"What happens when an anthill is destroyed? All the ants gather, start working and quickly rebuild everything. Similar things happen all over Ukraine — volunteers organize evacuation from hot spots and deliver food there. People are transported across the border, and the volunteers go to the front line and bring trinkets to the military. Such a movement throughout the country resembles a big anthill. In Transcarpathia, our hotel is like a shelter and a base that concentrates the entire team's work," says Oleksandr Kalinchenko, founder of the non-governmental organization Ukrainian Ants.
What is the problem?
Due to the full-scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine, millions of Ukrainian citizens were forced to urgently leave their homes in search of safer places. Now people continue to evacuate from hot spots near the front line. All these people need shelter.
What is the solution?
On February 25, 2022, Kyiv photographer Oleksandr Kalinchenko, his wife, and a family of friends found shelter in a hotel in Transcarpathia. Realizing the extent of the danger that began in the country, on the same day, they rented out all the rooms in the hotel where they stayed. And to this day, they provide approximately 50 displaced people with housing, food, and the most necessary things free of charge.
How did it all begin?
"We are not professional volunteers, and we have never done this until February 24," Kalinichenko explains.
The family left Kyiv literally after the first explosions. On February 25, they arrived in Transcarpathia and, quite by chance, stayed in a hotel that had not been functioning for three or four years. They opened one room for the family, where they spent the night.
When they and their friends realized that there was a large flow of people going to the west of Ukraine, they immediately talked to the hotel's owner and rented all the rooms at their own expense for a few weeks. They created a Telegram chat and started texting friends and acquaintances, offering a place to stop, rest and think about what to do next.
The hotel was the first solution of the future non-governmental organization. Later, the Ants opened a hotline and, in the first weeks, transported approximately five thousand people from Kyiv to western Ukraine, began to deliver food to the Kyiv region, help with food and hygiene to displaced people in western Ukraine, purchase military equipment abroad and hand it over to Ukraine's defenders.
Gradually, it all grew into a large volunteer movement. Later, volunteering acquired the status of a non-governmental organization. They called it Ukrainian ants because, in the beginning, it looked like the work of ants.
"We joked that we were hustling all over the country like in a destroyed anthill," says Kalinichenko, who unexpectedly became the founder and director of a non-governmental organization.
The co-founder of Ukrainian Ants is Oleksandr's friend Roman Andreev. In general, the team's backbone is people of various professions: designers, photographers, videographers, IT people, builders, students, school teachers, event organizers, and PR people.
How does it work?
Displaced people live in the hotel completely free of charge. They have private rooms with the most necessary conditions: toilet, shower, and hot water, and the hotel also provides food. People receive the most necessary household items. They can simply stay for a certain time and come to their senses after experiencing stress.
In the beginning, many people stayed in the hotel and then went abroad. Later, in Murashnyk, Ukrainian for anthill, as the volunteers call it, people from hot spots began to receive shelter.
For example, a few weeks ago, two families from a small village between Bakhmut and Chasiv Yar settled in the hotel: an older lady with her granddaughter and a woman with two children. Staying in their village became more dangerous because of frequent shelling, and people left to save the children's lives.
People from Mariupol, Melitopol, Kharkiv region, many from Luhansk region and Donetsk region, an people from Kherson and Mykolaiv stay in the hotel. There are a lot of places where the front line is now. Many of these people have nowhere to return: it is either the occupied territory or their housing is no longer there, says the volunteer.
There is also a volunteer center on the base of the hotel, where to this day, settlers from several nearby villages have been coming for more than a year. Once a month, they can get a grocery set, clothes, and household chemicals.
"Part of the displaced people who came to us have already changed a little, stopped waking up at night from any noise. We already offer them to join some work, for example, sorting food. We brought several tons of flour, sugar, and various cereals — all this must be sorted, disassembled, packed, and taken away. Everyone in the hotel joins in," says Kalinchenko. Volunteers delivered 140,000 tons of food to various frontline regions.
