At the grey departure lounge in London a flood of YouTube videos tell me - Ukraine is the only European country that is currently at war on its own soil. Also, the people there don’t tend to smile that much in public.
I mention this for some background information not to spoil the picture make no mistake, this county is rather remarkable.
Located at the edge of the continent's political union it's a vast land stretching towards Russia to the east and the shores of the Black Sea in the south.
There's a specific purpose to my visit: I'm here to facilitate forward-thinking educational programmes to school children. I’m part of a new wave of international volunteers placed throughout the country sharing and learning across different cultures.
It's a scheme well outside of my comfort zone in fact a 9-10 hour trip (inc. buses+trains) from the capital Kyiv to where I'm based - a rural town in the west called Dubno. At various points throughout history the area has been considered a part of Poland.
Officially it is a small city but it feels more like one overarching community comprised of farmers, flower sellers and now me. My presence is almost a first for the local’s everyday interactions with foreigners. I’m made aware my temporary home needs to warm up to the notion of me.
There are kids zigzagging through streets decorated with the domes of Orthodox churches where ladies wear rosy headscarves, I'm excited to be around such a visible sense of collective family. I visit the local landmarks to previous occupations, rebellion and now a seemingly perpetual war that leaves behind miniature make-shift shrines wherever you turn.
The session I run takes place after school most kids take extra tuition if they can afford to — opportunities are scarce here. This a chance for them to meet a native English speaker and be empowered to practice their language skills rather than be instructed.
The lessons begin sluggish it's hard to communicate, I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing wrong. Maybe the material is too granular or it could be the time of day. I get disheartened - I want to form a bond of friendship with them; they are extremely keen to learn. I’m failing.
I retreat to the teacher's lounge where I'm surrounded by a flow of stalwart women who greet me with care and attention. There's a humongous poster of a tropical island by the kettle and an internet connection as shaky as my Ukrainian.
Historically in this particular type of state school there is a large focus on the English language and it is taught across the spectrum of grades, I’m learning a lot about my own country via the facts presented in the textbooks. It’s truly strange to look at yourself through a different lens.
Around 45 million people speak Ukrainian across Europe but the number who want to learn English is increasing. A few workshops later we break the ice wall that is trust and the class is blissfully alive with creative activities ranging from design thinking to beatboxing, most attendees want to improve their English in a fun environment free from any judgment.
It turns out these teenagers are mainly into selfies and Drake. I pretend to fit in.
One teacher I never seem to manage to say hello to intrigues me. That changes midweek when she sits me down to tell me one of her family members is paralysed from the waist down as a result of the conflict. I tense up and barely digest what she's sharing with me.
I try to express my grief and relay some empathy. Then she asks me about the news/coverage I read in England about Ukraine - it’s not easy to admit you hadn’t checked it yourself for propaganda.
My replies are lost in the human version of Google translation. I'm witnessing a real-time war in relative safety mainly insulated by brave women and men longing for dignity, and social change.
There’s a shy and redrawn member of my classroom who scribbled on a sticky note that their wish is to visit Japan we talk about our favourite Miyazaki flicks, when I first met this person they were extremely reluctant to practice their English. Finally there’s a real connection.
My host family treat me like their dearest relative and I’m thankful and overwhelmed by their sincere generosity. The breakfasts here are hearty and wholesome – I’m retraining my stomach as well as my psyche. It is said that every housewife has their own secret recipe for Borscht (a sour soup), unfortunately I don’t have the time to try them all.
At the airport I wait for my flight back to Heathrow I get easily frustrated with the lack of updates from the staff, an elderly tourist sits next to me in the terminal and vents his frustration with the customer service - we smile and exchange pleasantries.
Somehow the conversation turns to his extensive military service in the army and he tells me just after 2015 one of the volunteer paramilitary groups here reached out to him for strategic assistance…
The parallel states of war and peace creep in one last time, and I try to keep focussed on the latter. Constructive forms of public diplomacy.
There have been two unsuccessful ceasefires and rocky E.U. state membership negotiations but Ukrainian society is full of unwavering might and young people with unshakable determination.
My hope is that if we can give children a taste of an alternative paradigm of learning they will get a little peek at the bright world that’s out there waiting for them to engage with.
Read about the wonderful NGO Go Global here. Some useful tips for travellers coming to Ukraine.
PHOTOGRAPHY + WORDS BY AFSHIN ROHANI.