Marat Abdullaiev is a 35-year-old lawyer and volunteer in Odesa. Like many young professionals in Ukraine, he has been using his education and skills as best he can to help a population traumatized by war. Abdullaiev has founded of NEXT Youth Charity Fund, aimed at taking care of needy families’ preschool children.
How did you start your humanitarian activity?
In 2018, we were a group of people, mostly lawyers and attorneys, and we began to self-organize some small projects, such as providing free legal assistance. During my student years, I helped in our academic legal clinic, where we provided consultations to those who couldn’t afford to pay for lawyers. We also assisted some families facing difficult circumstances. People mostly learned about us through word of mouth, as others consistently recommended us. That’s how it all started.
Later, my colleague, who lives in Tairova [a district of Odesa], started hosting families in his own house: pensioners, elderly people. At that time, there was no system – we simply pooled money, bought necessary groceries and medicines, and delivered them to their homes. We used also to buy gifts for the children in the same house for the New Year.
In 2020, I received official certification as a lawyer and began practicing law. Immediately, I registered the Youth Charitable Foundation “NEXT.” Initially, our main focus was on supporting children with special needs and their families. Our first significant project was an art therapy room at the regional mental health center, implemented with the direct support of the British foundation The BEARR Trust (a UK-based organization set up to help children and other disadvantaged groups).
At that time, families of children and adolescents with eating disorders, including anorexia, reached out to us, not only from Odesa but also from the region. This project was crucial because there were very few specialists working with this problem. Often, these teenagers were given incorrect diagnoses, although the problem was in psychiatry. We conducted private consultations and group sessions. During the project, we developed a self-help diary, and the children independently filled it out over a certain period. Thanks to these “diaries,” we could track the dynamics: improvement or unchanged condition. This was our first project.
How did your work change after the outbreak of the war?
After the Russian invasion began, thanks to the support of The BEARR Trust, we were able to purchase food and hygiene products for those in need. We made targeted deliveries to various areas of the city. Mass displacement of people had not yet occurred, but there were many elderly individuals whose families and relatives were abroad or had hastily left the city. They reached out to us directly or through social networks with a plea for help. In late April to early May 2022, people were fleeing their cities and villages, arriving with nothing. We tried to address the most urgent needs: food and hygiene items. In that period, we collaborated with World Central Kitchen and distributed 300-400 food sets per day.
Sometime later, we started getting psychologists involved because a vast number of people, especially those who had fled the horrors of the occupation and undergone a hard journey, were in a terrible state. This had a profound impact on the mental well-being of all families, especially children. That’s why we urgently set up an office to distribute humanitarian aid and began conducting psychological group sessions, individual consultations. It was during this time that we began to notice the deep stress affecting the children. Imagine a child coming to the center, just sitting against the wall, remaining silent, who avoids interaction and doesn’t want to do anything. And his parents can’t help much because they are in a similar state.
But gradually, the situation started to improve. Some support programs from local authorities and allowances for displaced families, finally appeared. Towards the end of 2022, we established databases and found out that we helped more than 12,000 families in 2022.
What about the conditions of the displaced families to Odesa?
Initially, many families planned to stay in the city for about two to three months and then return to their hometowns once things settled there. However, as of today, around 80 percent have chosen not to leave and are now settling in Odesa.
Despite the ongoing war, we must not forget that life goes on. Particularly, we should reflect on the impact on children and youth. Before the war, we dealt with Covid-19, and then immediately faced a full-scale invasion – all of which played a negative role in the entire educational process and developmental processes.
Now, we see children who were abruptly taken out of their familiar world and social environment. Families of displaced individuals are facing several problems: there is a shortage of daycare centers for children in Odesa, so not everyone can leave their child somewhere during the day to go to work. Additionally, not everyone can afford a babysitter. Due to the lack of interaction with peers, there is a significant setback in the social development of the child. Children do not receive proper education and, consequently, cannot prepare for a new school, college, etc. Odesa has many good private schools, but even locals can’t always afford education in such schools, not to mention the displaced people.
So, we made the decision to start developing the educational direction in our foundation and we founded the Ukrainian Future Hub, with focus on preschoolers and elementary school students. These are primarily supplementary activities, that do not replace the school program, but complement it. Moreover, our center addresses not only the issue of informal education, but also provides parents with the opportunity to leave their children in the morning and attend to their affairs, go to work, or interviews. Parents can rest assured that their children are under the supervision of teachers.
How does the relation with children in the center work?
We regularly assess the needs of the families we work with. According to our surveys on what people presently require, the primary need in most cases has been the challenge of “having no one to leave the child with.” New families constantly approach us, wanting their children to attend our center. They learn about us through social networks or simply by passing our door and seeing what is happening inside. Currently, we work with 30 children in the center. Some kids come regularly, while others are brought in a few times a week. We would gladly accept more children, but the space currently limits us.
Often, on the first day, a child comes and mostly remains silent, hardly interacting with anyone, because they’re used to seeing only their parents or, for example, standing in line for humanitarian aid. And literally, after a couple of days, it becomes clear that the child has “thawed.” We see how they change. After a few days in the center, the child already has several friends, and the learning process becomes much more enjoyable. Once a week, our two psychologists administer tests using pictures, colors, etc., to assess behavioral dynamics. Individual consultations are sometimes crucial.
Unfortunately, we have experience of suicidal tendencies. In such cases, we refer individuals to specialists, including psychiatrists.
Currently, we are focused on preschoolers. However, there are families with children aged 13 to 15 who have entirely different interests. They would like to attend courses in photography, social media management, sports, etc. So, we are currently negotiating with various sports clubs in Odesa that teach judo, taekwondo, karate, etc., asking them to allocate a few free spots for displaced children. Since there are many clubs in the city, we can address the issue of logistics effectively.
What are the biggest problems in organizing the education center.
Before the Covid-19 epidemic, there were many low-income families that couldn’t afford decent preschool preparation or additional education for their children. There were almost no free sections, and state support was at a very basic level in this regard, with improper communication leading to many families being unaware of available opportunities. Often, children stayed at home or played outside.
Now, considering that we are all adapting to the current realities, city authorities have begun to equip bomb shelters under schools, which can ensure an uninterrupted learning process. While this is still not enough, we see positive changes. This doesn’t solve the problem that many families will remain here after the war, and they will still struggle to provide their children with good education.
The next problem is space. When it comes to communal property spaces, almost all of them require significant renovations, which involve substantial sums of money. We have discussed this preliminarily with several international funds, but the response is almost always the same: international funds will not invest money in building renovations. We considered renting a commercial space that suits our needs in terms of area and did the calculations. In the long term, it is advantageous, but not everyone is ready for this today.
What will it happen without education centers for children like yours?
Imagine a family of IDPs (internally displaced persons) with one or more children. They have arrived in a new city, where the child has neither friends nor peers. Meanwhile, the parents lack the means to enroll the child in a good school, educational centers, sports clubs, etc. In such cases, the child may end up on the streets, increasing the risk of involvement in criminal groups or illegal schemes. If this is overlooked, the child’s life will ultimately be shattered. Several similar cases have already been prevented, effectively saving the lives of several young people.
NEXT Youth Charity Fund
FB page: https://www.facebook.com/ycfnext/
Pastera, 17, Odesa, Ukraine
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