Ukrainian IDPs and German Integration Practitioners Exchange Local Insights on Shared Global Challenges

In Zaporizhia, Ukraine, Valeria Vershynina is standing in front of a gathered crowd and motioning to an oversized board game spread out in front of them, “You roll the dice and move your piece along the board,” she instructs.

The seemingly simple game Valeria is explaining how to play is IDP Adventure—a public awareness tool that lets players roleplay the devastatingly difficult situation of an internally displaced person (IDP) in Ukraine. Valeria and her organization, Stabilization Support Services, designed the game as a way to bring the challenges faced by IDPs to the attention of policymakers and the general public.

Valeria Vershynina and her organization, Stabilization Support Services, designed the oversized board game IDP Adventure to raise awareness about the plight of IDPs in Ukraine.

“The game is our response to government officials ignoring the problem of discrimination of displaced people,” Valeria says. “We introduce players to what it is like to lose their home and their civil rights. We tell a story. This creates the opportunity for a dialogue on the experiences of an IDP in Ukraine and their chances for integration. The main message of this game is that discrimination unfortunately results in part from state policies, which can deprive people of an opportunity to integrate.”

Valeria, who herself has been displaced due to the conflict in war-torn eastern Ukraine, is hosting this meeting after returning from a weeklong Cultural Vistas study tour in Germany, which focused on the integration of IDPs in their new receiving communities.

The study tour brought thirteen integration practitioners from various Ukrainian cities together in Berlin to meet with representatives from German civil society organizations, refugee entrepreneurship programs, volunteer initiatives, and high-level officials from the Office of the Federal Commissioner for Integration in the German Chancellery. The goal of the tour was to foster discussions among integration practitioners about best practices for integrating newcomers and strengthening the capacity of civil society in two seemingly different contexts—Ukraine and Germany.

Valeria (fourth from right) and other IDP integration practitioners from the Cultural Vistas study tour to Germany pose in front of the Reichstag Building in Berlin.

Can the experience of someone who received asylum protection in Germany compare to that of an IDP in Ukraine? In many cases, the answer is unfortunately yes. Discrimination and restrictions on services in areas like housing, legal aid, and healthcare are just a few of the examples that the Ukrainian participants discussed with their German counterparts. The other shared challenge is ensuring that newcomers are included in the decisions made about their future.

“Since I took part in the Cultural Vistas program,” says Valeria, “I have been constantly thinking about the balance between integration and assimilation.”

The issues of equity and self-determination by newcomers have been at the forefront of Germany’s integration challenges since the large-scale influx of asylum seekers in 2015. Projects that allow newcomers to be actively involved in their own integration, and increase their role in society, represent a successful model in both the Ukrainian and German contexts.

Valeria’s board game is part of a seminar that she organized in Zaporizhia for representatives from various public service agencies, social service organizations, and IDPs themselves. She sees this inclusive form of dialogue as a crucial step toward the process of successful integration and mutual understanding.

“It is necessary to increase the number of integration activities and the inclusion of displaced persons into the decision-making processes that will determine their own future.”

Storytelling for Civic Education

In the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, 200 miles away, Olga Sherbakova is giving a voice to the IDPs who have relocated to her city. She is the co-founder and coordinator of Line of Consent, an organization of psychotherapists and coaches who provide mental health services to individuals who were displaced from the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Olga uses storytelling to communicate the plight of IDPs within their receiving community.

“Through our Playback Theater project, IDPs share their stories and professional actors bring them to life on the stage. Seeing the drama firsthand gives the audience a much better sense of what it is like to go through such an experience, and this has led to improvements in mutual understanding among different groups in the community.”

Olga (right) works with IDPs who have relocated to her city, Kharkiv.

Promoting understanding to be able to overcome stereotypes, structural inequalities, and social divisions is not a new concept in Germany. Cultural Vistas chose Berlin, the front line during the Cold War, as the location for this study tour due to its historic significance as a symbol for Germany’s ongoing process of reconciliation, especially since the reunification of Germany in 1990.

After visiting various memorials that highlighted life in divided Germany, the Ukrainian group took part in a moderated discussion with experts at Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, or “bpb” for short). Using the case of Germany as a starting point, German and Ukrainian moderators initiated a discussion that was “full of interesting thoughts and emotions,” in the words of one participant.

Looking ahead to a post-conflict Ukraine, the group faced the question of how to reconcile the divisions in their country—a discussion that significantly inspired Olga.

“Thanks to bpb, I was able to understand the difference between patriotic education and civic education. In my opinion, Ukraine needs to have more civic education developed.”

Olga now plans “to implement a project in Ukraine in the form of a series of meetings with representatives from the bpb. The possibilities of civic education remain untapped in Ukraine, and this would help Ukrainian society to better adapt to our ongoing processes of social change.”

Since her return to Kharkiv, Olga has held two meetings with social workers from the region, during which she presented integration tools and best practices acquired in Berlin.

“The meetings shifted the focus from trying to maintain control over IDPs to involving them more directly in community life. This program has expanded my ideas about how to make the lives of people in crisis better, and I thank Сultural Vistas for this amazing opportunity!”

Uniting the Displaced

A group of 13 people, one crouched in the middle, stand smiling at the camera. Olga Sherbakova is the third person from the right.

Olga Sherbakova, second from right, meets with social workers from Kharkiv.

Though the exact number of IDPs throughout Ukraine is unknown, UNHCR has estimated that at least 1.8 million individuals have had to flee their homes as a result of the conflict. And if quantifying the number of impacted individuals in such a situation is difficult, trying to assess the degree of their integration following relocation is an even greater challenge.

“The success of integration processes is difficult to measure and evaluate in the short term,” says Valeria, “but this is not a reason to abandon them.”

As the Senior Office Director for Cultural Vistas’ Berlin office (pictured left), I was honored to work on bringing together integration practitioners for a study tour to discuss best practices for dealing with IDPs in Germany and Ukraine.

To ensure a sustainable impact following the exchange, Cultural Vistas instructed the participants to craft action plans for implementing new ideas gained during the program in their home communities.

By creating this network of integration practitioners in Ukraine and bringing them into contact with their German counterparts, Cultural Vistas hopes to support the global process of removing social divisions and barriers to IDP integration, as Valeria and Olga have already begun doing locally.

The Exchange to Strengthen the Integration of IDPs in Ukraine was funded by the German Foreign Office and administered by Cultural Vistas’ European Office, in conjunction with its Ukrainian partner organization, the International Centre for Policy Studies.