s been difficult to talk to people I know because they believe the propaganda about the war.”
But she has been in touch with a group of Russians based in Moscow and St Petersburg who’ve been helping Ukrainians.
“What these people are doing is amazing. They’ve basically decided there’s no point in protesting because they’d just end up in jail,” Victoria said.
“So, they’ve decided to help Ukrainians though providing medicines, clothing and even helping people move abroad to safety.
“They have helped disabled and elderly people move to safety and in doing this they have taken risks themselves.
“In one instance, a Ukrainian who had been wounded in his eye during the fighting at Mariupol need urgent surgery to remove shrapnel. The group raised money for the operation and for tickets abroad.
“The shrapnel was removed and the man can live a normal life.”
Victoria says volunteering has been lifeline for her during a time of emotional and psychological stress.
“We all need to do what we can. And seeing how people have responded to help Ukrainians restored your faith in humanity.
“I love Australia for that reason. There is a very strong community and spirit here.
I couldn’t have done anything to help alone. It was only because my friends – Russian, Ukrainian and Australian friends – helped me that I was able to get through this,” Victoria said.