Feminists of Kyiv

Bilkis

2 November 2022
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

Bilkis is a grassroots intersectional feminist initiative that adheres to the anti-capitalist agenda. After the beginning of the full-scale russian invasion in Ukraine, they relocated to Lviv and adjusted their activities to the humanitarian needs of women and LGBTQ+ people. You can support Bilkis using these requisites.

Yevheniia: Yana and I studied at the university and lived together in a dormitory. At that time, I was immersed in the topic of feminism as I saw in it the answer to my problem — an eating disorder. Then I realised how important feminism is politically. We observed how things were going in Kharkiv and exchanged our thoughts, and views. There was only one organisation in the city that covered the topic of women’s rights, and we thought it would be cool to do a grassroots, horizontal, anarchist initiative.

Yana: Then I had already been a feminist for a long time, but I was involved in activism only sporadically. At some point, I realised that I had to do something different, and I shared this idea with Zhenya (Yevheniia). That’s how we created Bilkis. For several years, the two of us have been engaged in online activism, holding street actions dedicated to the topic of gender-based violence. Then we decided to expand and were joined by other members.

Yevheniia: This year in March we planned to hold an interactive lecture for teenage girls (8th-11th grades). Even before February 20, we posted leaflets with invitations around the city. We had been preparing for it for a long time and booked space, but on February 24, a full-scale war began. That morning I woke up to explosions. I asked my partner what those sounds were, he replied that it must be thunder. However, two more rockets flew by and it became clear that it was not thunder. We started packing, I called Yana and offered to go to Poltava together. My father took us there by car. From Poltava, we left for Germany and spent two months there.

Ivanna: I joined Bilkis a little over a year ago. I am from Donetsk region, but I’ve lived in Kharkiv for the last three years. I met the war when I was alone in the apartment. All the bomb shelters marked on the maps of my area were closed and the keys to them were lost. I moved downtown with my friends, and there we shared a bathroom and a hallway. Then I jumped on the evacuation train that was going to Kyiv, but it was extended to Lviv. In recent months, our initiative has done many different humanitarian tasks, in which I’ve been actively involved.

Lisa: I’m from Crimea, but I’ve been living in Kyiv for the past six years. On February 24, I woke up in the apartment where my friend and I lived for six years and saw that she was standing there dressed. She said “it started” and after a few minutes she left, leaving me alone. After that, other friends started calling me, urging me to go, and I started to pack. I went to live with my relatives in the Rivne region for three months, and I had a very difficult time there because they were not ready to live together, especially during the war. At some point, I went to Lviv, met my friends here, and they offered to move in. I joined Bilkis two months ago. Humanitarian aid is currently the main focus of our activity, but we want to get back to educational projects.

Yevheniia: We were constantly in contact with all the participants of our initiative, and we continued to hold meetings and discuss the possibilities of continuing our activities.

Yana: Even before the invasion began, we had applied for a small grant, and in the first days of a full-scale war, they responded that they were ready to provide us with these funds as an emergency. This probably became a catalyst for our humanitarian work.

Ivanna: At first, we provided targeted help, got some requests from relatives and friends, and sent them the necessary things. Then on our social media pages, we shared the message that we were sending humanitarian aid kits.

Yevheniia: This activity became more structured when Yana and I returned to Lviv, got together, and discussed the action plan. But we did not expect that there would be so many requests for help. After the publication, more than a hundred people wrote to us in a few hours. It reached 300-400 messages per day. And although we are no longer accepting new requests, people still reach out to us…

Lisa: Russian aggression continues and the number of requests does not decrease. People are leaving their occupied hometowns, they have no jobs, their children need medicine, and everyone needs food and shelter. And you have to turn all these requests down because you don’t have enough resources to cover them. You read their stories and it tears you apart…

Yana: In cases where evacuation is required, we can still redirect people somewhere, and find the places to stop. But we do not direct requests for humanitarian aid to other initiatives, because their possibilities are also exhausted.

Yevheniia: We spent a lot of money on humanitarian aid, and when the money ran out, we started looking for new opportunities. Then we noticed that all those Western foundations that provided emergency support at the beginning of the invasion were no longer ready to keep on offering it. Now they require us to be officially registered and meet their usual criteria.

Yana: Currently, we are helping using the money from donations and probably will continue to do so in the future. If people keep on donating, we will buy the necessary things and close the requests. I feel exhausted from humanitarian work, I am tired of people who ask us for help, of the fact that it is necessary to coordinate it and to carry heavy boxes. I want to stop doing it because it is unbearable to do it all the time.

Yevheniia: In Kharkiv, we felt that we were building a feminist community. Such a community already exists in Lviv, this way we will concentrate on our projects.

