Stories of resistance

The truth is in the word: how a Roma pastor from Kharkiv helps displaced people

Mykola Burlutskyi is a Roma activist, human rights defender and religious pastor. He has been active in defending the rights of Roma communities for several years in his native Kharkiv. He has worked a lot with young people, trying to break stereotypes about Roma in Ukraine. The war changed everything in an instant: it destroyed Mykola’s home and forced him and his family to move to another city to start all over again, but not to lose faith and light in people.

Helping other people today gives strength to live on, – says Mykola, offering to drink “gypsy tea”. The yard smells of smoke on which water is boiling. Green grape leaves weave around the gate, creep into the room, where the voices of children and adults can be heard. On the front door is a white lace curtain that sways in the wind. There is a large silver samovar on the wooden table. Mykola brews real gypsy tea from it. Then he slowly sits down at the common table, laying out cups for tea and offering fruit.

Mykola Burlutskyi is the head of the Roma human rights organisation “Chachimo”, which in translation from Roma means “truth”, and also a religious pastor of the Church of the Holy Trinity. For him, engaging in Roma human rights activities is primarily a personal motivation and the right to vote. It all started in 2005 in the city of Merefa, Kharkiv region. Then, at dawn, people in uniform with clubs in their hands broke into his house and took him to the local police station without any explanation. Apart from Mykola, there were 50 more Roma in the car park, with whom the law enforcement officers treated shamefully and treacherously, and without explaining the reason for their actions, they mocked the frightened people for several days.

Then I could not defend myself though I knew my rights well. So what to say about those who do not know their rights at all? – says the Roma pastor. After this case of open discrimination, Mykola clearly understood that he wanted to actively engage in activities to defend the rights of those who are the weakest. He gathered a community of caring Roma who sought to change themselves and the world around them, to understand themselves and their role in society. In addition to human rights activities, Pastor Mykola also decided to be socialized and changed through religion and God to see his way to the light. 

If you work for the sake of the project, nothing will work. And if you have a vocation and you understand your mission, then there will be a result.

Outside, the July sun floods the yard. Only hot black “gypsy”” tea, which Mykola pours twice from his samovar, saves him from the merciless summer July heat. You can hear someone laying paving stones or renovating an old house.

The war completely changed the life of the Roma community in Kharkiv. But for Mykola Burlutskyi, it all started eight years ago. In 2014, the non-governmental organisation “Chachimo” actively helped the front in the east of Ukraine. At that time, the displaced people from Donetsk region who came to Kharkiv were also involved in the public work of the organisation – together they conducted trainings, studies, and brought humanitarian aid to others. They united and supported each other in every possible way. Subsequently, assistance to those who need it the most became one of the important areas of activity of “Chachimo”.

On the 24th of February, 2022, Kharkiv, like most large cities in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, was mercilessly bombed and destroyed by Russian enemies. In the first days of full-scale hostilities, Mykola, together with his wife Zhanet and three daughters, did not think about leaving, they hoped that everything would pass, and Kharkiv would stand up to the invaders. However, when at the beginning of March it began to fire continuously near their house, the Roma family, without thinking for a long time, made the decision to flee. It was difficult and painful for pastor Mykola to send the church, the community and everything that has been worked for many years, however, saving the lives of his family and other members of the community became a priority. So they all decided to go together. More than 25 people from the community also decided to close their own home and seek refuge in a safer city of Ukraine.

The trip was difficult. They travelled for several days. On the way, we stopped for the night in Kremenchuk at the home of another Roma activist Volodymyr Yakovenko.

Mykola called me and asked me to shelter him and his family for one night, who were travelling from Kharkiv in the direction of Uzhhorod. At first I didn’t know what to answer, because our house is very small and everyone just wouldn’t settle physically. However, after consulting with my parents, we made the decision to settle them with us, and we ourselves moved in with relatives for one day, – says Volodymyr Yakovenko, the head of the Youth Organisation for the Advocacy of Roma Culture “Arca”.

Volodymyr also thought over the variants of renting out a flat for Mykola and his family, but the owner, whom the boy called, immediately refused, briefly adding: “I don’t want to host a gypsy camp.” They opened their home for guests from restless Kharkiv, preparing dinner, bedding and everything else for the night.

In Uzhhorod, the Burlutskyi Roma family arrived at dawn at 4 in the morning. We immediately contacted the local community of Roma activists, who helped with temporary accommodation. Later, they moved in with the relatives of Zhanet’s wife, who have been living in Uzhhorod for a long time. Mykola Burlutskyi renewed his activities here in a tiny house in the Radvanka neighbourhood, where the largest number of Roma people lives in the city. Now he helps Roma refugees who, fleeing the war, come to Uzhhorod without documents and any guidance on where to go next. He provides various types of consultations, cooperates with local Roma activists, and helps with settlement and everything necessary. 

Mykola Burlutskyi’s Kharkiv house was destroyed by the Russian invaders. Now he and his family have nowhere to return. But the Roma pastor says that the most important thing in this war is to preserve light and humanity. Do not be disappointed, but work further for the sake of the victory of Ukraine.

I am a Ukrainian of Roma origin. This is my country. Everything we do is a small percentage compared to what our brothers at the front do. But our work here brings the victory of Ukraine closer.

While we are talking, his middle daughter Pavla approaches Mykola, hugs him and sits next to him for a few minutes. She is tall, slender, with black as earth hair. Then, suddenly, she gets up and runs like a bird to the kitchen to cook dinner and help mom around the house.

At the end of our conversation, Mykola walks me to the gate of his temporary home. He reads the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father” in Romani, smiles widely and blesses me. He dreams of returning to his native Kharkiv, rebuilding the destroyed house and continuing to do what is important.

– Be who you are. This is freedom – he says, waving his hand.


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