Participants: Iryna Yetskalo (I.Y.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022
N.M.: Could you please tell me your name, then start telling me about your life, focusing on the most important events, the most relevant people… If you could also give me a bit of context, that would be nice. I’m talking context related to your family, who you are based on your genealogy.
I.Y.: My name is Iryna Yetskalo. It’s like your Irina, but we pronounce it Iryna in Ukrainian. In terms of origins, I am almost completely Ukrainians, but as far as I know, my great-grandfather was a Belorussian soldier.
I was interested in researching my family tree and in understanding who was my mother was, who my father was, what kind of blood I have, why I am who I am.
I am 31 years old. I am in Timișoara because of the war in Ukraine. I came here alone, without my family. Right now, my family is scattered: some of it is in Ukraine, some in Europe. My mother and my sister are in Ukraine. They didn’t want to go abroad because they felt they were needed there. They are very devoted Ukrainians, and they want to defend the country they live is the best they can. They are donating, they are cooking, they are keeping the economy alive. My father is currently in Europe, he is a truck driver. He usually drives across Europe. On the 24th of February he was still in Europe, and he was getting ready to come to Ukraine, but luckily he didn’t. And his company offered him temporary protection, so he stayed in Europe. Right now, he is 54, and I was afraid that if he came to Ukraine, he would be taken into the army.
N.M.: Up to what age are men taken into the army?
I.Y.: I am not sure, but I think 60. Anyway, he is not a soldier. He has some health problems, as he doesn’t look after his health properly. He is a truck driver. (smiles)
My mother is a shop assistant. She has been a shop assistant all her life. So I have a family of workers. And all my relatives, all my grandmothers and grandfathers, they were all workers. They worked in various farms and factories. They knew that if they worked, they would have a fair salary. At first, I couldn’t understand how come I had this entrepreneurial mindset. I didn’t want to rely on my boss to give me the best in life, I want to take it myself. I don’t mean to take it by force, I want to build something, I want to create opportunities, I want to give opportunities to other people, and as a reward for this, I want to have everything I want in life. That’s why I am ready to use all my resources to create more and more jobs, to make something innovative, something unusual. And I still don’t know who else in my family had this mindset. But I have this energy and I’ve always had it.
I was born in very small town called Nizhyn. It’s located between Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and the main city of our region, Chernihiv. When the war started, these two cities, Kyiv and Chernihiv, were bombed by the Russian army. I was in Kyiv, and I was very afraid for my mother and my sister who were in Nizhyn. I asked them how they planned to deal with the situation, and we decided that all of us would do what we considered fit. If one of us needed help, we would ask for it. But we wouldn’t force each other to all do the same thing, move abroad or stay put. I chose to stay in Kyiv for a week, then I was in Moldova for another week, then I came to Timișoara. So, two weeks after the war started, I came here, and I started doing things here. During those two weeks my mother and sister were in Nizhyn and I was so afraid for them! But they didn’t want to take this step, to go abroad, to Poland. They still have this opportunity, but they don’t use it. I don’t know how to explain this. It’s probably not a rational decision, it’s an emotional one.
N.M.: Let’s wrap this part up.
I.Y.: I spent my childhood in Nizhyn, I attended a regular school. Then I started studying journalism in Kyiv. I moved to Kyiv when I was 17 years old.
N.M.: Had you graduated school by then?
I.Y.: Yes, I graduated 11 classes. I was 16 at the time. On the 1st of September I went to Kyiv with my backpack and my suitcase and I started studying journalism. Also, I had chosen a format in which I wasn’t going to university every day, but studying by myself and only going to university twice a year to take my exams. I chose that because it was cheaper.
Those 5 years after I moved to Kyiv were very hard for me. I realize that now. When I graduated highschool, I didn’t know life at all. I moved from my parents’ house to a totally different environment. I had to learn everything from scratch: how to interact with technologies, how to organize my life, how to interact with laws and the government, what I should and shouldn’t do. I didn’t know any of that.
N.M.: Did you work during this period?
