A large group of people at a conference.
Diaspora voices • Eastern Europe
May 8, 2024
Liza Bezvershenko on the Global Ukrainian Community and diaspora as strong partners in the recovery of Ukraine

On April 19-20, over 120 Ukrainian diaspora representatives gathered in Berlin for the official pre-conference to the Ukraine Recovery Conference #URC2024, aiming to delve into the engagement of the diaspora and the Global Ukrainian Community in Ukraine’s Recovery. Two weeks after the conference, Liza Bezvershenko shares her insights, considering the discussions from multiple perspectives, personal and professional, being an active member of the Ukrainian diaspora, volunteer Advocacy Coordinator at Promote Ukraine, and Project Assistant at EUDiF.

Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Ukraine Recovery Conference has been an annual event, held in Lugano, Switzerland in 2022, London, United Kingdom in 2023, and soon in Berlin, Germany on June 11-12, 2024. The conference’s objective is to present the Ukrainian roadmap for post-war reconstruction, including fundraising plans for Ukraine’s recovery.

Wearing multiple hats, Liza attended the conference as a Ukrainian civil society and diaspora activist based in Brussels, Belgium. After the event, we had the opportunity to sit down with her to discuss the role of Ukrainian diaspora involvement in Europe and her thoughts on the forthcoming third edition of the Ukraine Recovery Conference.

Liza, you have been volunteering with the Brussels-based Ukrainian NGO ‘Promote Ukraine’ since 2022. What role does the Ukrainian diaspora play in Belgium, and what is your specific role?

I joined Promote Ukraine on February 28, 2022, and have been an active member since then. With the Russian invasion, Ukrainians abroad assumed the role of the Ukrainian voice, organising protests in the initial days of the war and later serving as the first point of contact for Ukrainians escaping the war. We’ve been actively fundraising and sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine, while also accommodating newly arrived refugees. Given our strategic location in Brussels, home to EU institutions and NATO headquarters, our aim is to ensure the Ukrainian voice is heard during significant political decisions. As such, advocacy is a major aspect of our work, and I oversee advocacy coordination. Alongside a team of volunteers, we organise expert discussions, roundtables, and both closed-door and public meetings to ensure that EU countries and their citizens firmly support Ukraine until victory.

How do Ukrainian organisations abroad coordinate with the government, and what is the difference between ‘diaspora’ and the ‘Global Ukrainian Community’?

In Ukrainian understanding, “diaspora” relates to individuals born abroad with Ukrainian parents or origins. Therefore, individuals residing outside Ukraine for 15 years or more, yet maintaining a strong connection with the country, may not necessarily identify themselves as part of the “diaspora”. Among the 6 million Ukrainians who sought refuge in the EU to escape the war, 60-70% intend to return. Given this definitional complexity, in 2024 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to unify all Ukrainians abroad under a single term, “Global Ukrainian Community” which includes all waves of the diaspora as well as temporarily displaced Ukrainians abroad. It is in the process of creating an engagement strategy to be presented in autumn 2024, to maximise the enormous potential which has become evident in how the Global Ukrainian Community has supported the country during the war.

The strategy prioritises strengthening Ukrainian identity among Ukrainians abroad by establishing educational and cultural initiatives, improving communication between the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the diaspora, advocating for support of Ukraine, and involving the diaspora as “citizen ambassadors.” Additionally, it encourages citizen participation in Ukraine’s reform and recovery processes by fostering youth involvement and facilitating expertise transfer.

With the recent conference emphasising the importance of diaspora involvement, what specific strategies or initiatives were discussed to foster stronger partnerships between the diaspora, the Global Ukrainian Community, and local actors in Ukraine’s recovery process?

The conference addressed a diverse array of topics where the diaspora plays a crucial role, including human capital and education for reconstruction, diaspora investment, youth engagement, advocacy, and cultural diplomacy. Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports of Ukraine, Andriy Chesnokov, underscored the catalytic role of youth in human capital and stressed the necessity for youth not only to be a target group but active participants in Ukraine’s reconstruction. According to him, reconstruction efforts should empower children and youth by establishing specialised university programs and initiatives to encourage the pursuit of professions critical for reconstruction, such as urban planning and architecture. Similar cooperation already exists in the German universities.

Regarding the return of individuals, particularly youth, physical security remains a prerequisite. The country fears “brain drain” and full integration of young people in the hosting countries. Therefore, Maryana Betsa, Ambassador at Large for the Global Ukrainian Community, proposed the concept of “intellectual return” over “physical return” by harnessing the expertise, skills, and networks of the diaspora for early recovery. According to her, the MFA’s main mission is to assure people abroad that the state is there for them, and they are still a part of Ukrainian society. To employ the human potential to the fullest, there is a strong need for establishing and joining existing expert networks for coordinating reconstruction efforts, sharing experiences, and fostering peer learning.

