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Road of Hope

Where is home, when there is the danger?   

A conversation with the Ukrainian artist Alina Bielun

Alina Bielun, at Ru Paré.

Instead of being torn between two realities, Alina decided to build a bridge. The Ukrainian artist was on a short trip to Germany when suddenly she was awakened to a call that she’s not flying home: Kyiv is being bombed. She has been living in Amsterdam since, coping with the turbulent times in her city and home country while adjusting to a completely new place. These two colliding realities, of a war-ravaged home and a peaceful society, have been apparent in many Ukranians’ minds, and it was chosen as the theme of an exhibition commemorating the anniversary of the war. *I talked to Alina, the curator and exhibiting artist about the duality between conflict and tranquillity, the miracles she experiences during this journey, and the meaning of home in this scenario. 

For everyone, who finds themselves lost in the everyday greyness and whose minds are spinning around the constant flow of the suffering and horror the war has brought, Alina’s voice is a reminder.  It is a reminder of the resilience and creativity that exists even, or especially when things are hard. 

“Something terrible happened, something important for the whole world, but we are the same as you.”
by Alina Bielun, 2022 – “My life is full of miracles”

As an artist, it was Alina’s first time simultaneously curating an exhibition. Together with the yi.collective and the Ukrainians in the Netherlands foundation, the exhibition was displayed in the NDSM from the 23rd of February until the 28th. Both organizations strive to bring people together, and that was exactly Alina’s aim too: not to shock people with sensitive content, but to start establishing a common narrative of understanding each other. Instead of building on the suffering and terror, she wanted to let people see behind the status of refugees. In this way, visitors were free to discover the reality of Ukranians, in seeing them as more than just people from a country with war. Showcasing similarities, rather than differences, Alina’s goal was to help alleviate the stigmatization of refugees.
Titled “Still 24”, the exhibition was made for a specific date, the 24th of February, when the full-scale invasion began in Ukraine. While the date has immense importance for Ukrainians, another symbolic meaning is also tied to it. As she says, there are still only 24 hours in a day, but not like before. Something changed, and time is felt differently as the uncertainty persists about how long they will be unable to go back.  

“It’s totally ruined, totally black and burnt. But they’re like it’s okay, we will repair it. It is their home, how could they go?”

War, and what it entails for a nation is sometimes hard to grasp for those not experiencing it first-hand. For various reasons, not everyone can choose to leave. Those who are there, in places featured on the news every day, are focused on the future. It might be broken right now, but it is their home, and they “will repair it”. 

“When you change your perspective, something really routine and simple can look like a miracle.”
by Alina Bielun, 2022 – “My life is full of miracles”

To Alina, miracles are feelings she has never felt before. For example, sleeping right next to a beautiful garden, still in the dark, woken up to the news of the war starting. The outside world is at a standstill and left intact, while something crashes inside her. From that moment on, her life would never be the same. 

Seeing as her family receives warnings of bombings and is urged to go to shelters while being at a dinner table with new friends, who are laughing and playing music, she is in two places at the same time. These two colliding realities of war at home and the uninterrupted scenery she is in, contradict normality and create what she calls “miracles”. These events can never be predicted, you are not expecting them and not waiting for them, it just happens, and your life now has a duality. She gave the title “My life is full of miracles” to her three pieces exhibited in the NDSM, all made since she arrived in Amsterdam, all in connection to her feelings about the war. 

“They said, see it as a bridge. You are the bridge. This notion helped me to create a home, where this connection itself between realities is home.”

She says home is something that needs to be created, and for her this also means not losing the connection to her hometown, country and people. While it is completely uncharted territory, as she did not choose to flee herself, and was simply unable to go back, she is exploring how to make herself and others feel at home. 

Living in these times, which are extremely turbulent for her nation and herself, is not easy. There is no deadline to the war, she is here in Amsterdam but does not know how long for.

“It feels like a simulation of home, as it builds a foundation, without which everything will fall apart. if you don’t have your safety zone, it won’t work.”
by Alina Bielun, 2022

Alina first met Patricia, the founder of Road of Hope, when she arrived in Amsterdam. As the first point of contact, Patricia advised her on what to do, where to go, and who to talk to, when the artist found herself in the situation of suddenly becoming a refugee. After helping with some translations and posters, Alina became the coordinator for the project “Together”, specifically created for Ukrainians in Amsterdam. She is really thankful to the organization for choosing her because she felt such a great need to do something. In the initial phase of the breakout of the war, she could not let herself laugh, and this project helped her to feel like she is doing what she can. She can be with Ukraine, and feel like it is a part of her, even while she is here.

One of the main objectives of the project, besides having English classes, is communal dinners. “Together (project) is like a family”, she says. People coming from all walks of life, some are elderly and some are children, speaking the same language and the same narrative makes it feels like an extended household. It is really important that people can spend time with each other, in a circle where everyone understands the experiences they are going through. During these dinners, the preparation of national dishes, with their smells and tastes adds to the feeling of belonging. 

“I try to see happiness and feel it in some little moments: the same moments  that I would probably have in Ukraine too.”

While Alina is challenged by the hardship of the situation and trying to figure out how to not lose the connection to Kyiv and everyone back there, she says she has a lot of happiness in her life. She loves that the sea is so close, she can just get on the train, and take a walk on the beach. Helping other people, especially fellow Ukranians with emotional support also makes her happy in turn. New experiences and meeting people have always been the biggest source of contentment for her, and she is looking at her life in Amsterdam this way. 

“It’s my country, it’s my heart.”

“Home is always going to be Kyiv”, she says. Societies change at a big cost, but as the artist says, at last Ukraine is visible. The conflict has been going on for many years, creating internal refugees within the country, but now the whole world sees them, and their plea for freedom. Alina’s dreams are still in Kyiv, and she will go back to them as soon as she can. 
In the meantime, she has been finding bits and pieces of home: in creating art and trying herself out as a curator, the Ukrainian community, cooking national dishes, and most importantly, by living with what has been thrown at her. And by living, I don’t mean simply existing. Alina has been finding her happiness in the small moments, and in not giving up her dreams and who she is.

While far from home, how can we be Together?

Here we reach a critical point. One of the most important aspects of finding her purpose, as she mentioned, has been coordinating the ‘Together’ project. Last year, the group had the chance to meet every week for dinners, emotional support and English classes, both at the Ru Paré community and in Riekerhof in Amsterdam. Since December, the project has been at a halt due to a lack of funds.

These weekly events have crucial importance for the whole community of forcibly displaced Ukrainians, because they serve as a safe place, and remind them of home. They need each other right now, and they need us to try and help to make that happen.

Amsterdam and its residents in many places welcomed fleeing Ukranians with open arms. The openness of the city and its people’s efforts to make them feel, even if just a little bit, at home, is critical for refugees. As the war rages on, Ukrainians in Amsterdam need, more than ever, this small sense of normalcy in their lives.

If you can, please help support the project that provides not only home-y food and language skills but a great sense of community and belonging. 

If you are here, at the end of this article, I would still like to thank you. Meeting Alina and talking to her gave me a different perspective, and I hope that by reading this, you will have the same feeling too.

If you can, do not hesitate to make a donation to this project. For more detailed information about the project, please contact us by e-mail or call 0685296828 (Patrcia Barendregt). We are more than happy to report all the information you need. 

No amount is too small: everything makes a difference. 

* This article was written by Eszter Galantai. She is a volunteer at the Communications Department at Road of Hope, and is currently studying law at Utrecht University. She is passionate about advocating for refugees and human rights.