Ants helped some resettlers to get a job. People can go to work but still live in a hotel. Parents with children can place their children in kindergarten free of charge.
How does the NGO manage to maintain the life of the hotel?
Murashnyk's team consists of friends and acquaintances. The main backbone of the team remains at the hotel all the time, not because people have nowhere to go but because they, just like volunteers, fully serve the work of the hotel itself and other projects.
"Many would like to return home, but they stay because they understand their importance in this work," says Kalinichenko.
Someone helped you, and then you should help others
Some of those who received shelter became full-fledged "ants" themselves, like Svitlana, who, in 2022, took up the production of trench candles.
In the spring 2022, Svitlana lost her husband, a Ukrainian Armed Forces soldier. She was left alone with her teenage son. Ants took her to their hotel for full provision.
"She was not our volunteer before, but she became a full team member," says Kalinchenko. "In manufacturing trench candles, she achieved that the candle burns seven to nine hours. Last winter, we transported many of these candles and gave them to our people at the front."
Everyone in the hotel also participates in collecting cans and cardboard, pouring paraffin, etc. Therefore, in principle, everyone somehow joins the life of Murashnyk.
While staying at the hotel, people continue to live out their life stories.
Unfortunately, there were already the first losses.
At the beginning of autumn 2022, a family from Zaporizhzhia was accommodated in the hotel. A woman and her husband, who previously suffered a stroke, had difficulty moving and speaking, arrived rather alarmed, and took a long time to recover. Unfortunately, at the beginning of 2023, the husband had another stroke. Volunteers called an ambulance, and he was taken to the intensive care unit, but the man passed away in a few days. The woman eventually decided to go abroad, and Ants helped her to go to the United States under an international support program.
Volunteers helped prepare the necessary documents for departure to the USA, Great Britain, and other European countries.
People learn about Murashnyk mainly by word of mouth. There are no more vacancies in the hotel. Ants have been renting and paying for rooms in nearby hotels for a long time.
Murashnyk is not only a hotel but also the center of work for all the volunteer areas of the team. The focus of the NGO is not only on civilian needs. More than 60 percent of the effort goes to help the Ukrainian army. The convenient logistical location of the hotel helps to quickly purchase thermal imagers, drones, and other equipment needed by soldiers abroad and bring them to Ukraine or race cars for the front. During their work, the volunteers handed over up to five dozen of them; a large part were ambulances.
If the resource allows, the Ants plan to expand the boundaries of their activities in the summer. They have already hosted military personnel in the hotel, who could see their families here and have at least a little rest. In the future, the volunteers want to provide them with a certain minimum of physical relaxation procedures and psychological services for three to four days to several weeks. Kalinchenko shares:
"It hurts us because we constantly go to the front line and see our defenders who have been standing there not for a day, not two, not a month, but for quite a long time. It is quite morally difficult, especially when there is no understanding of whether returning to civilian life will be possible. Therefore, we want not only to give them protection items and equipment but also something in this format."
Is this a long-term solution?
Resources for maintaining the hotel and other projects are the most complex issues, shares the NGO Ukrainian Ants director. Mostly, financial help comes through friendly contacts, but the further it goes, the more difficult it is to get it. As the war continues, it is necessary to donate to the armed forces further, so for many people, civilian projects have ceased to be a priority.
"Currently, we have an acute issue of financing the hotel itself because it is a rather expensive enterprise — the rent itself, utilities, repair of communications, and other current repairs. You have to do all this, fix it, buy food, cook," Kalinchenko says.
The friends created the non-governmental organization to facilitate the attraction of support from businesses and philanthropists. Ukrainian Ants will be grateful if, for example, someone undertakes to cover the needs of at least one family per month or pay the rent of one room.
"We will keep the hotel as long as we have the opportunity," states the director of the NGO Ukrainian Ants. "We value the hotel very much. We experienced this moment when we needed help with housing, so we do not want to stop this help while there is a need for it."
Photo from the archive of NGO Ukrainian Ants
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