ActivismStories of resistance

Kamila Horvat: how a Roma activist helps displaced people in Uzhhorod not to lose themselves

The war in Ukraine, caused by Russian aggression, forces to unite the country every day, stick together and act jointly. To rebuild, help and hold the hand of those who need it most. In the war against the Russian invaders, the Roma communities of Ukraine do not stand aside. They, like all Ukrainians, also join the resistance movement, showing an example of solidarity and mutual support in the struggle.

The pain hidden in the shadow of the linden trees

From the first days of the war, hundreds of Roma from other regions of Ukraine came to Uzhhorod. According to various estimates, the numbers range from 20 to 30 thousand internally displaced Roma from different parts of the country. Frightened, hungry, homeless and with wounds like tears in their hearts, they decided to seek refuge in the safer cities of Ukraine. 

At first glance, it may seem that there is almost no war in Uzhhorod. There are crowded streets and noisy cafes with sun-kissed people drinking coffee. There are markets and bazaars where local housewives sell all kinds of fresh vegetables. There are night lights illuminating the wide streets of the city when the sun hides behind the mountain ranges. Young mothers and children play in the middle of the main square. After all, Transcarpathian region is the only part of Ukraine that does not have a curfew. Locals say – there is no need. However, despite all, at first glance, the vitality and joy of this mountain town, there is a lot of sadness and longing here for the lost home with relatives, for cities that almost no longer exist.

In every nook and cranny of an old Austrian villa or a sprawling Czech tenement house, there is a hidden history of displaced people. There is a pain that is carried near the heart, as if trying to plunge into the deepest waters of the Uzh River, which flows so calmly through the city; or to hide in the shade of sprawling flowering linden trees, which make your head dizzy with their intoxicating smell and remind you of summer, which is in the midst of its bounty, even if the war continues.

Change and inspire

Kamila Horvat is Roma by origin. She is 22. She is one of those who decided to stay in the country during the full-scale invasion. Before the war, the girl was engaged in activism, fought for the rights of the Roma minority, simultaneously studied for a master’s degree in social work and worked in the Transcarpathian Regional State Administration in the center of social services. Kamila’s father is a well-known man in Uzhhorod. Myroslav Horvat is a representative of the Transcarpathian Regional Roma Association “Romani Cherhen”, which is translated from Romani as “Roma stars”. He is a real star of the Roma community of Transcarpathia and passed on his desire for activism and social work to his eldest daughter. Since childhood, Kamila associated herself with her father’s hobbies – to help people and change the world as much as you can.

– If you want to change their opinion about yourself – do something for it!, Kamila expressively spreads her hands. Her eyes are filled with curiosity; a confident look indicates that the girl always achieves what she wants. She has curly hair, the ends of which are dyed in a light colour, her shiny strands of hair sparkle in the sun. She has wide eyes and dark eyebrows, neatly combed and placed in a complete shape. She has long eyelashes and her lip contours are outlined with crimson lipstick. Despite her young age, the Roma activist already works in the state structure alongside specialists in her field, actively participating in the urban processes of her city.

Do something. Change the situation

About discrimination, the girl says that sometimes, during her school years, she encountered misunderstandings about herself and her Roma identity in society. However, without plunging into this topic for a long time, she immediately adds about the importance of her own example for others. She tells about herself. At school, Kamila tried to study better than everyone else, get good grades, take an active part in public life and, ultimately, break stereotypes about “poor and uneducated” Roma.

– At first I felt this attitude. Then I thought over what would it be done to change this situation, – the girl becomes more lively, her voice takes on an even more confident intonation, her gaze becomes that of an adult woman. Sometimes she fixes her hair with one hand and holds a smartphone in the other – this adds importance to the girl. During her studies, the young Roma continued to initiate various important projects, took part in competitions and Olympiads. In this, according to her words, her parents helped and supported her.

