Interview with Oksana Dobroskok, coordinator of LGBTQ+ shelters in Kyiv, Dnipro, and Chernivtsi

Graham Robson June 20, 2022

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, most non-governmental organisations have reformatted their activities. The Alliance.Global NGO was not left out of the new challenges, and as of today the organisation has three shelters for LGBTQ+ people and their family members who were forced to leave their own homes in search of a safe place to live. There are now three functioning shelters, one each in Kyiv, Dnipro, and Chernivtsi. We talked to Oksana Dobroskok, the coordinator of the organisation’s humanitarian area, and asked what challenges community organisations face as they continue to provide services to vulnerable groups during wartime.

Hi, Oksana! Tell the readers about yourself.
I am from Kharkiv, but lately I have been living in Kyiv. I have been working at Alliance.Global NGO since the end of 2019, but I have a lot of experience in the past. For more than 20 years I have been working in projects related to vulnerable groups, including men who have sex with men (MSM), sex workers and people who use drugs. I have a strong experience of working with international organisations and am also a member of the LGBTQ+ community. During my time as a consultant on regional MSM advocacy and mobilisation, I have worked extensively with young activists in the regions, mainly on issues related to access to HIV services.

And yet now you are the coordinator of the humanitarian field and three large LGBTQ+ shelters. Before the war your organisation already had a functioning shelter for MSM and trans people in the city of Kyiv. How did this activity get started?
Our MSM shelter in Kyiv was already functioning before my time, since the beginning of 2020. In the middle of 2021 the project was put on pause due to the lack of funding. However, we got help from our development partners, 100% Life, and were able to restart the project at the beginning of this year.

How did the idea of opening such shelters come about?
On a wide level, there is still a lot of homophobia and transphobia in Ukraine, but there used to be even more of it. The idea was born as a counterbalance to cases where MSM and trans people were losing their homes and jobs because of it. We tried to create a space that would help victims of homophobia/transphobia or failed coming out/outing ‘wait out the storm’, re-socialise, and start a new life. However, in early 2022, when our shelter reopened, the aim was for those members of the community who had lost their jobs or housing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time there were many MSM in Kyiv who had come to work. A critical number of them had to look for new jobs and homes because of the pandemic, in essence they had nowhere to go back to.

Running even one shelter is a lot of pressure. Doesn’t it burden you, given that you have other projects besides these?
In the beginning, I didn’t feel like it was a burden. But after scaling the project to other cities, it did become more difficult. However, we have a clear understanding of the needs of the community now, and that we, even at the limits of our strength, can meet them. So that’s how we work.

Can you tell us about the dynamics? Where are the guests coming from and for how long?
The dynamics are very different over time. In the beginning people came to Kyiv shelter from Bucha and Irpin. In Dnipro – from Donetsk region, Kharkiv region, especially a lot of people from Mariupol. That is, the change of ‘hot spots’ provoked an influx of guests. Before March, we mostly had people simply fleeing from the war. Now it’s mostly people who have lost their homes or resources for existence. During peacetime, we used to house guests for two weeks to three months. We want the people who stay with us to be able to rest from the stress they suffered, adapt to the new realities, get psychological help if necessary, and then leave us to find their own place to live. We do not force this process, but we do not let it drag on for long.

The operation of shelters is very expensive. You already have three. Plus, you provide the guests with everything they need for free. Where does the funding for that come from?
Our largest donor since the beginning of 2022 has been the charitable organisation 100% Life, through which our first shelter in Kyiv is operating. But the full functioning of the shelters during wartime requires additional support. Therefore, since the beginning of large-scale wartime actions, we began to actively seek additional funding. For example, the French international organisation Coalition PLUS made a huge contribution, thanks to which we opened a shelter in the city of Chernivtsi as quickly as possible. We also received funds from such organisations as Outright Action International, Aidsfonds, UNAIDS, which opened special programs to help Ukraine, as well as our Ukrainian partners KyivPride. We also received many private donations from all over the world. Literally a week and a half after the start of the full-scale invasion, we already had the first funds for emergency resource assistance to the community.

Has funding changed over time? Everyone involved in one way or another in volunteering or other activities has noted that it’s getting harder to find funding every day.
By the end of March there were a lot of private donations, the funding system was simplified, although we tried to keep track of all the money we were receiving and spending. At this point, private donations have almost completely stopped, but the time we had helped us get back on our feet and develop new project proposals with refinements for longer-term projects. But most importantly, we were able to gather community requests and get a clear understanding of what the community needed in a time of war.

What is your greatest victory in this activity?
The opening of the Chernivtsi shelter. Thanks to our activist who was already in town, and emergency help from our partners, we were able to open this shelter in three short weeks. We transformed a completely empty space with bare walls into a cosy area with everything we needed, rebuilt the bathroom from scratch, and made renovations. After I moved to Chernivtsi, our activist went to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces.

