As part of Denmark’s recent initiative to create closer ties with Ukraine and engage in diplomatic alliances with neighbouring eastern European countries, The Danish Cultural Institute have embarked upon an ambitious project to set up a Ukrainian-Danish Youth House in Ukraine’s capital city – Kiev.
Julie Anfred Bojesen, who has been appointed to lead the project, gives a fascinating insight into the wealth of opportunity the space hopes to provide for both Danish and Ukrainian youth, along with some of the challenges that they face moving forward. Whilst taking on innovative digital strategies to keep the project in motion during lockdowns and with rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Bojesen and her team finalise travel arrangements to Kiev, where she will be based for the foreseeable future.
“Something I often come across, even now, is that people don’t know where Ukraine is, despite it being the biggest country in Europe.”Julie Anfred Bojesen
Tell us a little more about The Ukrainian-Danish Youth House.
The aim is to create a hub that strengthens civil society and youth in Ukraine. Also, in Denmark at the same time. It’s very much a collaborative space. On account of a substantial investment from the Foreign Ministry of Denmark, we’ve been given this opportunity to cultivate a space where people can meet, exchange ideas and receive support for their youth projects and organisations. The Danish Cultural Institute are leading this project and our mission is to create dialogs through art, culture and creativity. We are also working in close partnership with The Danish Youth Council so there will be a heavy focus on strengthening the political voice of young people in a democratic environment.
What is it about working on youth projects that inspires you the most?
Well, I’ve never thought about it like that. For me it’s never really been youth projects as such, it’s just been projects that I’m involved in. I’m not that old yet, myself (laughs). So, I would still classify as youth in my volunteering life, and I do a lot of stuff like that. Technically they’ve put the age classification up to 35 so I’m still in the youth category. But if I think in terms of the bigger picture, youth is where a lot of change happens. Those formative experiences that you get when you’re between, say, 15-30. That’s where all this creative and – let’s call it – activist energy lies, I feel. The people who really want to make a change in the world, it’s normally quite young people.
You mention, in an article published on The Danish Cultural Institute’s website, that one of the challenges you anticipate from past experience is ‘the fight against prejudices’. Is there anything specific in that area that you think will apply to this project?
Ukraine has never been spoken about as anywhere interesting to western Europe until the last 5 years or so where people have realised that it might be interesting for tourism. But that’s basically it. Many expect an underdeveloped country, people and mindset which is not true. It’s a place like anywhere else, where people have the same ambitions and the same desires as we do here. Of course, there are different political challenges, but that shouldn’t dominate our perception of a whole people and it’s really a lot of people. There are around 40-50 million Ukrainians. Something I often come across, even now, is that people don’t know where Ukraine is, despite it being the biggest country in Europe.
There’s also, of course, the same kind of prejudice, perhaps in reverse, in that there is a tendency to think that western Europe is just flowing with milk and honey – that Denmark is this wonderful place where nothing can go wrong because it’s democratic. Not to say that there aren’t a lot of good things in Denmark but there’re definitely a lot of problems as well and it’s important to address them. Our Ukrainian partners always get surprised and say, ‘oh, you also have problems?’. They almost get relieved that this is a general issue that everybody’s fighting. For example, despite being further down the line with it, we don’t have gender equality in Denmark. It’s still only about 6% of women in those top jobs in the private sector, whereas in Ukraine there’re a lot more. So, having a glorified picture of another culture can be problematic as well because you then forget to look at your own assets.
“Young Ukrainians are so ambitious and so professional. It blows your mind.”Julie Anfred Bojesen
In what way would you like to see the Danish youth open their mind towards Ukrainian culture and what do you believe Danish society could learn from establishing collaborations with Ukraine in the long term?
Something I get culturally is that people are very pragmatic. Ukraine has one of the most horrifying histories of any country in Europe and I think that has made people kind of toughen up a little. They’re not so sensitive and don’t necessarily just accept a situation if it’s not good. I mean, they’ve had several revolutions within the past 15 years. I don’t imagine Danes taking to the streets like that, for instance. Of course, you can’t compare the political systems but still, there is this real need to do something, you know, to actually take action when it’s not right.
