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Solutions 14:09 14 Sep 2022

"The main thing is not to make manicure on the hands, but to take these hands into your own": how beauty volunteers help those who survived occupation

Kyiv. Monday morning. A small bus and several cars collect people from different parts of the city. The people sit down with bags filled with files, dyes, scissors, hair dryers, and other attributes of beauty specialists. They all go to a village in the Kyiv region, which was under occupation. Each time to a different one.

Since May, every Monday starts like this for beauty volunteers – twenty hairdressers, masseurs, and manicurists, who go once a week to people who went through the occupation to give them a free haircut, massage their sore backs and restore their hands. Rubryka joined one of these trips.

"No, I'm Masha!"

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Lytvynivka. Vyshgorod district. An old watchman sits at the door of the school. He keeps his back straight and looks carefully at strangers.

– Are you hear for the glow-up? – he exclaims, not waiting for us to get closer.

– Yep! Do you want some?

– Oh, my God! I'm too old for this!

Then he smiles, says that by the end of the day, maybe he will change his mind, and then directs us deep into the school. The lock on the door is broken. In its place, gutted wood sticks out on all sides — a reminder that unexpected guests recently arrived.

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A dozen people sit in a long, narrow corridor, ten more in two other classrooms. People are getting a massage in one room, haircuts in the other, and manicures in the third. The tiny girl Masha can't find a place among them. In the end, she ends up on a school chair, which today is a substitute for a hairdresser's chair. The hairdresser with bright hair starts the conversation first:

– What's your name?

– Masha.

– Oh, I'm Masha too!

– No, I'm Masha!

– But I am also Masha. I can show you my passport.

– Show it.

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The message on the large board reads: "February 24. Classroom work". And a little lower in another handwriting: "The war has begun."

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"Not everything is so positive in the places we go to. A person is stressed and frustrated; they throw it all at you because they do not understand why they were hurt and someone was not. Or suffered, but not that much. And you have to understand this, and you have to be able to work with it.

It happens that a person sits down in a chair next to you, you talk, they say something, and at some point, you hear something that makes you need to go outside and take a breath. Because you can't imagine how this can happen in the center of Europe in 2022," says Olha Biletska, makeup artist and founder of the "Beauty Volunteers" initiative.

Ольга Белицька, засновниця волонтерського проєкту

Olha Biletska, founder of the "Beauty Volunteers" initiative

"Somewhere out there, someone will win for you"

With the beginning of the escalation, Olha and her two-year-old son left for a country house near Kyiv. Her husband could not get into the army, so from the third day of the great war, he started making body armor. After a couple of weeks of waiting, Olha returned to the capital and started volunteering in Okhmatdyt — cutting hair and doing basic cosmetic procedures for doctors who did not leave the clinic and for patients who were barely recovering from what they had experienced.

"Then it became irrelevant because the doctors first lived there and then returned home. But I thought all the time that there were people here; this happened here. I have many acquaintances from Bucha and Irpin who were in the occupation. And you are constantly thinking about how to help. Humanitarian aid? So many people bring it. I asked myself — what can I do? I know how to do eyebrows.

I wrote an extensive post about wanting to go to de-occupied villages with other specialists to support people and give them what I can. But I didn't publish it.

I was afraid I would post it and be told I was crazy. Half of the region is destroyed there, and I'm going there to do the eyebrows. But my husband said, "Come on, do what you do." I posted and asked several beauty specialists I know. They agreed to go. There was a lot of feedback immediately. And everyone started messaging me. Twelve specialists went on the first trip, and only a few knew each other," says Olha.

Ольга Белицька, засновниця волонтерського проєкту

The woman remembers her first trip and her first client down to the last detail. It was Irpin, volunteers came to the previously abandoned "Dubka" sanatorium. People whose homes did not survive the shelling settled there. The broken windows were covered with film, and people cleaned the mess inside as best they could.

When the beauty volunteers arrived, they removed the extra tables from their allocated room, set up chairs and benches, turned on the music, and started working. Olha noticed an older woman standing aside and clutching her purse nervously.

– Why are you standing here? Sit down! I will do something nice for you now!

– Oh, girls, I don't even know…

The woman sits on a chair in front of Olha and begins crying. Without a single word. Olha holds her hand and starts crying too.

Ольга Белицька, засновниця волонтерського проєкту

"When it was all over, the team and I walked out and just couldn't even talk to each other. We started to gather humanitarian workers there. And we spread it so much on social networks through acquaintances that we brought three washing machines, microwaves, kettles, and a pile of clothes there. People called me and said, "that's it, don't bring clothes."

We then raised such a fuss in Irpin, and that's how it went. And now the communities themselves are writing to us. We arrived in Kozarovychy, then people were like: "stop, what about Lytvynivka? And at Demydiv?"

You just realize that you know how to do it. I believe that everyone should do something. Whatever they can. I don't think you can just sit and wait for someone to win for you," says Olha Biletska.

"Sound!"

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The organization of the trip looks like this: Olha chooses the next village, agrees with the head of the community on the location, and asks that the news about the upcoming trip be spread as much as possible among the locals. Then, in a joint chat, about twenty volunteers confirm they would join this time as well. And then begins what the team dislikes the most — logistics.

"We have a dream. We make one wish every time we eat a five-petal lilac and see a shooting star — we want a bus. But we don't know where to find it. We drive our cars and fill them up for donations, but we need a bus. We dream of a big Icarus with 25 seats so that we can all hop on near the subway and go.