I.Y.: Yes. But it was like, one month I was working, then I got fired, then I was looking for a new job, so it wasn’t anything stable. I tried different jobs: theatre attendant, secretary, animator. I don’t remember all the jobs I did, to be honest. Also, I realized that was not me. I realized what I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. At one point I went to a bar and asked if they need a waitress. They said they were looking for a server. I had a short interview and I started working there. That was the first job in which I started feeling more like myself. I worked there for two months, then I quit. After that I went on to become a bartender. That seemed like a dream job. I wanted to be like those guys behind the bar, they looked so beautiful, and I wanted to be like them. I decided to try. I checked out a couple of bars and one of them agreed to take me on without experience. They needed someone who was good with English, so I suited them. That’s how I started working as a bartender. It was a great period.
N.M.: Was it cool?
I.Y.: Yes. I had a job, I had money, I was networking, I was popular, so I enjoyed it. I went to different parties, I was interacting with people, it felt like a dream. I started working when I was 17 and I worked in that field for exactly 5 years.
N.M.: What year was that?
I.Y.: Let’s see. I graduated highschool in 2008. I started working in a bar in 2009 and I left in 2014. I started the first job and left the last job on the same day. Full circle. (laughs) I worked in various bars and restaurants. Then I worked at Kazantip, it’s a festival. It was very famous in Ukraine. It used to take place in Crimea. It no longer exists.
N.M.: What sort of festival is it?
I.Y.: It’s a festival of music culture. It lasts for 2 weeks, and by the time I started work there, it had been running for 20 years. It was really old and really cool. Everyone wanted to go there. I worked there for 2 summer seasons. Another exotic place I worked in was Nigeria, Africa. Everyone is surprised when they hear this. (smiles)
N.M.: How did you get there?
I.Y.: It was an invitation from one of the managers who worked with different bars and clubs, she was hiring dancers and DJs. One of her clients made a request for a female bartender. So she asked her clients if they knew any female bartenders who would want the job. One of the dancers wrote to me about the offer, I said ok, if I can arrange to be free for 2 months, I would come. That’s how I ended up going to Nigeria. This was in 2012 as I remember.
N.M.: You were 21?
I.Y.: Yes. I was very, very young!
N.M.: So you went from Kyiv to Nigeria?
I.Y.: Yes, but I wasn’t alone. I was with another girl who was a singer. So it wasn’t that frightening. But it was something I needed. I needed the experience to push myself forward, to test my limits, to see what I could handle. Now I know what is good or bad for me. But at the time, I didn’t know. I was all over the place and trying out everything. It was a good experience.
N.M.: So you were there for 2 months?
I.Y.: Yes, exactly. December 2012 and January 2013.
N.M.: In what city?
N.M.: So you returned from your trip to Nigeria in 2013?
I.Y.: Yes, and I was still working in various bars. This was normal for me. That same year, in summer, I went to Kazantip. It was my second time. The first time was in 2012. Then I went back to Kyiv, and I decided that bartending job was going to be my last one. I decided to change careers. To be honest, it’s a job that’s hard to leave: you have a lot of money, quick money (from tips), there is a lot of fun, but it’s hard on the health. You are eating unhealthy food (I still have problems with my stomach), I was working 12 hours shifts.
After that I worked as a beauty consultant for 3 months, then I got bored with it, and I didn’t want to continue. So I kept looking. And then I met a person who was working in the field of HR. One of my colleagues introduced me to him, we started talking, and I offered to help him with the organization of one of his events, as a volunteer.
On our second meeting I went to his office with my computer and my notebook, but he was always on the phone and looked very busy. So I spent the whole day with him — going to meetings, I helped him print something. At the end of the day I asked him, does he understands that he needs an assistant? I offered to be his assistant. We worked together for 9 beautiful months. I was finally happy, as I understood how things worked and I knew what I had to do. During this time, we did the rebranding of this company, we understood the kind of structure the company needed, we started hiring people, we developed programs for volunteers. And I was managing all those processes. I made his life so much easier. He was very impressed with it. After 9 months, when I decided to quit, he offered to make me partner. It was a really big deal for me, but still, I realized it was not my thing and I needed to look for something else. I said no to him, and this was really important for me, to know when to say no.
