Visiting Paris at the beginning of November, the Ukrainian first lady, Olena Zelenska, was there, in particular, to promote the work of her foundation, created in September 2022, and to raise international funds in order to protect the lives of Ukrainians behind the front: building shelters in schools, rebuilding destroyed hospitals, delivering humanitarian aid… Director of this foundation, Nina Horbachova’s task is to effectively distribute funds for the reconstruction of school, medical and cultural infrastructure. Interview.
L’Express: Can you give a general assessment of the action of the Olena Zelenska Foundation after more than a year of existence?
Nina Horbachova: Although the foundation is very young, we have several encouraging results. Thus, we have brought together more than 25 partners around the world, mainly philanthropists, corporations, governments and international institutions. Over the past year, we have raised nearly $10 million [9,2 millions d’euros]. But the total volume of our projects, that is to say both financial participation and donations in the form of materials (computers for the online education of children, generators, etc.) – amounts to nearly 48 millions of dollars [44 millions d’euros].
We are present in 19 of Ukraine’s 24 oblasts, especially in areas close to the front line. For example, we were among the first, last year, to launch projects in the newly liberated Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts. We provided generators and water treatment systems – anything we could do to keep the population going through the winter as Russia attacked critical energy infrastructure.
Exactly, do you fear‘winter coming?
Of course. We are preparing for Russian attacks on energy infrastructure, like last year. At the time, we weren’t ready at all. This time we are much stronger and more confident. That being said, we invite our partners to massively send us generators, which will be installed as a priority in schools and hospitals. But we are not trying to get used to war: it is impossible, we will never be able to.
How will the foundation participate in the reconstruction of the country?
The reconstruction of Ukraine requires above all the return to normal life of the population. According to our estimates, between 70 and 80% of residential buildings were destroyed in the regions near the contact line. The State’s priority is above all to rebuild residential buildings and mobilize humanitarian aid for the population. One of our priorities is the well-being of children, especially those who have lost their parents. In Ukraine, a network of host families has been set up, some of them welcoming up to 10 orphans.
We inherited orphanages from the Soviet period, but we want these institutions to disappear in favor of foster families, where children can live in a real family environment. Currently, there are more than 1,300 host families who fulfill the role of educator. All have received training on this issue. The problem is that 400 of these families were driven out by the war, and 80 of them saw their homes completely destroyed. For these families, we have developed a program, “The Address of Childhood”, to build residences for them – 14 have already been built.
Another project, the reconstruction of the hospital in Izioum, a town which experienced seven months of occupation. It was the main hospital of Kharkiv Oblast. It covered the needs of 150,000 people. Today, civilians and soldiers alike are returning to Izioum, although the region is still mined. We have already sent 1 million dollars [920 000 euros] for the reconstruction of four operating theaters.
We also have a major project to reconstruct a creative and sports complex in Borodianka, kyiv region. This center was completely destroyed by the Russians, and its reconstruction will allow 2,000 children to return to sporting and creative activities.
Among the major priorities, there is, finally, the reconstruction of schools and nurseries, and the provision of shelters in these establishments. Today, more than 4,000 of them have no shelter. Four schools are currently under reconstruction and we are taking advantage of the construction site to transform their basements into air raid shelters, so that they are accessible to all, according to State standards.
International attention and media coverage of Ukraine is declining. Do you notice this in your fundraising work for the foundation?
I can’t say that attention to our foundation has diminished. We continue to benefit from the trust of our partners, who see the concrete results of what they invest for our three priorities of action (medical, education and humanitarian aid). Helping children is particularly motivating for them.
The foundation is very focused on the mental health of the population. What are the priorities, and can we talk freely about mental health in Ukraine or is it still taboo?
It’s not taboo at all. It was still so during the Soviet era, but today we understood that we had to talk about it frankly. There is a state mental health program, sponsored by the first lady of Ukraine, which ensures the psychological recovery of civilians and military personnel, and which has been developed in each region.
Regarding the foundation’s actions, we focus on helping children. So, this year, we offered 200 host families, or 1,400 adults and children, two-week stays in the Carpathian mountains, in western Ukraine, so that they could take a vacation and be able to to rest, to escape… There are also projects for the psychological health of children who have experienced particularly difficult situations – for example, having witnessed the death of their own parents, killed by the Russians.
Millions of Ukrainians fled the country and the war to settle in Europe. Do you have hope that they will come back?
Of course we want them to come back, and as soon as possible, we really need them! Everything we do is to prepare for their return: the renovation of medical buildings, schools, places of art and culture… I give an example: in Boutcha and Irpine, about twenty kilometers from Kiev , unthinkable war crimes were committed between February and March 2022. By June, people were starting to return. But the mother who left Ukraine with her children will only return when she judges that the situation is completely safe for her family.
Unfortunately, our children are still forced to live under bombings. We are doing everything we can so that they become not a generation of victims, but of victors in this war. The ability of children to forget this war over time and, despite everything, to live normally is impressive.