I would also say that young Ukrainians are so ambitious and so professional. It blows your mind. Denmark is famous for being relaxed and very down to earth which is a good thing in many ways. But it can also kind of stagnate you if you’re too relaxed. Just in the past month, I’ve spoken to so many young Ukrainians who come across 10 years ahead of me in terms of professionalism and they’re only 18. They’re extremely well prepared. They show up in a suit, you know, they’re really pro-active when they want to do something and they just go for it.
Will there be opportunities at The Ukrainian-Danish Youth House for young people to develop language skills in either Ukrainian, Danish, English or perhaps other languages?
It’s a very good point, we already discussed this a lot because not only is the Danish language an issue, but you also have 2 languages in Ukraine. There’re a lot of people who have Russian as their mother tongue but that’s also becoming more and more problematic with the political climate. Since 2014 with Crimea and what happened in Donbas, Russian is not really spoken so much out in public anymore, even though it’s people’s first language.
It also comes up a lot, at the moment, when we are planning online events. It’s usually the case that we want to carry them out in English because that way the Danish side can more or less follow. But the level of English in Ukraine is much lower, so this can end up excluding people who have not had access to a high level of education, for instance. Definitely during the preliminary interviews that developed the framework for this project, language was highly requested. So, I think we will make sure that there is, at least, a space where, if somebody wants to give language classes of any kind, they are provided with the necessary means.
What are the major challenges that the youth in Ukraine face right now and what role do you think the project will have in helping them overcome those challenges?
I think the biggest challenge is a sense of lacking influence. They do have a voice to some extent but it’s really hard to permeate the political structures that are already in place because it’s a very conservative system. It’s difficult if you’re a young person and you want to actually get something through, there aren’t that many channels to really make that kind of change.
Luckily, we see that’s changing and the government in Ukraine is also looking to implement new laws and youth policies where they would try to foster some of these grassroots initiatives. But there’s still a long way to go and I think a lot of the young people who want to do something, they either don’t know how or they just aren’t able to reach through.
In Denmark, for example, we have a very strong association culture. Everybody’s part of at least 2-3 different associations or organisations. It’s completely common that if you’re a young person you’re, maybe, a scout and then, perhaps, a volunteer for something else, the Red Cross or whatever it may be. There’s a strong emphasis on ‘being a part of something’ and that you can have an influence through an organisation if you participate. I think that this is not really well integrated in Ukraine.
“It seems that, no matter who I speak to on the Ukrainian side – no matter what their political persuasion – they’re really happy that it’s happening, which is really nice to see.”Julie Anfred Bojesen
How has the pandemic impacted the project so far and in what ways have you had to think about adapting your strategy moving forward?
Well, of course, it’s affecting everything and we’re a bit delayed regarding the project timeline. We’ll eventually have a physical house in Kiev which will be the hub for the project. But in the meantime, we’re creating all kinds of virtual structures online because that has to come in place of the physical house for now. There’re also certain aspects, like the identification of the house and the work around it, legal checks, financial checks, etc, that have been delayed, simply because my colleagues couldn’t enter Ukraine for a long time.
We’ve had to delay some activities that reach out on the regional level. As you know, lockdowns fluctuate in relation to the numbers. Right now, we’re still considering whether or not it’s responsible to invite groups of 20-50 people to come together for an event, even at times when things are open.
Having said that, I do see a lot of opportunities with the online activities that have been happening due to the pandemic because it is making it easier for us to spread ourselves a lot wider geographically. We’ve really had to rethink the whole thing in terms of culture exchange, you know, if you can’t meet, if you can’t travel, having to work out plausible alternatives. It’s ultimately part of the innovation of society. I mean, let’s face it, we’re in the digital era now and the pandemic has really forced us to explore the full extent of how we can utilise these tools.
In what way do you think the changing political currents in and around Ukraine might affect public support for the project?
In general, there’s been an overwhelmingly positive response. It seems that, no matter who I speak to on the Ukrainian side – no matter what their political persuasion – they’re really happy that it’s happening, which is really nice to see. Especially for me, being the face of the project. I also think it’s important that these kind of development projects are not something that one just comes in and does from the outside. It has to be something that’s wanted from the inside so that it’s actually a collaboration, otherwise, it really has no effect.