I tried many jobs, but still, I wasn’t happy.
At one point I met a girl, an astrologist, she read my map and told me: “You will be successful in school projects.” For a long time, I forgot about that, then I remembered. And after the last crisis I realized I should pay attention. It was the summer of 2018 when I decided I should get into education. Private schools seemed the easiest way. And then I ran into one of my friends and he said to me: “I know a school that will surely hire you. You have to take some lessons and you can be a teaching assistant. I will do introduce you.” I said ok, I went, and I realized I was in the right place.
In this new school there was chaos. So I started helping everyone with their responsibilities, and started building a structure. It was a new school, as I said, and there were a lot of teachers and only one administrator. I had been a bartender, I had been a project manager, I had a lot of experience working in a chaotic atmosphere so I wasn’t afraid. And after two months of working in that school, all the teachers and all the parents were coming to me if they needed information, and I was giving them solutions to their problems. Some of them even asked me if I was the headmistress of the school. (smiles) I told them: “No, I’m not even a teacher.” (smiles)
Then in 2020 I started my own business. I helped parents to find appropriate school for their children.
N.M.: And this was just the beginning. I would like you to tell me about the 24th of February.
I.Y.: When the war started, I was working with parents and schools. We already had a lot of staff in process, but on the 24th of February we froze everything to understand what’s going on. Our staff was located in different cities. In some cities bombs were falling and people were hiding in shelters, in other cities it was quiet, and people didn’t know if they should start work. When we realized the war was here and we had to survive, I stopped everything.
All people I met after 24th of February told that they woke up because of bombs’ sounds. To be honest, I didn’t hear any of that sounds until the end of the 24th of February. Only at 10pm I heard the first bomb in my life. I lived in the city centre at that moment. In the morning of that day I had a call from my mother and my father and they said that the war had started. I tried not to panic. I asked myself, what should I do? I still didn’t hear any bombs, but if I did, what should I do first? I decided to eat something, as I didn’t know when I would eat next. I took a shower for the same reason. I packed all the necessary things, documents and so on, in case I needed to run to a shelter or evacuate. I washed my clothes, cleaned my apartment, took out the trash. This was before 10 p.m. I came here, to Timișoara, with only my suitcase and my backpack, that was it. I packed 2 pairs of jeans, 3 T-shirts, 2 jumpers, that was all. So it was enough.
During the day, one of my friends wrote to me and asked how I was doing, if I were ok, and the funny part is we realized he lived just across the street. (smiles) We met, he told me to buy some food, to have some cash on me, to learn where the shelters are and so on. He helped me a lot, to be honest, he gave me some cash money, as I didn’t have cash, he helped me with some water, and he also said that if I got scared, I could go to his place. When I went back to my apartment, I realized I didn’t want to go anywhere. But that was until I heard the first bomb. Almost all day I was writing in my diary. Because I prepared all necessary stuff in case I need to hide from war, when I heard the first bomb, it only took me a minute to get everything I needed and run out from the apartment with backpack and suitcase. I took my things, some food and I wrote a message to my friend saying I was coming. His apartment was quite comfortable, he showed me where the shelter was. During the night, we heard shootings, bombs, missiles. We only slept like half the night, but we didn’t go to the shelter.
The next morning, we tried to figure out what to do and we decided to go to his friend’s house outside Kyiv. She lived in a big house, and she didn’t want to be alone. We didn’t know if this was safe, but we decided to go. A lot of people couldn’t believe the war had started. So we went out of town and we stayed at that house for almost a week.
During this time, I tried to decide what to do: continue my job, or go away somewhere and find a new job? I was asking myself, “how I can help?” I didn’t know. Then I realized I could stay in the schools field and continue my work. I started writing to private schools in Europe, telling them about the situation and asking if they could take on some kids and families, of it they could share some contacts who might help us. I disseminated the information among parents and some of them replied, which was a good sign for me. I created a website, it only took me a day, and I started gathering information about schools in Romania, Moldova, Great Britain, Germany, Lithuania, Poland. I also put up a message saying that if you didn’t find the school you are looking for in this list, please let me know where you are, and I will find something for you.
