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The Ukraine crisis and the key role of youth

Lala, 20, student and PAH volunteer who left her country Belarus because of government human rights violations, and now supports Ukrainian refugees at Hebrenne.

At the beginning of 2022, there were approximately 10.2 million young people, aged between 14-35, in Ukraine. Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine, which began on 24 February, has forced over 4 million young people to flee their homes according to the Ministry of Youth in Ukraine. At the same time, young people are often at the forefront of the humanitarian response to natural disasters, political upheaval and armed conflicts. The war in Ukraine is yet another horrific example of an event that has caused a devastating impact on people’s lives, yet motivated young people to help others. On 12 August, we celebrate International Youth Day to highlight what young people are capable of when a crisis hits.

We believe the humanitarian response to this crisis should take into account not only youth needs but also their role and leadership throughout the response and peace-building process.

In the context in which young people represent the future and change, paying greater attention to this sector of the population can give us a generation of innovative adults who are civically engaged and exemplary citizens. The youth sector is also the most involved in the process of aiding refugees, being the main human resource that fulfills the functions on the ground. Without the assistance of the youth sector, it would have been more difficult to have such a big mobilisation. In this situation, it is very important that young people feel the sympathy and consideration of everyone; in order for them to continue to take part in projects, they need to be motivated and encouraged.

FTB - Federation of Young Bessarabians 

(ActionAid´s partner in Romania)

When this refugee crisis began in February, we recognised that we urgently needed to address the difficulties of Ukraine's young people and assist them, to establish safe places where young people could ask questions and get support without fear of being rejected or not receiving an answer.

We have partnered with a number of Romanian youth organisations, including the National Foundation for Youth, National Youth Council, FJT Suceava, FTB and DEIS, to support young people’s specific needs. Many of these organisations have, for example, specialists available who can provide daily emotional support and psychosocial counselling to help young people fleeing Ukraine who have experienced trauma.

Our partners also lead group activities like therapy through art, music, or dance that are available to all young people regardless of their home country. At a time when so many teenagers and young adults are suffering from depression and anxiety, it’s crucial to have spaces dedicated exclusively to young people for socialising, like the one we support in Suceava. It’s a safe space for young people to develop and take part in informal activities and educational events, and to provide other ways of positively and constructively using free time; a place which feels like a safe haven and where young people can be themselves without fear of being judged or criticised.

“We are contributing to building the trust of young Ukrainians in the local community and vice versa through stimulating the participation of young people in the life of the local community. However, we are struggling with language barriers and a lack of meaningful participation by young people.”

Nadia and Lisa, FITT – Timis County Youth Foundation

(ActionAid´s partner in Romania)

Local youth support

Youth in Romania welcomed Ukrainian refugees, without resenting or criticising them. We realised that their tragedy was our common trauma, and that as a neighbouring country, we could help Ukrainians feel safe again. Romanian youth started collecting money, assisted at borders, missed nights of sleep, and even shifted all of their life priorities to the second plan solely to offer support”.

FTB - Federation of Young Bessarabians

(ActionAid´s partner in Romania)

Nina, 25 [names changed to protect individuals] fled Ukraine when the bombing began. After arriving in Iași, Romania, she now volunteers to help other refugees fleeing the war.
Nina, 25 fled Ukraine when the bombing began. After arriving in Iași, Romania, she now volunteers to help other refugees fleeing the war.
Alexandra Radu Stanescu/ActionAid

“In the first days of the current war, some people from Suceava were afraid that those arriving from Ukraine would add their problems to our problems and we would become worse as a community. But at the same time, many young people jumped to offer immediate help where it was needed, which we also did from the first day without hesitation”.

FJT Suceava

(ActionAid´s partner in Romania)

However, after almost six months since the invasion in February, the risk of rejection exists for young people. Misinformation, fake news and posts on social media could cause a breakdown in relations between refugees and local communities. ActionAid´s partners refer to the different levels of education as a root cause that could increase an anti-refugee environment in hosting communities. Some members of FTB say, “Unfortunately, in Romania there are still a lot of young people with low levels of education; young people from less developed regions, counties, cities, communes and villages who are influenced by the opinion of the locals, don’t have the abilities to filter information on the internet and can be easily manipulated by the general public perception.

Because of this, some organisations have launched an anti-discrimination campaign on social media, emphasising the similarities between Ukrainians and Romanians on a human level, with the aim of presenting the Ukrainian community as “people like us”, with hopes, dreams and fears.

See our partner DEIS' campaign here.

Humanitarian action for and with young people

Despite the potential of young people, they are too often not being taken into account in vital decisions that affect their lives.  So it’s crucial they have a voice and a seat in the decision-making spaces.

Empowering youth to identify their abilities and gain the confidence needed to put them to good use generates the maximum chances to reach their full potential, and through this it motivates youth to offer the same to others in need. Young people, through their activities, can bring and maintain peace and improve the environment they choose to live in”.

FJT Suceava

(ActionAid´s partner in Romania)

In order to ensure young people do not fall between the cracks, on the 14th and 16th of June 2022 members of the Compact for Young People in Humanitarian Action (UNICEF, UNFPA, UNHCR,  ActionAid, Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Scouts, Global Refugee Youth Network, and the Youth Compact Champions) organised online training on Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Youth Guidelines for young leaders from Ukraine, Romania, Poland and Moldova. In addition to unpacking the guidelines, the training provided an overview of the humanitarian coordination mechanisms and identified entry points for young people to participate and take leadership in humanitarian action. This session also served as a much-needed platform for young people to share their lived experiences of supporting displaced and vulnerable families, peers and communities in Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, Romania, and other affected areas. Young people shared challenges, solutions and lessons learned from their experience within this humanitarian crisis.

"There was a period of time, from the 1st to the 26th of March, when all the youth councils from the Mariupol area were completely out of touch. At that time the city and its surroundings experienced heavy fighting and appeared on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe. I have to say that was the worst time of my life. It’s only after the first successful possibility of evacuation from Mariupol and the first messages saying ‘mobile connection is restored’ and ‘I am alive’, that I received from my friends and colleagues, that I felt like I could breathe again."

Olga Dzerzhinska, working for Youth Council in the East

(Partner for UNFPA)

“Young people want peace, not war. Happiness, not sadness. That’s why we are willing to do what’s necessary to build on the long-term boost for the community we want to live in together with others like us: people who care about our needs, understand them and support us”.

FJT Suceava

(ActionAid´s partner in Romania)