Julian Kondur, a project coordinator of the international charitable organization Chirikli Roma Women’s Foundation, talks about the challenges activists had to face after the full-scale war started, public activities at the international level and his own path in activism.
– Where did the war meet you? What did you plan for that day before you learned about the invasion?
– On February 24th, we had a meeting with regional administrations. We had to consider the issue of regional plans for the Roma strategy implementation. I remember well how the meetings were postponed indefinitely, and when we met, the priorities were completely different. The first week was the most difficult for our family. After that, we evacuated to western Ukraine. In short, I returned to Kyiv after the region was liberated from the occupiers.
– Tell us about today’s foundation activity. How did it change after the beginning of the invasion?
– We mostly have long-term projects. So we quickly adapted them to emergency humanitarian needs related to people’s evacuation from Chernihiv, Kyiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In general, for the entire period until today [the interview was recorded on December 6, 2022 – editorial] we’ve helped about one and a half thousand people leave. Some of them went abroad and some within Ukraine. There were not only Roma among the evacuees but also other minorities. The Greek community, for example.
– Your staff must have dispersed after the invasion. What setting up work difficulties appeared then?
– We paid our team two months’ salary in advance to help cover basic needs. Everyone went to different countries, including Moldova and Poland. My family and part of the team went to France, some stayed at home in the Kyiv region. The whole time we were in touch and continued to administer the organization’s work.
– I know women come to you directly with their problems. How have women’s requests changed after February 24th?
– I’ll start with the fact that we were not a humanitarian organization, and we still don’t consider ourselves to be one. We are mostly engaged in advocacy and solving the problems of Roma women. The most common request was to receive help with basic necessities like food kits, hygiene products and diapers. Let’s call them basic needs. And, of course, housing and evacuation needs.
Our team tried to inform people, advise them on safe routes and rules for leaving the country. We monitored the changes in the border crossing procedure and counseled people.
Pictured: the aid handed over to Roma families, collected by the Chiricli Charitable Organization and with the support of Roma from other countries.
– Have you cooperated with local authorities to get information and help people?
– Yeah, we contacted local and central authorities. Of course, all this was in manual mode. The received information was immediately distributed on our pages on social media or passed on to specific people. We had delays with funding for some time, then we directed people to other organizations. ARCA was among them.
– Was there anything related to women’s psychological support?
– The vast majority of mediators are women. And while working in the communities, they acted as communicators who gave advice on the logistical plan and could also listen. People who contacted us then thanked us for the constant feeling of need and support from the community.
– The Chirikli organization was founded more than twenty years ago. Can we say that during this period, Roma society has undergone significant changes in the context of women’s rights? And if it so, what specific changes can we discuss?
– I think it’s primarily about women’s leadership. My mom and sister were the organization’s founders, and they struggled for authority in the conservative Roma human rights movement. In 2004, there were not so many organizations engaged in rights protection. The public movement then had a more classic, post-Soviet format, focusing on culture and self-identification. We introduced a human rights and gender component through women’s activism. This facilitated our cooperation with international organizations, which gave us access to further development resources.
Step by step, we had some success. In 2011 we began to form a network of Roma mediators. At that time, we already had women who aspired to be leaders in their communities. The results of that work are felt even today. We have young girls who can freely express their position, which is not always conservative, as it was twenty years ago. Also, this is a certain recognition of the special needs of Roman women at the international level.
In 2016, Chirikli gave the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommendations based on a shadow report on Ukraine’s fulfillment of its obligations. Ukraine received some recommendations. That gave an impetus for a greater focus in politics on the problems of Roma women and girls.
– Did your organization work on the new Roma strategy?
– Yes, we worked on its creation. We cooperated closely with the parliamentary Committee on Human Rights when the first cycle ended. Together we appealed to the Council of Europe and the UN Women. These two organizations have played a crucial role in increasing the priority of gender issues and gender-sensitive evaluation.
– The priority of gender issues within Roma community or from society?