Then online classes started to appear. I wrote to all my clients, asking them where they were and if they were safe. They started replying, some of them were looking for offline schools, and I sent them my website, and some of them were looking for some online classes, so I added a list of online classes and schools to the website. It was a pretty big list, actually, there were around 40 different online schools. And then one colleague wrote to me saying she wanted to run online classes and asking if I could help her collect information and some other technical things. So we started something like an online democratic school. There was only a page with the schedule, a Google spreadsheet where parents could see the schedule for that dat, and they could simply click the link and see what was going on.
N.M.: Were you doing this while staying in that house with your friends?
I.Y.: Yes. I tried to be useful somehow. For teachers, I made another Google form, which they could fill to tell us what country they were in and what subject they could teach, and we would find them a job. So during this period, I collected a lot of information about teachers and schools, just to understand the situation. Later, based on this information, I wrote an article about the situation in Poland for the official website of the Ministry of Education.
N.M.: Is it on the same website you’ve mentioned?
I.Y.: During the first weeks of full scale invasion, I made a very quickly simple website on Google tools. But then we moved all info to https://schoolnavigator.com.ua/uk. We collected official information about school policies that I took from official sources of that country I was writing the article about. Also, information from active educators who are abroad and who are talking about what you need to worry about and what you shouldn’t worry about; information from teachers talking about how they managed to find jobs; and information from parents who tell their stories and advise other parents on how they might solve their problems. I didn’t mean to give anyone advice, I just wanted to share this information with those who might needed it. I wasn’t recommending anything, but they could choose what they needed.
N.M.: Were you working alone?
I.Y.: Yes, but not all the time. Sometimes people asked me how they can help, and I was sharing some tasks with them.
N.M.: Did you hear explosions?
I.Y.: Sometimes. Mostly I heard air raid sirens. Sometimes there were bombs, sometimes we saw fires, and we were always reading the news, all the time, non-stop. There were 6 or 7 people living in the house, it was quite a big house, and we were usually all in the living room. Somebody was eating, somebody was working. Most of us were doing something, volunteering, coordinating something, and the news were always on. After 7 days I felt I was losing my mind. It was really difficult. I couldn’t handle the tension anymore, my body couldn’t relax for a minute. We couldn’t sleep properly because there were air raid sirens every night. We organized something like night shifts, we stayed awake and listened. If you heard something, you woke the others up and we would go to the shelter. We were eating unhealthy food, we couldn’t relax in the shower because the air raid sirens could start any minute. That’s how I decided to move. But until the last moment, I didn’t want to leave Ukraine. This is my home. Why should I leave my home? It is so unfair. That’s the reason why my mother and sister didn’t want to leave.
I knew I didn’t want to go to Poland. It was too crowded. I got in touch with a friend from work, and I asked him if he knew someone outside of Ukraine. He said he had some contacts in Moldova. I said ok. Now the question was how to get there.
N.M.: Do you drive?
I.Y.: No, I don’t, I don’t have a driver license and a car. I started looking for someone with a car to take me to Moldova. I received a lot of information through my Facebook and Instagram stories. I would make an announcement, and someone would write to me, yes, I can help. I was on my way to the railway station — that was the only available means of transport, since I didn’t have a car — when I received a phone number from a friend. There was a man who could take me closer to the border. I decided to accept the ride from that stranger. It was dangerous, but not as dangerous as everything else going on. I received accommodation when I got to that town near the border with Moldova and I stayed there, waiting for another ride who could take me across the border. I found a guy who was going not to Moldova, but to Romania. But that was fine. (smiles)
N.M.: So what was your itinerary exactly?
I.Y.: Khmelnytskyi, then Romania. Siret, Suceava, and then I was planning on taking a bus to Chisinau.
N.M.: You wanted to get back to Moldova?
