The Award in Romania chats to Olena Koval, a Ukrainian Cultural Mediator based in Cluj Napoca

Olena Koval is a Ukrainian Cultural Mediator now based in Cluj Napoca, Romania. She acts as a UN volunteer for WHO Romania, supporting the Ukrainian community where she is based. Olena is a psychologist, specializing in trauma therapy. She used to have a private practice in Kyiv, working with adults and teenagers. Her working methodologies are based on neuroscience and art therapy, also including mindfulness practices. Currently she is delivering trauma therapy groups for women and mental health support education for adolescents.

She has become a valuable informal ambassador for the Award Programme in Cluj and she has supported the Romanian Award team to reach members of the Ukrainian community in Cluj, from teachers and young people to parents and other members of the community. She is now involved in the Award’s partnership with UNICEF to deliver the Stand By Me programme which supports displaced Ukrainian young people as they settle in the Cluj community. We discussed about her life before the war, what did it mean to leave her country, why did she choose Cluj or what it means for her to be a cultural mediator in these difficult times.

Interview with Olena Koval

How did life look before and after the war started in Ukraine?

I didn’t take it seriously because I could not believe in war…21st century, civilized countries, neighbours/friends/relatives — and war? No way! 

I’m divorced and have a 10-year-old daughter called Yaro. Life looks pretty usual and simple: work-home-school-weekend. I’m focused on work and raising my daughter, finally life was feeing stable the last couple of years: my private practice becomes more structured and organized, as well as personal life and schooling process for my daughter. We had also just bought a puppy; it was Yaro’s big dream. I felt like my life was organised, and I was satisfied with every aspect of it until…

Around 2-3 weeks before 24 of February I started to feel a certain tension in the air. It’s difficult to describe it but feels like something invisible and heavy is laying on your shoulders, pressing you. And you can’t get rid of it. At first, I thought it had something to do with my own state of mind; I’ve been in therapy for many years already, so I am trying to digest this tension in the well-known ways which always worked for me before. We were told at the news to prepare a full tank of benzine and emergency luggage with documents, cash, medicine, some canned food etc. I didn’t take it seriously because I could not believe in war…

On the early morning of 24 of Feb I was awake after having sleeping issues and by accident I saw my phone ringing; usually my phone is switched off during the night. A friend was calling to say war had started and I needed to pick up my daughter and drive out of the city to the western part of Ukraine for a couple of days. We were convinced it was for a week maximum. So, I took Yaro, passports, our puppy, two toothbrushes and two T-shirts and in 30 minutes we were already in the car. It took four hours to exit the city — thousands of people were escaping. 

We stayed a couple of days in the western Ukraine watching the ongoing news. Every single Ukrainian was monitoring news from all possible channels and constantly checking on friends and relatives. In a few days it became clear: the war was not going to end, we need to move further. But where? Before the war I was thinking at moving to Türkiye. I love a certain place on the seaside and my sister and friends are already living there, so this was an option.


How did you choose Cluj to settle? 

Me and Yaro stopped in a hotel in Cluj for two nights to take a rest. Some friends offered their apartment in Bratislava to stay for a while. However, then I had a small car accident in a parking spot close to the hotel and a local guy, instead of calling insurance company, offered us house to live. So, it was my sign to stay for a while here and have some rest at least. 

In a kids club I meet other Ukrainian women with children who were running from the war; they were full of feelings of loss and uncertainty, no idea how to deal with it, or whom they could talk to about it. The same women who had a normal life yesterday. 

In few days, I met another wonderful Romanian citizen who offered to organise psychological support groups for the Ukrainian women. Together with her husband they had lots of experience in organising educational projects in Romania, therefore I felt it was an easy project for emotional support. And afterwards I got in touch with the whole association who was taking care of the Ukrainian refugees in different ways: homes, food, jobs, medical support. It was a perfect match and meeting – ‘let’s see how I can be even of more help’. The road in front has widened.

