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Stepping into Strength: A Ukrainian Refugee’s Inspiring Journey in Lithuania

Stepping into Strength: A Ukrainian Refugee’s Inspiring Journey in Lithuania

“The great thing about Vilnius is you can walk into a forest in less than 10 minutes. These days I still find it difficult to appreciate architectural beauty, but nature gives me the respite and solace I so much need,” tells us Polina Stasiuk, a Ukrainian media professional who has settled in Lithuania following the invasion of her home country by Russia. Having relocated here with her daughter and mother in the wake of the war, Polina has tirelessly used every opportunity to help her fellow citizens, both in Ukraine and Lithuania. From live-dubbing news broadcasts to working for support camps for thousands of children displaced by the conflict, Polina’s contributions have been plentiful and impactful. At the time this interview was conducted, Polina was in the final stages of her project with the Office of the Government of Lithuania aimed at understanding how to elaborate on and implement smooth and consistent communication on the support provided by Lithuania to Ukraine.

In 2022, over 70 thousand Ukrainian refugees came to Lithuania, and you and your family were among the first to arrive. Was there any reason you chose Lithuania?

As for many Ukrainians, mine wasn’t a deliberate choice. When Russia invaded my country, I packed my car (we already had emergency backpacks), took my daughter and mom, and drove to the border. The roads were jammed with cars full of people fleeing to safety. Our initial destination was Bulgaria, where we owned a small flat, but after we crossed the border into Romania, I started having second thoughts. What would I do in a small Bulgarian village in a place with no heating, no source of income, and no job prospects? Then I remembered that a friend of mine had relocated to Vilnius 2 months before that, and we agreed we could stay with them for a while. It was very hard – not knowing where to go, not being certain about anything. I started frantically searching for a way out of that situation, and then I stumbled upon the website of Stiprus Kartu, a Lithuanian network that connects volunteers with people in need.

Through Stiprus Kartu, I got in touch with Karolis, our first host here, to whom I’m forever grateful. After a single Zoom call, he offered the three of us an apartment, where we stayed for four months free of charge. It was just us and Karolis’ cat, Gudis, in a beautiful new part of Vilnius, complete with little ponds and a park nearby. My daughter loved it, and we’re now renting very close to that first temporary home.

What did your first weeks and months in Lithuania look like?

I knew I needed to find a job as soon as possible, so I couldn’t sit still. Not knowing the language, I thought my options were somewhat limited. I sent out my CV to various companies and received a couple of offers. I was also considering becoming a florist’s assistant and an electric car salesperson. While I didn’t take either job, it was reassuring to know that options were available. I then got to know a Ukrainian girl who was volunteering for one of the country’s broadcasters, translating news from Ukraine. Joining her was difficult—the news from Ukraine was grim in the first months of the war. My own father was trapped in the hell of Mariupol, and we had lost touch for a month. Reporting on the news from the frontlines was personally challenging.

And then a journalist from the TV channel I translated for put me in touch with Laurynas Šeškus – a local TV producer who, together with his partners, started organising day camps for Ukrainian kids. Remarkably, they managed to run the first camp on the 5th of March, less than two weeks after the invasion started. It was one of the first examples of Lithuanians uniting for the greater good, and many more were to come.

Becoming a part of these efforts helped me to stay strong. It was an amazing experience, and the level of dedication everyone had was astounding. Starting from April, camps would have 3000-4000 kids participating, national music stars, lecturers, and entertainers from Lithuania and Ukraine. Every event was like this huge celebration. We had ambassadors visit these camps, and famous Ukrainian musicians tuning in from the frontlines. Passers-by would even ask – “Is this some sort of town festival or commercial event? Where can I buy tickets?”

It was a joint effort, and we didn’t have strict roles. Often it felt like the whole society was united to help those kids out. Even Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė took part several times, without any public announcement or press. Once some Dutch journalists dropped by, and I was telling them how that woman washing fruit is actually the country’s PM.

The camps helped not just the kids, but also their mothers to take a break and get their minds off things even if just for a short while. I was happy to see my own daughter have a great time. She even met her new best friend through these camps. The girl lives in Kaunas, which means we go visit their family from time to time, which brings my daughter immense joy.

Do you think this welcoming experience in Lithuania was different from that in other countries?

In my role with the Create Lithuania project, I’ve spent a significant amount of time researching how other countries have responded to the influx of Ukrainian refugees. Despite my extensive research, I haven’t found any initiatives on the same scale as what I’ve seen in Lithuania. I would even go as far as to say it could be the most extensive grassroots effort in support of Ukrainian refugees across all of Europe. My work now is focused on understanding and analyzing how Lithuania’s unique and substantial support for Ukraine is perceived and communicated externally. For instance, the scale and organization of the camps for Ukrainian children here is something I haven’t seen replicated elsewhere.

Photo credit: Polina Stasiuk archive

Could you tell us more about how you became a part of the Create Lithuania project?

After half a year of helping run those camps, I joined Create Lithuania – a civil service project that brings professionals to the public sector. In 2022, the programme also opened its doors to Ukrainians. 

I learned about the programme when interviewing Ieva Dirmaite, the then Chief of Staff at Vilnius Municipality, for LRT. We had this series of short clips called “How to do it?” for Ukrainians getting accustomed to living in Lithuania. We became friends, and when the programme announced bringing in Ukrainians, she advised me to apply. 

My first project dealt with the integration of Ukrainians, and I already had first-hand experience with that and had good relationships with people in different ministries and institutions. So I spent half a year working at the Ministry of Social Security and Labour. Both my project owner and the Minister herself were very helpful.

The main issue we tried to solve is the availability of up-to-date and trustworthy information. There were so many sources and updates floating around and everything was changing so rapidly. Instead of launching a new platform, we found, a resourceful website, and decided to develop it as the central hub for all information that Ukrainians in Lithuania might find useful—from language courses to kindergarten registration. And even though my involvement with the project is over, I will try my best to ensure its continuation.

Have you observed any changes in the level of support you initially received in Lithuania? Can you share some experiences?

Of course, it’s probably not at the same scale, but Lithuanians never stop surprising me with their ability to come together and make things happen. Like the “Let’s Radar” crowdfunding campaign, which happened already a year after the invasion started. Ordinary people, businesses, NGOs came together, pooled their resources, and gathered 14 million euros for radars protecting Ukraine’s skies. 1 million was gathered in an hour and matched by Tesonet – a local startup accelerator. And this is all coming from a country of less than 3 million people! 

Sure, compassion fatigue is a thing everywhere in Europe. Researchers say it comes after two-three months, but I don’t think it’s present here in Lithuania. This is something that needs to be studied in more detail, something truly unprecedented.

Given that your journey has often been perceived as a success story, how do you reconcile that with the life you left behind in Kyiv?

People can view my story as a success story, and I’m happy to have been able to play my part in helping Ukrainians in Lithuania. But, of course, there’s another layer to it. In Kyiv, I was really living my dream life, the one I worked so hard to build for myself. So much has been lost, but I keep trying finding solace in the smallest things – the good grades my daughter brings from school, a walk in nature, or a swim in a lake.