Supporting community through the war in Ukraine
Supporting community through the war in Ukraine
What started as an idea to bring street culture and sports to the city of Kharkiv has now spread to creating safe spaces for those trying to escape the war in Ukraine.
When Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022, many Ukrainian organisations began to reorganise, in order to respond to the crisis. Among them is Street Culture, an NGO which works to build community through urban culture and sports.
sportanddev spoke to the founder, Egor Matiukhin, and his wife and colleague Katya about the history of their organisation and how they are supporting Ukrainians, especially the youth, during this time.
In 2008, Egor, along with fellow break dancers Viktor and Valera, started Kharkiv City Breakers. They created events for breakdance community, supporting local kids and professionals in building a culture of breakdance in the city.
Realising the potential of street culture in being a community building force, Egor and his fellow partners formed Street Culture in 2015. The organization started as an initiative to bring different types of street sports and urban cultures to youth in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
Emphasising different forms of self-expression, including breakdance, skateboarding, BMX, DJing, street dancing, graffiti, beatboxing, streetball, street football, parkour, and others, Street Culture believes that conducting these activities in a safe environment can build a sense of community amongst youth, while also developing their soft skills and keeping them from harm.
Egor and his team made Kharkiv a hub for street culture: “We brought lots of breakdance and street culture events to Kharkiv, to support local kids and to bring together professionals from across Europe.”
From 2017 to 2019, in partnership with the NGO Urban Reform, along with Kharkiv City Council and USAID (UCBI project), Street Culture created the first ever urban park in Ukraine. This park provided facilities including streetball courts, a concrete skate park, parkour trace, street football 3x3 spot, panna cage and workout spaces.
Moving beyond just organising events, Street Culture was now building infrastructure for the development of street culture. By 2021, the organisation had built four urban parks in four different districts of Kharkiv, with support from Kharkiv City Council.
As Katya Matiukhina notes, “There are many public spaces that are built for children or adults. But, usually, there aren’t any outdoor spaces built for teenagers. Sport is integral for the health of people, and outdoor spaces can be an important way for teenagers to participate in sport and become a part of a community.”
The urban parks were so popular that the Office of the President invited Street Culture to collaborate with a team, which included Big City Lab, Urban Reform, Pupa Architects, the VDNG team, Unique Build and the street culture community of Kyiv to build a similar space in the capital, Kyiv, designing a more diverse park, suited to everyone’s needs.
“Working with President Zelensky, we wanted to build our dream – the biggest urban park [we had made yet]. We reorganised and converted an existing space used for music, large exhibitions and other festivals to become a comprehensive space for street culture to flourish,” Egor says.
The park opened in September 2021, and the inauguration was attended by President Zelensky and Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee. The plan was to multiply this project in cities across the country, with a vision to build 30 urban parks in 30 cities in the next two years. But then, the war started.
Responding to the war
Once the war began, everyone’s life in the country, especially in the eastern region, changed. This included Street Culture’s team, who were based in Kharkiv. Daily bombings made life unstable, and some of the team members, including Katya and her daughter, left the city and then fled to Bratislava, Slovakia.
As Katya recollects, “Our home is 40 kilometres from the Russian border. Part of our home was destroyed by the shelling. It is still standing, but you never know. […] We were nervous, and every night there was a lot of bombing. When it wouldn’t stop, we decided to move. It was very scary – we could hear the bombing behind us, and we didn’t even know if things at the railway station would be okay.”
To support the collection and distribution of aid, the Street Culture Centre in Kharkiv has now been transformed into a warehouse. Aid from different parts of the country and the world is collected and packaged, and then delivered throughout the city by volunteers. Every day, 500 packages move through the warehouse.
On the other side of the country, in Lviv, Street Culture and Urban Reform has started an Urban Camp. Transforming a sport school and play area, the space is used as temporary accommodation for internally displaced people (IDPs) from Kharkiv and other parts of the country. It provides them with hot meals, clean bathrooms and a place to sleep before they continue their journeys ahead, usually out of the country.
And it isn’t just shelter that the Urban Camp provides – it gives the IDPs a space where they can escape their realities for just a little while. Providing recreational space and activities, Urban Camp helps its residents find holistic relief. In the yard of the camp there are many activities, like barbecues, outdoor movies, games and play for all. They also organised graffiti and art festival and workshops to help rebuild the space and also provide a creative outlet for the residents.
Egor and the Street Culture team hopes that they can expand this concept to other cities, building a network of urban camps that displaced people can go through. The team hopes that they can build the next camp in Poltava, which is where most people that flee the east first stop at. Katya is further trying to secure funding to build an urban camp in Slovakia and Poland. The team knows they need to take things one day at a time, but they also realise that they have to be strategic about their relief plans.
Meanwhile, Egor and his team are trying to support breaking, which is now an Olympic sport, to be debuted in Paris 2024. Even in times of war, Street Culture is supporting and developing breaking and other street sports.
As Egor says, “We need to keep living life because we don’t know when war will end. We have to live and support our citizens in realising that there is life, still.”