Because now the development of routes, so that one person sits next to another and everyone has to travel as little as possible, is simply the most challenging stage that no one likes. We thought about renting a vehicle, but we will give away all our provisions for a rainy day for one trip," Olha shares.

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Materials and tools for beauty specialists are bought with donations from those willing to support the project. That's where the money comes from to fill up the cars. One such trip costs the team an average of 2-3 thousand hryvnias.

"This food in the containers, with which the volunteers are constantly walking here, is prepared by people from our team. We have a girl and a boy who, on their own initiative, at their own expense, take and cook lunch for our whole gang.

Because there were places where we came, and someone asked – do our deputies sponsor you? And we are standing like this – people who have barely enough. People who care about us, colleagues from my main job, even parents slip us money, saying that it's for you, you need it more."

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While we are talking, volunteers pass by from time to time, each of them hugs Olya, tells in a few words that the work is in full swing, and runs either to lunch or another haircut. Olha keeps one of the volunteers, Maryna, a little longer. She asks about her visit to the military hospital.

Ольга Белицька, засновниця волонтерського проєкту

Volunteers were asked to come to the wounded soldiers and cut their hair. Maryna decided to go. At first, she was worried, but she decided that she should help in whatever way she could.

б'юті-волонтери у Литвинівці

"At first, I thought I would go there and faint. But no, everyone is very positive. They are there without arms or legs, but they laugh almost always. We sat down to drink coffee, one guy's bandage slipped off, and the others shouted to the nurse: "Sveta, his leg fell off" and laugh like children!" says Maryna.

One of her clients was an elderly man with a severe concussion. He wanted to get a haircut himself, but the injuries he received were in the way.

Maryna raises the trimmer to his graying temple and turns it on; the older man shudders, shrugs, and, covering his head with his hands, shouts: "Sound!"

As soon as the man is calmed down and assured that he is safe, he straightens his back again and says he is ready for a haircut. Everything is repeated in a circle – the machine, "sound!", an attempt to fall on the floor and hide.

"I tell him – you don't feel well, go rest, get a haircut later. And he shakes, wildly stutters, but continues: "No, I w-w-will!" I had to hold his head with one hand and cut his hair like that. Like a child. Then he also gave me all the strawberries he had," the girl says.

"If you came, they were not forgotten"

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Olha Biletska says that every trip is dozens of stories that bring tears to her throat. While giving massages, manicures, or hairdos, volunteers listen to how locals wrapped children in pipe insulation to hide them from russian soldiers, how people ran out of their own burning houses and heard the screams of relatives who were burning alive. After numerous shellings and weeks spent in the basement, the children cannot speak or start stuttering.

One of the project's volunteers, Maria, says she is learning not to let such stories go too deep and not to ask people about what can hurt them again.

"When the full-scale war began, I was at home in Vyshgorod, but I'm actually from Synyak. It was also under occupation, and I decided on the first morning, for some reason, that I needed to go to Synyak. So we also spent two weeks with my sister and brother in the basement. And on March 8, we managed to escape, so we are also among these people. Maybe next time we go to Synyak, I will be very happy. That's where my school is, my fellow villagers," says Maria with a smile.

б'ют-волонтерка Марія

She says that when she got out of the occupation, she wanted to volunteer but couldn't understand where she would be really helpful. And when I saw Olha Biletska's post about the idea of ​​beauty volunteering, I didn't even think about whether it was worth it. So from the first trip, she is with the team.

"Our first trip was very friendly. We worked a lot then because there were only three hairdressers. I cut 11 people's hair in three hours. I was a little exhausted, but the people there were cool too.

There was an older woman, about 70 years old…She left and then returned with her comb after some time, said that she didn't use it anyway, and gave it to me. And it was so nice. That's how I started. I am glad that there is such an opportunity. We waste nothing but our time. We do what we can and receive gratitude from people," the volunteer shares.

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Usually, beauty volunteers serve up to a hundred people during one trip. And almost everyone who comes uses almost all services — haircuts, massages, hygienic manicures, eyebrow services. They are located, as a rule, in schools or sanatoriums. And they work from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"At first, everything was difficult because we didn't know where to go; we were looking for everything ourselves. And then we saw that people were very happy about it, so it started. German television once came to film us. When they posted a video about us on Facebook, there were comments from pro-russian Germans. And they wrote, "what, a manicure during the war, return our weapons then."

But the main thing is not to make a manicure on someone's hands, but to take these hands in your own and say — I'm with you. It's a little bigger; it's deeper. It's not like you do a favor and leave. These people know you later, follow you everywhere, and understand that if you came, they were not forgotten. It becomes at least a little easier for them," says Olha Biletska.

She again emphasizes that there are many difficult stories, but you can't distance yourself from them. Olha says that one of her volunteers was asked to come to a woman's home to cut her hair and her grandson's hair. The house turned out to be a shed because the occupiers destroyed the house.

"She lives with her twelve-year-old grandson. No one knows what's with his parents. They live in a barn because a missile hit the house. This grandmother, who is 80 years old, and her grandson. And there is no house. And unfortunately, there are a lot of such stories. Pretending that you personally can't do anything is pointless. You either go and do things with your hands, or you do something with your head, earn money and be the first to donate," concludes Olha.

But the volunteers are already calling her to talk about the next village because you have to make plans.

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Bank details to support the initiative financially:

To provide any other assistance, text the volonteers on Instagram.

Photo by Mykola Tymchenko, Rubryka

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