I.Y.: Yes. That was my final destination. Moldova, Chisinau. A girl came and met me after I crossed the border, we drove to Chisinau, she gave me her room, she slept in the living room, it was her parents’ house. I was there for a week. During this time, I looked for a separate apartment, as I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t find any apartment, but I found some people in Timișoara. I knew them from work, and they offered me accommodation. I decided to go to Timișoara to at least thank the people who had invited me, and to see what it was like. But it was only temporary. I also wanted to have a few days to rest and maybe then I could make my final decision where to go. All this time I was talking to myself: what kind of place do you want to live in, what qualities should it have? I imagined a city that was not too big, but nice and relaxed. I didn’t want to live in a town that had only one street by the sea. I wanted something more. And I didn’t want to live in a crowded capital anymore, I was tired of that. And now when I remember these thoughts, I realize Timișoara is the perfect fit. (smiles).
N.M.: You see, it has happened for you.
I.Y.: Yes. This was the place I wanted to be in. When I got here, the friends who had promised to help me found the volunteer centre and they also offered me a separate apartment of my own! I didn’t know what to do with this information. I was so surprised! I had wanted a place of my own and I got it! They bought me a lot of food, and they said that if I needed anything, I should just write to them. I have never written first. They were always writing to me, checking if I had enough food, enough money. I so appreciated their help!
N.M.: Was this in April?
I.Y.: It was in the second half of March. I spent one week in Kyiv, one week in Moldova and five days on the road. I came here around the 20th of March. When I arrived, the first 3 or 5 days I couldn’t believe I was safe, I couldn’t relax. Then I went out and I got sick. My body decided it was safe, so… so let’s relax. (smiles)
N.M.: It considered that you had survived, so now…
I.Y.: Yes. (smiles) It was like: don’t even think of going anywhere else. So I called the owner of the apartment, I told him I was sick and asked him to allow me to stay a bit longer. He said I could stay there for as long as I needed. I thought I would stay for a week, I ended up staying 5 months. (smiles) Now I’ve moved to another place.
At the time I was still tense, I felt like I had to do something, to find another apartment, but I realized I also had to take care of my health.
N.M.: Are we talking about summer? Or spring?
I.Y.: Spring. It was March and I had just arrived. I decided to take care of myself and to continue working from a safe place. I liaised again with the School Navigator, my project. I realized we had to continue and speed things up, because parents needed schools not just in Ukraine, but everywhere in Europe. We added cities and countries to the website, and I realized we needed more help with the team, so we hired a project manager.
Before the war, the team was made up of a designer, a developer, my assistant. But after the war started, my assistant stopped working with us. She had two kids and she went to Germany and it was difficult to work in those circumstances. But anyway, for now I have enough people in my team. They are all in safe places and we can continue our work. Now we have developed everything we needed, we have a system, and I am very proud of it. The website is still in Ukrainian, but we want to translate it in English and other languages someday.
N.M.: Because initially it was for Ukrainians, right?
N.M.: You can adjust it for the Romanian market as well as other markets, can’t you?
I.Y.: Yes, exactly. On our website there are a lot of filters which parents can use in order to find the school, kindergartens and after-school classes they need. You fill in all the fields and receive a list of schools suitable for you.
N.M.: Do you have to have an account to be able to use the website? How do they look for an information?
I.Y.: This is just what the website looks like. Parents can go to the landing page, choose from a lot of categories related to school — language, subjects, grades, curriculum, additional activities… And see the list of results for them. Also here are articles about school life. Every school has the same structure of their page on our website. It’s for parents to see the information about each school in the same order: about us, the format, the age group and so on. This was the most painful part for parents, and for me as well, as I have researched hundreds of websites and they all were awful. Most schools didn’t have a website, or it didn’t work. I wanted to have all that information on one easy-to-use website and now I have it! And parents can use it! Finally!
But this is not the only thing I have done here. After I started to feel better in Timisoara (this was in April) and I had a bit more energy, I started asking around if there were any schools or places for Ukrainian kids in Timișoara. One of my friends introduced me to municipality, Fundatia Comunitara and Babel school. Then Teodora from Fundatia Comunitara introduced me to FITT, who liked most of my ideas, and Mihai, the President of FITT, offered me a job. He promised to help me with the Kids Hub and he said I could join their team which is working with Ukrainians.
