They came from orphanages, foster families and deprived backgrounds. Twenty eight teenagers from four different countries gathered in the coastal village of Koblevo, Ukraine, for a ten-day workshop organised by a project funded under the EU’s Eastern Partnership Youth Window. The workshop was aimed at helping them overcome their uneasiness, teaching them the social skills they need to live and work together, with a strong focus on respect and dialogue, especially between generations. At the end, they staged a play about family relations that they had written and prepared themselves, a fairy tale about a group of old dwarves, victims of a spell that made them unable to open their hearts to younger dwarves.
A group of tanned youths are playing volleyball on the beach of Koblevo, a village in the Mykolaiv region of Ukraine. They are laughing and joking, with nothing to suggest that they are any different from the other teenagers playing nearby.
“All these young people have some issues. They’ve lived through traumatic experiences in their original families and it’s not easy for them to build trust,” says Klaus Waiditschka, the project coordinator from the German organisation ‘Jugendhilfe und Sozialarbeit’, as he looks on at the teens enjoying their beach volleyball game.
In total 28 youngsters aged between 13 and 16 have gathered in Koblevo to attend the ‘Fairy Tales through Life-Time’ Youth Exchange programme. The participants come from Azerbaijan, Germany, Poland and Ukraine, with each participating country having sent seven youngsters, accompanied by three group leaders. They originally come from orphanages and deprived or incomplete families and for many of them, this is their first trip abroad.
This exchange is funded through the Eastern Partnership Youth Window, a new framework within the EU’s Youth in Action Programme to encourage a stronger involvement of the Eastern Partnership region. The Window aims to allow more young people and organisations from EU and Eastern Partnership countries to establish new contacts and to exchange and learn from each other, something which is evident in this case.
“Ukrainian youth organisations have many ideas and initiatives but, previously, they did not have opportunities to put them into action. On the contrary, organisations of this kind in EU countries got such opportunities long ago, however, they reached the point when they might need fresh ideas. The Youth Window helps eliminate such gaps: we, in the countries of the Eastern Partnership, receive funding and support from the EU and in exchange we offer new ideas for projects,” explains project manager Yuliya Ielfimova, who works at the Centre for European Initiatives in Sumy, Ukraine.
A chance to express themselves freely
Youth workers point out that there is a sharp difference between the behaviour of the teenagers at the very beginning of the exchange and after ten days of common activities. Upon arrival, many of them were reserved and uninterested. Gradually the young participants have become more attentive, curious and able to focus on given tasks.
“At school it is difficult to show what you can do, or what you think. Here we can express ourselves freely,” says Iryna Konivets, a 16-year-old from Ukraine.
“For us, the most important thing is that children with different cultural backgrounds can come together and fulfill common tasks”, says Yuliya Ielfimova.
Non-formal learning is essential to help children overcome their problems.
“I always tell these kids: if you are better, your country will do better. You are the future of your countries”, says Sofiane Distante, a youth worker from France working on this project as a volunteer.
The instructions hanging from the front door of their temporary residence for these 10 days offer a stark indication of how much these young people have to learn in terms of basic social skills.
“Do not laugh at other people”, says one note while another advises: “Knock on the door before entering someone else’s room”.
Beyond the social skills needed to live outside the comfort zones provided by their orphanages and schools, the teenagers also say that here they have realised the importance of English for international communication.
Dwarves, a crazy frog and a real-life lesson
The ten days fly by. The highlight of their stay in Koblevo is a theatrical performance to mark the end of the workshop. Participants are divided into three groups: one is dealing with theatre decorations and costumes, the second group is rehearsing on stage while the third is preparing a break-dance routine. The dance will have to touch the heartstrings of a group of old dwarves and melt the ice in which they are encrusted, so that they can bring back their love for the younger dwarves. If any doubt persists about the creativity and imagination involved in preparing this fairy tale, this scenario only came about after the crazy frog intentionally froze the old dwarves, to deprive the young ones of their support.
The young participants wrote the story themselves. One of the central aims of the project is to promote cooperation between generations and inclusion for these deprived youths by analysing national fairy-tales and comparing them to real life situations in their countries. Their task was to make up a fairy tale dealing with intergenerational relations, which many of the participants did not have the chance to observe in their own families.
“If a child is abandoned, it means that he sees no family as such, and he grows up without the opportunity to experience true family relations, to share the love of a father, or a grandfather. So when such children become adults, they have a really hard time in creating their own family,” says Aynur Salmanova, a youth worker from Azerbaijan, the director of the resource centre “Towards the Unity”.
In the fairy tale, old dwarves open their hearts to young dwarves in order to help them again. The idea is simple: the young ones need the support of the older ones to survive in this world.
A cup full of friends’ names
Through their work on a fairy tale, children learn to face their feelings, to express their inner emotions, maybe even to heal their wounds. However, they also make new friends.
“Now I have many, many Ukrainian friends. Maybe, twenty or even thirty,” says Kacper Gуrka, a 15-year-old Polish participant. The first time the boy met young Ukrainians was in Poland, where he took part in another youth exchange.
Nancy Bachmann, a 15-year-old German girl, is beaming with pride as she shows off her cup, covered with names and wishes from the people she has met in Koblevo.
“Look, see how many friends have signed my cup,” she boasts.
Author: Zhanna Bezpiatchuk