War, volunteering and lists of people

The morning of the 24th of February was bloody and unexpected for the Roma girl as well as for millions of Ukrainian citizens. Air raid siren and the roar of warplanes marked the beginning of the war. But Kamila was not lost. She knew that she had to stay in her city and continue to do what was important. Then she gathered all her strength in a backpack and joined the volunteer movement in Uzhhorod. Then Kamila’s morning began with volunteering, which continues to this day. At seven in the morning the day after the invasion, Kamila sat down at the desk of the Humanitarian Aid Headquarters “Owl’s Nest” and, together with a team of other volunteers, began to receive and register the first group of displaced people.

In Uzhgorod, the “Owl’s Nest” is a 24-hour reception center for humanitarian aid and a population distribution point, created by the City Council. To this day, warm clothes, sleeping bags, water, and medicines are accepted here every day. They settle the displaced people and provide all necessary medical support there. For this purpose, the Uzhhorod City Council created a special account that will concentrate money in the city budget to help territorial defence and affected people. Kamila says that from the first days she volunteered day and night at the centre, but understood that she gave her own time, effort and assistance to others who need it very much now, who have no home and city because they were destroyed by Russian bombs.

White, long forms of paper lying on wooden tables, lists of visitors, tables with detailed personal information: surname, first name, year of birth, hometown, availability of documents, and number of children – all this flashed before Kamila’s eyes every day. The girl worked almost without a rest. She returned home only in the morning, fell tired into the soft bed of her own home, and a few hours later went to the Humanitarian Aid Centre again, as the number of people arriving at the station in Uzhhorod only increased. Everyone was looking for shelter. They waited for the help of others.

Empty houses that have been breathed life into them

Twenty-two-year-old Kamila, together with other activists, settled Roma families in all possible shelters in the city, schools, kindergartens, gyms. In addition, the local authorities and a team of volunteers managed to establish an initiative together with local Roma families: those who left the city and had the opportunity to visit relatives abroad agreed to give their empty houses to displaced Roma from Kharkiv, Vinnytsia, Donetsk and other regions of Ukraine from where people fled the war in huge crowds every day. This is how they breathed life into empty buildings that were orphaned and waiting for their owners.

The Radvanka microdistrict is a place where a large number of Roma live in Uzhhorod, today it is inhabited by dozens of other people – those who were taken from their homes by Russian troops and forced to stay with a small clumsy suitcase in their hands. Adult and child psychologists worked 24 hours a day at the “Owl’s Nest” Aid Center. Kamila says that there was a need for assistance at every turn. There were many emotional and traumatized people. Sometimes they simply screamed from fear and pain of everything they experienced under the bullets.

Humanity and love. Even without documents

“There was one story that really touched me, you know,” Kamila spreads her hands, lowers her eyes. She remembers. – A woman came to us. She was so scared. Five children. Her husband had no documents. But we had to call the police, you know. A person without documents, explains Kamila, touching her hair, which sparkles gold under the rays of the July sun. – She begged me, got down on her knees. Children were crying, so defenceless. She did not want to stay in a shelter without her husband. She asked us to settle them together so that they would not be separated. Kamila lowers her eyes again. He gestures emotionally with thin fingers. Later, the girl persuaded the coordinator of the center not to send the man to the police station, but to put him in the same room, only on a different floor. That’s how the Roma couple stayed together. At least in this unfamiliar city for them. At least for a few days. Or for a long time.

– Humanity is important here. And love.

Kamila says goodbye. He apologizes that he has to go. Work and volunteering are waiting for her. Family and parents. The alley of Ferents Rakotsi street, where the Humanitarian Aid Headquarters of the Transcarpathian Regional Military Administration is located, is quickly disappearing. The city lazily warms its walls and old houses under the scorching heat of this beautiful summer day. The sun is quietly setting on the horizon, slowly retreating behind the hills rising from the central part of Uzhhorod. The hum of an airplane can be heard in the sky. In the nearby cafe, the waiter casually wipes the table with a white piece of cloth, barely raises his head, and then returns to his daily tasks of city life. Makes coffee and wipes round tables where no one sits.

On the edge of the city, linden trees continue to bloom, reminding us of the fluidity of our lives.


Marianna Maksymova

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