For the first 2 months, we talked a lot and I tried to understand how things worked. Then there was a question of who will work with Ukrainian children. I started looking around and I found someone who has this kind of qualification. Her name is Karyna. We started on the 19th of May, and we had one class (1st grade). Before that, we met with the parents, I showed then the location, I told them about the resources we had, and we decided to try. The first group was of 5 or 6 kids. Karina started working with them. Then I found an administrator, then another educator to work with teenagers. I was also fundraising to pay salaries. It was a bit scary for me, I didn’t see the whole picture, only pieces of the puzzle, but I tried to put them together. Now we have a really successful project – UkrKidsHub.
I got funding for the project, and FITT helped me a lot because I didn’t know, for example, how to make a budget and present it to donors. I had never done fundraised in my life. At the moment, FITT are handling the reports and invoices, and I am really thankful to them and I appreciate the help. Also, they have officially hired people in UkrKidsHub to work with kids.
After I put together a team, I started talking to them about schools. It was the end of June. Children need schools. But at the time, all the conversations were like: do you think the war will continue in September? I was sure it will. The political situation is like this: either we continue to actively defend our country, or we freeze the war. The second option is scarier because we have already done that with Donbass 8 years ago. And then we seemed to forget what happened in Donbass, and now they’ve occupied 20% of Ukrainian territory, the south and Crimea — that’s a lot! I have seen an image with all the occupied territory and it’s the size of Italy. Can you imagine it? The situation is now, the same as then, as follows: the Russian army is bombing our cities, schools, hospitals and kindergartens.
N.M.: It is not safe for children.
I.Y.: Yes. I was asking parents: “How do you think your children will survive if they are bombing schools? I don’t have kids and I am scared. Just don’t go there if you can stay in a safe place.” And I decided that I would start a school here.
I checked the situation of local schools, I talked to governmental organizations, if they could help us a little. I started to figure out how we could run a school here, and who could help me. I also had a meeting with the representative of the Ukrainian community in Romania. Anyway, I chose to create a school based on the Ukrainian certificate. I also understood that the Ukrainian Ministry of Education did a lot in previous years of pandemic and even earlier to give parents and organisations more freedom of organising an education process, so now we can receive the Ukrainian certificate even if the school is in Romania. The kids can pass online exams, parents can have different form of education like externship, homeschooling or teacher patronage.
Right now (august 2022), I am still putting the team together and gathering information about the learning process, how to deliver both the adequate level of knowledge by Ukrainian curriculum and give an appropriate integration for kids and their families here. I want to hire a psychologist, because now it’s not something what could probable help, but it’s necessary for all of us in Ukraine to keep fighting and feel ourselves alive. I want to create classes for parents to give them a better understanding of their children, because not only school influences children’s minds, but also parents and family environment. I saw the need for this form of education even before the war. Thanks to my project “School navigator” I researched the school market very well. So it was just a question of time before I started running my own school. Another reason why I didn’t do this before is because there were a lot of high quality schools in Ukraine, the market was crowded, plus I know how hard it is to run a school. But now I am doing it. If it wasn’t for the current situation, I wouldn’t have done it.
N.M.: You are now creating your own project, but you already know the system.
I.Y.: Yes. My plan is to run a school, to understand the components I use to run it, then make a review next summer of what we have built, what we have used, combine it with the conclusions of other fellow Ukrainian educators in other cities and countries, and then start a conversation about how we should change the educational system in Ukraine in the future to make it more inclusive. When we win the war, we should build a new country, and this is a great opportunity to start preparation from now.
N.M.: So you want to prepare the kids to make changes in the next 20 years?
I.Y.: Yes, exactly. That’s what I want to do, this is my goal, and this is a field in which I feel very confident. I feel very powerful. And even if I don’t run the school or don’t change the educational system, I still have my School Navigator and I have a lot of plans for it.
N.M.: This is not the end, it is only the beginning. (smiles)
Thank you very much for the interview!
Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska
Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu