Ukraine is faced with a war, and, like you, millions are forced to flee the country. How is the National Youth Council of Ukraine (NYCU) dealing with the war and its consequences for young people?

Natalia Shevchuk: Yes, millions are forced to flee the country, and actually we are lucky to receive all the support from the host countries. But we should also remember the activists who are staying in Ukraine and basically were flexible enough to assist with deliveries not just of humanitarian aid but also of protective equipment and supplies for the Ukrainian soldiers. NYCU does not focus on the support provided directly to young refugees from Ukraine or young people across Ukraine. We act within our mandate and try to find solutions that will aid our member organisations and help them get this assistance directly into the hands of young people in need. At first we were focussed on ways of relocating part of our team and rearranging needed administrative processes that would permit us to continue our work at all. Many of our projects have been halted. For example, in late February we were preparing to select the Youth Capital of Ukraine 2023 and the short list for the top 10 cities included Bucha and Mariupol. It is very difficult to identify the most appropriate decision, in terms of protecting the memory of these cities and of all the people who died because of Russian genocide, while saving the competition at the same time, to keep it from disappearing from the youth sector as a tool for fostering youth participation. And a similar situation is with the global initiative for Child and Youth Friendly Communities. We must not confine our efforts to youth participation; instead, we must pursue major advocacy of a ‘Marshall plan in the youth field’ with youth organisations serving as the core inspiration for rebuilding Ukraine and the quality of human resources that will be required to advance needed reforms. We have many other consequences to deal with as well, such as war crimes that include the mass rape of children, girls and young women. A single youth exchange will not be enough, and we should keep in mind that war is already a huge trauma for current and future generations. The level of education may go down as the result of two years of COVID-19 lockdowns and now the war across Ukraine; these are not good conditions for education. The question of employment and fair salaries arises as well.

To sum it up: against this backdrop, we are working to find solutions that will make it possible to save the NYCU as an institution and actor in the youth fields, with support for youth NGOs and a return to the ‘new normal’, aka the ‘Marshall plan in the youth field’. At the same time, humanitarian aid still might be interesting for NGOs at least through the end of this year, as deliveries are going down, but there is common need for food supplies and basic hygiene kits.

War is raging in Ukraine. Young Europeans France and Young European Federalists Germany recall that the European Union is a peace project. How do you coordinate your work on behalf of young people in Ukraine with your European partners?

Clara Föller: Thanks to regular transnational formats for exchange, the interactions with our umbrella organisation, JEF Europe, and with JEF sections in other countries, are very animated, friendly and, above all, cooperative. That is why we at JEF managed to quickly develop common calls – such as those for the accession of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to the EU – as we shaped our common formats (panel discussions, a #DemocracyUnderPressure campaign, etc.) to the situation and loudly advocated for these initiatives throughout Europe. Particularly by organising the #YouthResponseUkraine meeting held in Budapest in mid-March, where youth organisations and youth groups from a variety of European countries were represented (Ukraine and Belarus included), we managed to draw one another’s attention to individual needs and to set out together in search of solutions.

Antoine Chabal: The European Union is a peace project, and it is this project that lies at the heart of our commitment. Particularly in connection with our #DemocracyUnderPressure campaign, each year we reaffirm our commitment to democracy and the rule of law – two elements that are indispensable to ensuring peace.

The war in Ukraine is a reminder to all of us that peace cannot always be taken for granted and deserves to be defended. This is precisely what the Ukrainian people – and all those who support them – are doing. Immediately, we felt an urgent need to lend our full support to the Ukrainians, and in particular to the young people and civil society in that country. Working with our thirty local chapters throughout France – but with our local, national and European partners as well – we have launched some initiatives and supported many others in addition.

While all the initiatives were good to take and to support, we also had to coordinate our efforts very quickly. First of all, through dialogue, we interacted with our European partners – particularly our counterparts in JEF Europe throughout the Continent, including Ukraine. So, working together with French and European youth associations, we have pooled our efforts wherever possible and necessary, but have also put our partners in touch with one another and coordinated our communications. For example, together with JEF Germany and JEF Europe, we supported the meeting in Budapest and the subsequent work by European youth associations, particularly in the East of the Continent. The aim of this project, which was made possible thanks to the financial support of the FGYO, is to coordinate the work that our organisations do.

This coordination was also necessary to ensure that our activities and communications would not put anything or anyone at risk.

Are international youth organisations working with the NYCU?

Natalia Shevchuk: Yes, we are working with international youth organisations and National Youth Councils of different countries. In March, thanks to FGYO, JEF France and Germany, JEF Europe and DBJR, CTR (Youth Council of Romania), we held a ‘Youth Fast Response’ meeting to address the needs of youth. There were also several follow-up meetings. The leadership of NYCU also has a lot of different requests for consultations and possible support. And we certainly need to invest more in this direction, as most of the support will come from international organisations.

What can associations and civil society do to support young people in Ukraine?