Yana: We now have an office in Lviv, and we decided to allocate one of the rooms for a permanent free market. People can bring their things there that they don’t need or take what they want. I would like in the future for this space to also become a platform for various events dedicated to eco themes.

Yevheniia: The project that I want to host in our space is feminist poetry evening. Once every two weeks, volunteers will gather and talk about their feelings through poetry: their works, or those they like. Since the beginning of the full-scale war, I’ve started to read a lot of Ukrainian poetry. It is difficult for me to express my thoughts in my own words in a conversation with someone, but I can read a poem and understand: this is how I feel.

Lisa: I would like to manage the cultural direction. Many female painters and sculptors lived and worked in Lviv. I would like to create and conduct feminist tours telling people about women artists. I also love cinema and want to hold film screenings about women and for women, including displaced women.

Ivanna: I have a small project that has already started. Together with Yana, I created a cycling club in Lviv. We invite women and nonbinary people on bike rides and ride together. This is something completely new for me, but I’ve been dreaming about it for a long time. I’ve been a solo cyclist all my life, and now I’ve decided it would be cool to build a community open to different groups of people who aren’t cyclists. I am learning to be inclusive and sensitive, and I want to tell people that cycling is not always about competition, so you can just ride and have fun. I enjoy having a sport in my life and I would like to share it with others. In addition, I am a courier for the Lviv Vegan Kitchen. At the beginning of the invasion, I was riding a bicycle to the suburbs of Lviv, and delivering food to the vegans of the Territorial Defence. Now I deliver lunches from them to the Feministychna Maisternia shelter every day.

Yana: If we talk about what kind of help we need, it is, first of all, involvement. I would like feminists from Ukraine to be invited to discussions as experts about their own lives as often as possible. So that they can tell what is happening in Ukraine now and what challenges they are working with, even if they do not know English well or at all.

Yevheniia: We need all the possible attention to Ukraine. Especially to women, queer people, and feminist groups who stayed and keep on working in Ukraine. We need a lot of money, as without it, unfortunately, some things cannot be done within the framework of the capitalist system.

Lisa: We ask people to trust the opinion of Ukrainian feminists and Ukrainian women, and discard some of your liberal, enchanted views about Ukraine and russia. To believe what is happening to us, and maybe even treat it more rationally. Often news about Ukraine is perceived very emotionally by Western communities, but then they offer to “make friends” with the occupiers. People should realise that the problem is not solely with putin, but with the russians.

Yana: Recently, I attended lectures about Rojava and we discussed that now Turkey is starting to escalate the war again. I want countries that have resources, which are often the ones of Western Europe, as they had places to export them from, to pay more attention to all the territories where there are currently some captures or military actions. So that the people living in these countries begin reflecting on the topic of their own colonialism and self-educating on the issues of both the countries of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

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Lviv Vegan Kitchen

27 September 2022
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

Lviv Vegan Kitchen is a volunteer project that provides free vegan food to IDPs and the army in Ukraine. You can support them by using these requisites or on Patreon.

Oksana: We are sisters named Marta and Oksana. Before the full-scale military invasion of russia, we ran a small business managing a shop with handmade jewellery in Lviv. We were studying, trying something new, dreaming about something. With the beginning of the invasion, we lost our jobs and started volunteering. At first, it was chaotic: we made soups, visited lonely elderly people, and wove camouflage nets for the army. On the night of 1st March, we came up with the idea to create a Lviv Vegan Kitchen.

That night we went to volunteer at the rail station where the refugees were arriving. There was plenty of food at the station but nothing vegan. Apart from us, there were other vegans among the volunteers and all of us ate cereal bars the whole night. The next morning we went to our friends at the Vega Room cafe to talk about the idea of ​​creating a volunteer kitchen. On the way there we met a friend who is also a vegan. She and her boyfriend were in The Territorial Defence Forces at the time, and she told us that she hadn’t eaten anything for days because their pasta was mixed with meat. At that moment, we realised that there was definitely a demand for such a project.

Marta: We have been vegans since 2017 and we already had an experience of activism: we took part in various street actions from time to time, carried out thematic film screenings, and translated the film. There are few vegans in Lviv, so everyone knows everyone. Instead of closing the cafe, friends from Vega Room rented us their kitchen, and we started working with everything we needed. Therefore, without contacts in the vegan community, probably nothing would have happened, or it would have been on a completely different scale.

Now Oksana and I are engaged in communications, fundraising, and sending parcels. At first, we were also involved in the work of the kitchen, meaning we did everything. Then many volunteers joined, most of whom are internally displaced people, and now the kitchen team works in shifts. In essence, we have two areas of work: kitchen and food parcels. In addition, we are setting up our own production of bars, and we have plans to make complete vegan dry rations.