– Together with three organizations, we evaluated the effectiveness of the previous Strategy implementation and developed a large document with specific recommendations for the new one. It was literally called ‘The gender-sensitive evaluation of the Roma Strategy implementation.’ Later, a new structure appeared, The State Service for Ethnopolitics. And although we spoke to them, unfortunately, not all recommendations were considered.
At the end of 2019, we understood that the Strategy was about to end, but the pandemic occurred and the full-scale war came after it. So the priorities were changed, particularly regarding some important provisions’ implementation.
– As a man in the field of women’s rights protection, have you ever felt that some issues are easier or more difficult than those for women?
– It is difficult to say, actually. My mother and sister initiated the Chirikli work and they chose its authority. It was probably easier for me than other activists because there was already a certain structured institution. However, I think that sensitivity to the issues of Roma needs and the situation of Roma women appeared in me in childhood.
I was in the appropriate environment, saw and understood the existing problems. I had the opportunity to observe and compare the situation in Ukraine and abroad to form my own position. I support the fact that any person should have a choice, can be conservative or progressive, but it’s a matter of choosing values anyway. And the ability to choose is the most important thing for both women and men.
– How do you see the situation with Roma human rights movement today, and what challenges still need to be dealt with? What are the most global issues in the women’s rights movement today?
– The issue of Roma women safety in public and political spaces is important now. The war affects people’s capabilities. Despite the new challenges, we must continue to support and emphasize the importance of Roma women participation in various processes.
I feel threatened that this space for them may be narrowing. Today we see women fighting against aggression in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which is an excellent example in Ukrainian society. Speaking of women, the issue of violence is also acute.
– Domestic violence?
– In its various forms. Domestic, economic, sexual, verbal and psychological violence. I think this phenomenon of gender-based violence is getting worse. Current research findings indicate that women began to encounter it more during Covid-19 in conditions of limited space. Now it can be bomb shelters.
Another threat is human trafficking. Women need to know where they can turn in such cases and what the algorithm of their actions should be. We try to respond to things like that. Roma mediators are essential for us in this case.
– If we have already mentioned other countries, how did interaction with Ukrainian and European organizations change after the invasion? What has become more difficult or easier? Do they respond better in Europe because conditions are more complex in Ukraine now?
– The European Roma human rights movement mobilized to help Roma in Ukraine. It was manifested in fundraising campaigns and new programs we established with our partners. For example, with Finland, with the Helsinki Diaconi Institute, or the network of Roma organizations in Europe.
The solidarity we saw and still feel is the most important marker that the Roma people in Ukraine still have support. This is our main job, to convey information about the needs of our people at various levels.
– And what about the Ukrainian authorities? Was there any emphasis on Roma people after the invasion? They already had difficult conditions, and with the beginning of the full-scale war, these conditions became even more difficult.
– Today we see that the authorities highly popularize the Roma participation in fighting against armed aggression. In the long term, this fact can positively change the attitude towards Roma community. I think that we have become more autonomous when it comes to solving problems, but the authorities are also trying to prevent violations of Roma rights.
There are some cases of discrimination, but it would be an exaggeration to say about institutional racism. On the other hand, the Roma strategy implementation process has a ‘standby’ mode, which negatively impacts the social and political participation of minorities.
– You said that you helped women go abroad. What difficulties did they face in other countries? Did you transfer coordination to foreign partners?
– That’s exactly how it happened. We made contact with neighboring countries and Roma activists helped to meet people. They also helped with translation and provision of basic needs. It did not solve all problems, but it gave people the understanding that they could get support and help. Poland, Romania and Moldova were the most active partners.
– What plans does the fund have for 2023?
– Today there is a great need to support those who remain in Ukraine. We will try to gather new activists, young men and women who will be helpful to communities, highlighting their needs and problems. It is also important for us to strengthen the administrative capabilities of other organizations that remain in Ukraine, as well as our organization. There are no fewer requests, just the dynamics and needs are changing, following the conditions in the country.