Cluj is a comfortable city to live in and we feel safe here. Although we don’t speak Romanian, our English is enough to establish a life here. Of course, sometimes when I’m trying to detail my discourse with nuances — its challenging; English isn’t my mother tongue, and it takes time to choose the right words.

Soon life became more grounded after renting a comfortable apartment, getting my daughter to a local school, and signing a working contract as UNV for WHO Romania. 


How did you speak to your daughter about the war?

I speak to her in a very simple way: “It’s war here now and we have to leave, darling.” That’s it. It was enough for her. She didn’t experience anything related to war like sounds of bombarding, injured people, or damaged buildings, so it was easy to talk to her. Now she is totally adapted to new life, she found friends of her own and she is studying in a new program. The only thing she is missing is her dad who is still in Kyiv.


Tell me about the Ukrainian community in Cluj?

I’m not saying we should forget about our homes and start to build a new life here, no. All I’m telling them is that we should start to truly live here, accept the reality as it is with its daily joys and sorrows. It’s the only way to feel alive again.

Integration it’s a process of putting together separated parts, creating a unique ornament. The connections between parts should be comfortable and designed in a special way, convenient for every connected side.

There is quite a big Ukrainian community here, around 3500 people including children. People are coming and going, for some of them Cluj is just a transit to their destination. When I’m taking to Ukrainians a lot of them are focusing on the moment of the future Victory and to be back home. It’s difficult to integrate and feel grounded when your attention isn’t here and now. And, yes, it’s challenging to accept this reality; we should have enough inner capacity for self-regulation, but for some of us, this mission is impossible, no-one taught us how to self-regulate in times of war. 

For my point of view integration, not just a formal temporary living, starts in the moment when we manage to see what we really have in the present, not what we hope for or what we had before war. What is our reality now? Our sorrows, uncertainties, hopes, losses. There should be empathy and space for that, from the inside and from outside. Integration in a new society should definitely include inner integration of all our mental states. Otherwise, we will be living with one foot in Romania, with the other one in Ukraine, hands doing physical tasks without awareness.


Why do you think the Stand By Me initiative which is delivered by the Award and supported by the Award’s partner UNICEF, can help the youth of the Ukrainian community?

This generation is going to build the future Ukraine, right?

It will stimulate integration by bridging Ukrainian and Romanian communities, not just the youth, but adults as well. We can’t even imagine yet the beauty of the future that is forming right now.

The challenge now is to discover ways to build connections, and match those with the unfulfilled needs of Ukrainians, but without pushing them or adding pressure.  

I see a lot of value in the Award programme. It can influence Ukrainian youth in a good way. And it can change their state of mind. Our society did not use to be very proactive before the war. I noticed a change that gives me hope, we stated to donate, to support our army, to help each other. But this is just the start.

With an initiative such as the Award and UNICEF’s Stand By Me programme, Ukrainian young people can continue to be active in their communities and take responsibility for themselves and their lives. I find this topic extremely important in the case of my community, we need to change something about our post-Soviet narratives. So why shouldn’t we start with the youth? This generation is going to build the future of Ukraine.

Young Ukrainians need to meet peers with a different way of thinking, as it will widen their understanding of life and give more freedom in their thoughts. And I also think a programme like the Award is a valuable contribution to the new Ukrainian society. We didn’t have such projects in Ukraine before, and it’s a great opportunity to design a new way of living, no matter when and how this war will be finished.

What does future look like in Ukraine?

About  future in Ukraine… Of course, I’m hoping for the soonest victory and for a fast and easy recovery process in terms of economic, social, psychological or development means. But I do understand some processes will not be fast; to digest the collective psychological traumas – it will take generations. As society, we didn’t integrate the burdens from the Second World War yet and now there is another one happening. But to end on a note of hope – I do understand as well there is a certain power hiding behind any trauma. We need just to face it and integrate it.