Oksana: In Ukraine, there is still a widespread stereotype that vegans are some kind of hipsters, and veganism is a fashion trend. The thing is that the vegans are mostly young people and certain communities that are not represented in the authorities or the health care system. Therefore, the standard food model is preferred. It’s unfortunate, but hunger has forced people to try vegan food. They sign up for all possible help. Sometimes, I call back on a request for a parcel that was left a month ago, and they tell me that we are the first to respond during that time.

Marta: There have been a lot of requests for humanitarian parcels and we have closed the application form for new ones at the moment. We can send about 40 parcels a week, and we have 6200 applications. For all time of this initiative, we have sent more than 800 parcels of food, of which about 50 were to the military, all the rest to civilians.

Providing the military with vegan food currently rests entirely on the shoulders of their families and volunteers.

Sometimes it’s impossible to organise the shipment at all if neither the car nor the mail can reach the location of the military. We do not know the number of vegans in the Ukrainian army, and there is no way for us to somehow interview everyone.

Moreover, not everyone is ready to openly talk about their position, especially women, who already have a hard time in the army because they are women.

We have friends in the Armed Forces and the National Guard who face sexism, and in general, the treatment of women there is terrible. No one wants to be bullied twice even for being vegan. People go vegan for a variety of reasons: some people do it for health, and they are ok with putting their healthy eating routine on pause; and there are people who do it for ethical reasons, and they would rather die than eat meat.

Oksana: I thought that there would be different kitchens, and different humanitarian headquarters and our kitchen would be aimed specifically at vegans who cannot eat elsewhere. But time passed, the headquarters stopped working, humanitarian aid was declining, and now people do not have this choice. It seems to me that in the beginning, people were more active in donating products, it was easier to transport them across the border, and when it came to the point that this activity had to be somehow structured and formalised, not everyone had the strength to do it, and enthusiasm gradually subsided.

So over time, we stopped being a vegan option, now we are just a kitchen for refugees.

Marta: Obviously, we are ready to provide food for everyone. I have never seen what we do as a promotion of veganism. I believe that now is not the time for vegan agitation. For me, veganism is the base, and then I focus on people. Many people from Western countries write to us: “Nobody is doing as much to promote veganism as you are.” Maybe we do, but it was not our intention. Now the situation is even worse than at the beginning of the invasion: people continue to arrive in Lviv, but the tents at the station are no longer waiting for them.

Marta: We are mostly supported by Western vegan communities. Sometimes there are donations from Ukraine, but they are very chaotic. Help comes in different formats: media publications, and targeted help from vegan food manufacturers and brands who send us a carload of beans or soybean meal. Also, there is a small shop in Great Britain that makes sunflowers out of glass, sells them, and sends all the money earned from it to our kitchen. There are organisations and people who support us all the time, such as Vegconomist and Lush. Someone subscribes to our Patreon, someone makes a one-time donation to PayPal. Any help is important, even reposts. For example, the owner of the vegan brand “Tofurkey “ sent us 5 packs of vitamins and we were able to close 5 requests for those vitamins.

It is not necessary to provide us with the whole truck of supplies to make help significant.

There is a list of products that we always need in the kitchen, but the needs are constantly changing. Therefore, before buying products, it is better to ask us what is currently missing. This will allow us to make food parcels more diverse and not overload the warehouse. Money is always needed: we pay for kitchen rent, utilities, warehouse rent, security, and garbage removal. All together it costs about $1,600 a month. This is a big burden for a volunteer project, especially on our scale. Sometimes we feed 500 people a day.

Oksana: There is also a need for volunteers. If someone from the team gets sick, it will be noticeable as there will be no one to replace them. Now there is no such thing as volunteer chat where people ask to give them some kind of work or ask where they can volunteer, everyone is tired. Even if 3 million hryvnias or 30 trucks with products fell onto us now, and we had the opportunity to close all requests, it would take 100 days! 100 days of continuous packing of parcels.

Marta: If it turns out that there will no longer be a need for the existence of a kitchen, we will be able to develop dry rations, or focus more efforts on delivery, and faster processing of requests. In any case, we will have something to do and someone to help. After the start of the full-scale war, my priorities changed. Now I think that there is nothing more important than helping others and that’s why I feel in my place.

Oksana: With all the support we received, I would not like for the project to end just like that. I would like it to continue and develop in other directions, at least at minimal speed.

We would like to give back to the world as much as we have received.

There are many categories of the population whose circumstances were poor even before the war. Yes, it will be much more difficult to solve these problems, but I hope that our enthusiasm, resources, as well as experience and contacts that we have now acquired, will be enough to do that.

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