And what was your biggest loss?
That we couldn’t open a shelter in Lviv. We evaluated all the pros and cons, and we realised that we needed to be clear about our financial possibilities. The locals in Lviv increased property prices very much, so critically that it was impossible to open a new shelter. So we did not do it based on rational reasons.

But you were still able to open an HIV, hepatitis, and STI testing centre there.
Yes, it is much cheaper financially than opening a new shelter. There are several organisations in Lviv now that work with MSM/LGBTQ+ people. For example the young organisation Impulse that opened in 2021 to which we provide resources and expert support.

Have you ever had to reject people who were seeking shelter?
Unfortunately, yes. In the wave of the war there were quite a large number of people trying to find their own benefit from organisations helping others for free. Such swindlers who simultaneously asked for money from all the coordinators separately, for unclear needs. Make no mistake, we never refuse people who fit our criteria: LGBTQ+ people or their families, a sincere need for some kind of help. But there have been cases, for example, where we have even had to kick people out for violating our rules. These are both shelter rules and wartime rules – there have been times when people have walked out of shelters during curfew, thereby endangering their very existence.

You’ve said before that you hold psychological groups at the shelter base in Chernivtsi. Can you tell us about them in detail and are you planning to scale them up to your other shelters?
Online counselling is a more advanced practice now, but we were lucky. We had a staff member in Chernivtsi who was able to hold group psychological sessions at the shelter. This is not deep psychotherapy, but rather a solution to acute stress processes that do not allow a person to adapt and socialise in a new environment. It can even be the solution of trivial domestic issues. We plan to scale this activity to other shelters and are looking for funding for this. In the future it will be linked to personal development, community mobilisation and deeper re-socialisation. This includes psychologists/psychotherapists, HR, and coaches.

You’ve said that you help guests with resocialisation in a new place. Do you have any successful cases?
Talking about re-socialisation in wartime is quite difficult. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow and we can’t guarantee that our efforts will bear significant results. For us, the success in this matter is that the guest stops being depressed, stops laying on the bed and starts looking for a job and a new place to live, and we help him or her with that. We have our own chats, where guests share with each other information related to job hunting. That is, the success in re-socialisation is the release of the guest into the world, preferably to their own separate housing and with a new job. There are such cases in all three shelters, most often in Kyiv, less in Chernivtsi, but we are working on it.

Do guests often come by themselves or with their relatives?
Mostly by themselves. But the requests are different. Whole families live in Dnipro. Most often it is MSM guys with their mothers. Of course, in these cases we wondered if the mother knew about her son’s orientation (laughs). It’s just that our shelters are set up in such a way that mostly young people live there and it can be a little unusual for an older person to live there. But we’ve seen on many occasions how sharing family members in our shelters has changed older people’s attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people for the better. And besides, we help all family members equally, regardless of community affiliation. It’s both psychological support and resource support, such as medication.

How do you collaborate with other organisations?
The LGBTQ+ community has responded very strongly to the wartime challenges. Each organisation has its own scope, but this has not prevented, but rather helps us to work together to accumulate needs and help each other. Somewhere we redirected people, somewhere we redirected resources. So I just want to sincerely thank all the organisations, whether we interacted or not.

Can you tell us which organisations you cooperated with?
KyivPride provided us with one of the first financial aid. That gave us an opportunity to help the community representatives in the ‘hot spots’ right after the beginning of the Russian invasion. There was close cooperation with the NGO Insight, and I sincerely thank Olena Grigoryak, coordinator of their shelter in Chernivtsi, for that. We saw from their example how it could work in the city, and it helped us to organise our own shelter. And while ours was still under renovation, we redirected people to them very promptly. There were also Cogorta and Convictus Ukraine NGOs that we cooperated with specifically on transgender community issues while we were still at the stage of opening a shelter in the city of Kyiv. LGBTQ+ association LIGA which also helps us with humanitarian assistance, although they have their own separate line for this. Plus their psychological crisis hotline. Among our foreign partners we would like to mention the oldest Polish LGBTQ+ organisation Lambda Warszawa, which helps us a lot with the humanitarian needs of shelters.

What will happen to the shelters after Russia’s defeat in this war?
We didn’t open the first shelter in Kyiv because of the war, as I said before. And after it we will have long years of renovation, many people will have nowhere to go back to. We hope that we will have a chance to continue this work. We had the idea of opening a shelter in Kharkiv, and if the situation there wasn’t so dangerous, we would do it. But we are not rejecting these plans, and someday perhaps a new shelter will appear there as well. The ones that are already open are seen by us as a long-term initiative, and we have no plans to close them. These shelters may become community outposts in the future, especially in western Ukraine, where the community is traditionally closed. This is a chance for us to change attitudes towards LGBTQ+ there for the better, both at the level of public perception and at the level of public health services, social assistance, and community mobilisation.