Dr Oleksandra Keudel, Associate Professor at the Kyiv School of Economics, emphasised the need for local ownership of “hromadas” (communities in Ukrainian) in reconstruction. Due to the decentralisation reform in Ukraine, the transparency and self-governance is developed faster on the local level. Therefore, the hromadas might benefit from a direct partnership with external donors, where the diaspora can play a role of natural semi-conductors and translators of bureaucracy. Dr Keudel also recommended establishing networks based on hromadas or cities of origin, not solely the receiving country (for instance, creating a Chernihiv diaspora community across the EU to focus on reconstructing the Chernihiv region on the front line).

Were there any particular examples which stuck out to you?

Yes, I think the Mykolaiv Water Hub  is a particularly successful case of a local initiative for reconstruction. It’s a startup accelerator and research think tank aimed at fostering innovation in a front-line city. The hub is led by Berlin-based Ukrainian diaspora professional Hanna Slobodyanyuk-Montavon, and aims at uniting specialists, researchers, entrepreneurs and public organizations for the joint development and implementation of innovative solutions in the field of water technologies, water purification, water treatment and water management. I think this practice of diaspora driving support for civilian infrastructure during wartime is a novel example of the innovative ways diaspora support their countries in times of crisis, and it’s one that can also continue and expand during recovery.

I also found the examples of assigning national seconded experts in the EU for knowledge exchange interesting, as well as the city-twinning format, which became extremely popular since the full-scale invasion. There were 50 in Germany before 2022, and now around 200 in 2024.

From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities for enhancing diaspora engagement in Ukraine’s recovery efforts, and how do you envision overcoming these challenges moving forward?

Time constraints and burnout are significant challenges. Unfortunately, Ukrainian civil society abroad operates under immense time pressure due to the ongoing war, leading to frequent mental health issues which deserves greater attention. Moreover, the lack of institutionalisation and capacity development within diaspora organisations hinders their sustainability and access to funding. Additionally, coordination within the Global Ukrainian Community is hindered by factors such as geographical dispersion and diverse migration waves, resulting in a lack of appropriate tools and communication mechanisms.

However, there is optimism that some of these issues will be addressed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ strategy on diaspora engagement by streamlining the communication between the government and DOs. The European Union as well as international organisations like ICMPD, GIZ and others play an active role in increasing capacities of DOs in the EU and hopefully, will explore the options for operational funding in the future.

Thinking of your work with both Promote Ukraine and what you have learned about diaspora engagement during and post-crisis via EUDiF, how would you summarise your vision for the role of diaspora and Ukrainian Global Community in Ukraine’s reconstruction?

Ukraine’s rebuilding and reforming has to be done in collaboration with Ukrainians residing abroad, which now represent a significant portion of the population. In the diaspora, we have been innovating, coordinating and acting swiftly from local to international level – this is something that will certainly continue until the war ends and holds great potential to catalyse a holistic reconstruction.  I am pleased to see the government is exploring avenues such as dual citizenship and strategies to involve Ukrainians abroad in political life as migrant rights are the basis for participation in countries of residence and heritage. At the same time, we need to restore and nurture connections between those in the diaspora and Ukraine on a human level, as we all want the same thing.

Acknowledging the value of the Ukrainian diaspora in reconstruction is paramount for all stakeholders, including diaspora organisations themselves, the Ukrainian government, EU institutions, international organisations, local governments, and most importantly, Ukrainian citizens. Despite the challenges ahead, there is an undeniable spirit of resilience and unity driving these endeavours for Ukraine’s future landscape of victory and recovery.

ICMPD has a long history of working with diaspora organisations and proven expertise in developing and implementing diaspora initiatives globally. In the context of Ukraine, ICMPD is currently implementing the project “Resilience, recovery and reconstruction of Ukrainian Migration and Consular Service” and has been supporting various initiatives for Ukrainian diaspora, including a recent case study on the Role of Ukrainian Diaspora in Crisis Response, Future Return and Reconstruction of Ukraine (March 2024). For more on diaspora engagement in times of crisis, see the EUDiF case study (EN) and executive summary (EN, FR, AR, UA).

The official pre-conference was organised by Open Platform/Alliance of Ukrainian Organisations and CRISP – Conflict Simulation. The conference was supported by the Embassy of Ukraine in Berlin, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine, German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) GmbH – Programme ‘Shaping development-oriented migration’ on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, Bertelsmann Stiftung, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, ISAR Ednannia in consortium with Ukrainian Centre for Independent Political Research and Centre for Democracy and Rule of Law and United States Agency for International Development(USAID).

Promote Ukraine is the Brussels-based civil society organisation promoting Ukrainian interests in the European Union since 2014. Following the Russian full-scale invasion, Promote Ukraine initiated creating a network “Ukraine Leads” of Ukrainian diaspora and civil society organisations in the European Union to coordinate advocacy efforts by conducting the annual European Advocacy Forum. The European Advocacy Forum 2023 was (organised by Liza and) dedicated to the European Elections 2024.

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