Ukraine is definitely divided in its politics, but I don’t know if it’s so geographical anymore. Perhaps one could say that it’s more of a generational gap that we’re dealing with. On one hand, there is a group of the older population who have had 25 really hard years since the fall of the Soviet Union, so there are definitely those who miss the feeling that things were under control. On the other hand, there is a strong movement opposing this and looking westwards towards the EU and NATO.
But the situation with Russia and the Russian aggression in Donbas has generally created an environment where people are more nationalist. I think since 2014 they’ve been much more focused on building their own nation and, at times, not even in the direction of the EU necessarily. Where, in the past, there was a notion that a lot of people wanted to become like western Europe, there’s now a feeling, at least among the young people, that they want to be their own. They don’t want to be told from the outside how to live, they just want to create a strong healthy Ukraine.
Our main task is to make sure that everyone feels that they can use the youth house, regardless of political position, and to ensure representation. If we can do this, I don’t really think that we’re going to be the target of any political attention. We just want to foster the grassroots engagement which is in alignment with Ukrainian youth policies.
But surely it would depend on what the youth bring to the project because you don’t exactly know what they’re going to present right?
No, that’s true. We’ll have to feel it out for sure. We’ve definitely discussed a lot, how we might deal with this. I mean, there will be different political opinions but they’ll also have to agree to some extent that we can agree to disagree and that there can be a democratic dialog. And if there can, then I don’t mind if you’re extreme right or extreme left, as long as we can meet and debate our views peacefully.
I appreciate that there are some topics that might be more difficult than others and I think we’ll just have to cross those bridges when we come to them and make sure that people who come to us feel safe.
“There are a lot of young people in Ukraine who really make things happen.”Julie Anfred Bojesen
Do you not feel that by creating a safe space for certain minorities or activist groups, there could be potential, in that case, for such groups to become a focus point for people on the outside – who may have opposing views – and perhaps a distraction from what you are trying to achieve, in relation to public perception?
Well, it’s possible but there’ll always be people who don’t like what you do, right? I think as long as we’re clear that we don’t want to silence anybody but that we’re also not here to promote any one specific group, then we should be able to strike a balance.
I would think it would be more of a social talking point. As I mentioned before, there is a very high demand for this platform in general, so my hope is that the demand overrides the fact that sometimes a controversial issue would be highlighted. We are planning to host a lot of activities and events, so there will be plenty of opportunities for different audiences to be engaged.
On the other hand, wouldn’t it be the glorious goal if we could bring people together who disagree and see them actually learn something about each other – precisely because they shared this space? That would be such an achievement.
Our public program will – once we go offline – consist of events held in the house, like a movie screening, for example, or a community dinner where everybody takes part in the cooking. We’ve already held some online cultural exchange meetings and we’ll be getting some interesting people to give talks on more overarching topics, for example, bringing someone in to host a workshop on how to create a campaign and things like that. I think these events will be key to mixing among groups and finding a common ground.
As the restrictions eventually subside and travel returns, what would you like to say to young Danes who may be interested in exploring other countries, in relation to visiting Ukraine?
I’d just say do it! It’s so much fun to go to a place that not everybody has been to before. I’m also imagining that in a few years, Ukraine is going to be way more popular as a tourist destination, especially Kiev and Lviv which are both really nice cities to visit.
For me, it’s really been the lack of knowledge about the country that got me there in the first place – the curiosity. You’ll discover so much there. I mean, we share the history, but because they were on the other side of it, we’ve just written them off. To me, that’s insane because Ukrainians are actually very Scandinavian minded in many ways. Go and be curious, learn about the history, learn about the people and expand your horizons.
Kiev is extremely varied culturally. There is this old folkloric culture, for example, that’s really blooming now because people are bringing it back and building their own identity again. You’ll see big soviet buildings on one side of the river and then, on the other side, you’ll see the most beautiful baroque buildings that resemble the picturesque streets of France or Italy.
It’s also a very vibrant city. As I said, there are a lot of young people in Ukraine who really make things happen. There is so much in the way of festivals, street art, food markets, rave parties by the river, I mean, you name it! Go and explore, you won’t regret it.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Julie Anfred Bojesen.
First Image: Kiev, Ukraine’s Capital City. Credit: Pixabay / Public Domain
Second & 3rd Images: Courtesy of The Ukrainian Danish Youth House – Youth leader exchange program promotional content.