Story #122: Volunteer Connects with Homeowners' Stories Through House Remnants

November 13, 2023
Daria, a volunteer with the 'Brave to Rebuild' organization, uncovers people's stories by piecing together what's left of their houses.

The dirt on Daria's clothes was ashes from the house, from various parts of the interior, and from things that some family used to love and adore. It's Daria's first toloka. She's working in the charred building, and it is rainy both outside and in her mourning mind.

It was hard to see an utterly ruined house for the first time, and, of course, it struck me, being the very empathetic person that I am.

Volunteers' tasks typically involve collecting everything that remains in the houses, both undamaged items and debris, sorting it, and loading it into special vehicles. The emphasis is on saving items that could be useful in future rebuilding efforts. Occasionally, volunteers may also be involved in tasks such as breaking down walls or installing windows, among other things.

Daria's first experience as a volunteer of 'Brave to Rebuild' happened in Bucha, where Russia's war havoc was especially merciless.

There, she with other volunteers cleaned up from the ashes the house of Iryna, an elderly woman, a mother, a grandmother, and a businesswoman. Daria says the building used to be enormous. There was a shop on the first floor, and on the second, the family lived.

"When the Russians occupied Bucha, they occupied the house and lived there. When they left, they burned it to ashes."

Only the pictures on Iryna's phone are left, showing the past comfort these people had. And the tragedy of losing a house lies not in the materialistic matter but in the time and love invested to build it, and, of course, in memories.

"They'd been working on this house for years, gradually improving it. It still has a beautiful backyard with the swings, where grandchildren used to play, and the flowerbeds, all taken care of."

Daria never loses a chance to talk to the homeowners. She's always willing to sharing their grief because she understands what losing something to the war means. However, she too has her emotional limits, just as any person does.

"Once, we worked on a house, well, the rubble it had become -- there wasn't a wall left standing. An elderly homeowner sat in his wheelchair near his new modular house, holding his granddaughter. He watched on as stranges sorted through what he had spent his whole life building. This situation deeply moved me. I ran to some bushes to cry alone, then returned, picked up a shovel, and got back to work."

A photo of the homeowner with his granddaughter.

As of now, Daria has participated in over 20 tolokas and spoken with approximately 50 people whose homes have been damaged in some way. 

She once noticed that these individuals, experiencing loss and helplessness, resembled children to her. They stood awkwardly aside, and Daria sensed their need for a helping hand, as when she worked with socially vulnerable children.

"I always ask the people if there's something esle I can be useful at," she adds. And once in a while, she gets a satisfying answer.

There was a little girl called Eva, who lived with her elderly grandmother and her mentally ill mother. As a child, this girl often felt very alone. The neighbors told Daria about her unkind fate.

Daria crowdfunded about 20,000 UAH via her Instagram to provide the girl with as much fun as money could buy: dolls, slimes, glittery stuff, and so on. She planned the entire event, gathering a few friends, finding some funny skirts for them to wear, putting on princess makeup, and going to entertain Eva, if only for one day.

As difficult as it may be, staying engaged in the context is vital. It is not difficult to find a small amount of free time to help others, given the fact that the impact can be significant.

Daria says that the war in Ukraine has left its people in a situation akin to losing the head of a family, where there is no one and nothing to rely on but oneself. Although she isn't fond of her own metaphor, Daria's message is clear -- it all begins with you. Living in a country abandoned by peace just underscores this fact. So, she calls for action, the only way to build a reality, with or without peace.

  • 'Toloka' is a Ukrainian word that represents a form of collective action aimed at the swift completion of large-scale work. In this tradition, neighbors, relatives, and friends are invited to participate without payment, usually in exchange for a treat.
Yelyzaveta Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld