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Zhenia Monastyrskyi, historian and social researcher

“I am a historian, and I also happen to be a social researcher, working on the reform of education by day, and the rest of the time I do social research related to the impact of armed conflict that resulted in forced resettlement. I advocate for internally displaced people and those who remain in the occupied areas by talking and writing about this issue. I have to remind people that they are still Ukrainian citizens and have the same rights as everyone else.

In October 2014, I took a penultimate train from Luhansk to Kyiv and then went straight to Lviv to stay there basically until the end of 2015, with breaks for visits to Berlin and business trips for scientific research in Europe. Then I moved to the United States to attend Yale University for a year and, after that, returned to Lviv. I felt a bit out of place in Lviv, so I again went to study on a scholarship to the United States. Since summer 2018, I have been living in Kyiv. The reason is I saw more opportunities here to satisfy my aspirations, take a break from academic research to focus on practical involvement in social matters, tackling relevant problems and the impact of armed conflict in Ukraine. I wanted to sharpen my skills.

Today an internally displaced person has all the rights — half a year ago, we’ve had a breakthrough, thanks to human rights organizations, such as Zmina and Stabilization Support Services, but also a bunch of wonderful people. Now people whose current place of residence differs from the place of permanent residence have regained the right to vote in local elections.

Forced resettlers are kind of “legally dead.” They lack many levers of protection. Instead, they are under the pressure of endless visits to social institutions to prove that they are, in fact, internally displaced persons, are alive, and don’t live in occupied regions.

All of this creates an environment of social humiliation and inferiority.

Forced resettlers often face residency discrimination by not getting a lease. Along with sympathy, people from temporarily occupied areas elicit antipathy - they are blamed for what happened in their hometowns. It causes many of them to omit their experience unnoticed due to mental pressure and stigmatization. It’s a sore subject to me since I am also a forced resettler.

When I moved to Lviv, my research supervisor happened to be a professor from Donetsk. As a practicing sociologist, she led me deeper into this topic, and I spent some time practicing and researching.

I have personally experienced it, being a refugee in your own country. You try to become “more local than local.

When you’re forced to move, you try hard to love the new place, try only to see the good. I was 21, and it was a new experience — to find myself in a situation where an outsider had to start over. I tried really hard to blend in. The problems started to emerge when people kept pointing out where I was from. I was constantly reminded that there was a war in my hometown and that I was probably at fault. People blame locals for triggering and supporting the conflict, but not everyone has to do with it. To quote a poem of Warsan Shire: “…messed up their country and now they want to mess ours up.” Most people overlook resettlers - that’s normal. The majority doesn’t really pay attention to anyone outside their close circle.

My family left behind three apartments in Luhansk, my grandmother’s workshop, and a country house with our photos and archives. Although, they say the country house was bombed during the fighting. Even if you manage to sell your property in the occupied areas, you’ll sell it for peanuts. And you cannot take out any photos. They simply won’t let you out if you don’t leave them behind. All baggage undergoes security checks so that you won’t take them with you openly. And that is a whole new level of abuse and humiliation.

My family is basically rooted in the city's history: one of my great grandfathers was a postmaster of Luhansk county before the revolution in 1917, and another was a merchant and a patron.

My great grandfather was the head of the Luhansk region (then Voroshilovgrad region) on my mother's side shortly after the Nazi occupation. At different times, my great grandparents on my father’s side were heads of the City Department of Education and the Regional Department of Tourism. One of my grandmothers (on my mother’s side) was an honored (history) teacher who for 22 years was a vice-principal at physics and mathematics specialized school, that I graduated in my day, so did my mother, and way before that, my grandfather on my father’s side.

My grandmother on my father’s side was an artist, memorial, and museum interior designer. She created the places in Luhansk that probably every city resident knows: Volodymyr Dal Apartment Museum, The Chernobyl Stork Memorial, The Monument to Teachers and Students who died at the front in 1941, located near the Volodymyr Dal University. That’s what gives me a sense of connection to my hometown, even though I’m far away.

When you lose your home, it feels like you gradually lose your voice. You feel like you’ve lost fundamental human rights. It all just fades away, along with your right to be present.

I know many forcibly displaced people who have chosen to “conceal” themselves so that hopefully, no one negatively notices them. They don’t want any attention whatsoever, they just want to live their regular daily routine, they seek stability. These people lost their belongings, their sense of citizenship, the spontaneity of speech, and the security of the daily routine. I have an IDP certificate in my Diia app, and it constantly reminds me of this social status. It’s like a label that you can’t take off.

My home is in my mind. But I live in Kyiv now. I found my people here and have at least some sense of belonging.

When you’re here, you realize that you live in a city that’s not just a conglomeration of apartment buildings but also a space for a shared experience of social and economic movements. A city is a city, as long as it answers the question “what on earth are you doing here?”

For now, Kyiv responds to me. But mentally, my home is definitely in Luhansk.

I feel more like a citizen here in Kyiv than in any other city. In fact, it’s the longest I’ve consistently lived in one city. I suppose I also felt this comfortable in New Haven, where I studied. I appreciate Kyiv not just for its people but also for great opportunities. It’s an excellent place to implement your ideas and skills. For me, that’s really important. I ended up in a circle of friendly and intelligent people who are way smarter than me. We became friends, and they turned into guides to a clear vision of myself and my potential. Also, there are people from Luhansk, living in Kyiv whom I’ve known for 20 years, who grew up with me playing in the yard, and now have children of their own. And then there are those whom I admire as professionals, people who inspire me. I love listening to them.

Together we are all doing major things here — for this country and these people. We believe in something more significant.

Kyiv is sort of a mandatory point that you have to pass through on your way to somewhere else. Some people settle down here. Others move on. Compared to New York, where you’re in a continuous rush, Kyiv, big and dynamic, still allows you to stop and reflect. You hardly ever get asked where you’re from and get judged for it. We all come from somewhere, and there is no particular reason for someone to tell you that you don’t have the right to be here or have fewer rights than someone from Berdychiv, Vinnytsia, Kherson, or Luhansk”.

Zhenia Monastyrskyi, historian and social researcher


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