I am a proud Rotarian who has been living in Kyiv for over ten years. I belong to the Kyiv Multinational Rotary Club which has members from around the world. The club is diverse – I am Danish and other members are from Ukraine, Germany, Sweden, and other countries. Ukraine is a beautiful country – but it is also conflict-affected due to the Russian-led uprising in the east that began in the Spring of 2014. The conflict has taken a heavy toll on both the Ukrainian military and civilians who live on both sides of the contact line.  Over 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed as a result of this conflict and more than 1 million people have been displaced throughout the country, trying to make a new life for themselves and their families.

Sometimes Kyiv seems a world away from what is happening in the east. Kramatorsk, Lysychansk, Severodonetsk, Troiske, Avdiivka. Until 3 years ago these were just names on a map to me. In my mind, it was the far-away rust belt region of mining and heavy industry ruled by oligarchs who got their wealth from crooked privatizations in the 1990s.  However, these are Ukrainian cities in the Donbas region where people live, where people are being hurt and killed due to hostilities, and where people want peace. In eastern Ukraine, or anywhere else where conflict is happening, it is civilians who suffer the most – especially women and children.

This is the backdrop for the “Computer Literacy Project for Disadvantaged Children in Eastern Ukraine” project organised by the Kyiv Multinational Rotary Club. Through this project, we have put almost 600 computers into 60 public schools in communities on the government-controlled side of the contact line. Information technology skills will help these children to be able to support themselves and their families someday.  We distributed these computers with our local Ukrainian NGO partner, Initiative E+.  I joined two trips in late spring to deliver computers to 12 schools near the contact line.  Some of the schools had already been hit by direct fire. Other than that, the schools are normal village schools. The closer we were to the contact line, the more visible the consequences of war – hallways with posters warning kids against touching mines and unexploded ordinance, entire fields mined, and headmistresses explained that perhaps the only good thing about so many kids having left their communities is that the whole school will fit under the stairs when there is artillery fire.

In some places, I heard heavy artillery in the distance. No child should have to worry about being hurt while going to school – but they have become habituated to the hostilities. It is their new normal.  As for the teachers, very few have left. They stayed behind to instruct the children and supplement their income by farming. There is no other way to survive on a teacher’s salary.

Some of the schools put on all student body singing and dancing demonstrations to welcome the computers. I had mixed feelings about this. On one hand, opportunities for celebration are rare and hopefully we lifted their spirits. On the other, they received only 8-10 computers. We owe these communities so much more than that.  I am happy we have been able to make a positive impact on their lives but I am humbled by how much more remains to be done to ensure that the children and their communities have a better future.

These small communities have been cut-off from the world and are eager to show that they belong to the nation of Ukraine. Further south, there is even more tension in the air. People are tired, the other side is closer and the conversations are a bit more guarded.  Our partner organization CodeClubUA is working with those schools that are interested in setting up courses in basic software development for children. If Internet is not available, the project is providing funds to establish it.  Rotary has provided funding for the project – outside our major NGO partner, more than 10 private volunteers have contributed to realize this ambitious project. To me, this is perfect synergy between Rotary and a community. We and our patrners are making a difference.

We are about half way through the project having covered the schools in Luhansk Oblast. We will now be working in the Donetsk Oblast. About two hundred computers have turned out to be need of a loving hand. With this in mind, we are moving these computers to the offices of my own company here in Kyiv, Livatek, where my volunteer colleagues will continue the work. We need more hands for this so if anybody is interested in getting involved, please e-mail me at jesper@lindholt.dk