Clara Föller: They can accomplish this in very different ways, but particularly in the ways that they do best. For example, there are lots of large youth organisations that are now moving towards supplying humanitarian aid – and receiving and integrating refugees. Still other, more political youth organisations, are currently pressing political demands and engaging in advocacy campaigns. What is important is for us, as a civil society, to remain diversified, being active at these various levels, not flagging in our response to the situation of the people in Ukraine and the neighbouring countries (e.g. Moldova), and providing active forms of assistance. But it is also important, even today, to consider what we can do to contribute towards creating a sustainable peace in the medium term. And in spite of all that is coming towards us: With the expertise and skills that they have to offer, youth associations and civil society can provide valuable advice and assistance. 

Antoine Chabal: First of all, it is still essential even today to proclaim our support of the Ukrainian people, loudly and clearly, and to condemn in the strongest possible terms the unjust and unacceptable war waged by the Putin regime in Ukraine.

Then, we must hear and see the catastrophic consequences of this war in Ukraine, including for young people. Everyone, with no exceptions, is subject to the effects of this war. So it becomes a question of responding to a humanitarian crisis by donating equipment, food or money, while absolutely taking into account the needs voiced on the ground. We can also provide assistance to young people among those displaced and forced to flee as refugees, sheltering and protecting, without any discrimination, those who have been forced to move.

Overall, we need to hear the needs of young people in Ukraine and mobilise our efforts to respond to these needs.

Specifically, you can also sign petitions, take part in marches, encourage your loved ones to get involved, and support organisations as well journalists who are doing indispensable work on the scene. We can also make donations and encourage other organisations, communities, elected officials and/or businesses to get involved and to support the Ukrainian people, etc.

Moreover, and above and beyond the response to the emergency at hand, civil society can also dedicate itself, as we do, to defending the European values now under attack by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. With this in mind, we call for Ukraine, as well as Moldova and Georgia, to be granted EU candidate status. These countries have shown their commitment to Europe and are now paying the price. The European Union is the source of hopes and dreams for many young people. These aspirations must not be disappointed!

How can international youth work improve to help Ukrainians?

Natalia Shevchuk: I think that this is possible through better communication and coordination within different networks and with international partners. First of all, we should recall that even before the war in Ukraine, youth work was not recognised within youth organisations. Within the Law on Youth, a youth workers is recognised as a person who carries out youth work, has undergone specialised training in accordance with the procedures established by the central executive body that ensures the formation and implementation of youth policy, and has received a standard certificate. The Ministry of Youth and Sports runs a ‘Youth worker’ programme; no other youth programmes are recognised by the executive body in the field of youth policy. This means that youth organisations cannot receive funding towards implementing their programmes. Therefore, more partnerships between youth organisations in Ukraine and abroad are needed. At the same time, international partners should understand that the situation is quite challenging, and that we need to be very careful as we shape our ideas for future joint projects. The focus should be on what we can do to assist youth activists – so they can continue developing themselves in the field of youth NGOs without changing the sphere of work – as well as how to support capacity-building on the part of youth NGOs. Youth NGOs should have access to more flexible funding, both for administrative salaries and office rent. It is a pressing problem when donors come to the government and ask what they should finance, and it ultimately ends in high budgets and no real impact. In my personal opinion, there also should be support for Ukraine to conduct appropriate reforms and operate an Erasmus agency in Ukraine. This would be a real step towards genuine European integration in the field of youth work.

What specific activities are you planning?

Clara Föller: Given the rapidly evolving situation, many factors are still in a state of flux. So any plans made must be just as flexible in adapting to these changing conditions. Particularly during the first few weeks, we made an attempt to develop a common and non-partisan response to Russia’s attack (through joint demonstrations, statements, etc.); now, however, we are focussed more on the future, and particularly on the question of how the EU can respond to crises such as the war in Ukraine. It is quite clear to us that we now need substantial institutional reforms so that we, as Europe, can act in future, particularly where the effort to maintain peace and democracy is concerned. At the same time, we are helping further elaborate and expand upon the structure established at the meeting in Budapest, alongside our effort to help implement of the activities planned there. During the weeks and months to come, this is what we can do to help sustainably strengthen the voice of young people on behalf of peace, freedom and democracy. 

Antoine Chabal: We intend to continue in our unwavering commitment to European democracy and peace. As we have been doing for many years, we will continue to raise young people’s awareness of European issues with our programme, Europe par les Jeunes, and to provide outreach through our media outlet, Le Taurillon. With war at our doorstep, education towards peace and democracy, but also high-quality information, are all indispensable components of our effort and at the heart of our commitment to the things we do.

Together with our local, national and European partners, we are also remaining vigilant and ready to mobilise even more if and when the need should arise.

Finally, from 5 to 8 May 2022, we are organising the Strasbourg Summit together with our partners. This summit will provide the occasion for a great era of citizen mobilisation in support of the European project, during which we will reaffirm our solidarity with the Ukrainian people.