Conversation with Fempodmoga – ‘We try to give refugees a sense of friendship and support’
September met with Zhanna Chernenko, founder of two volunteer groups – Fempodmoga and Lingvo Volunteers, which help Ukrainian refugees in Europe in solving a variety of problems: from translating documents to cases of harassment and violation of labour rights.
S: Please tell us a little about yourself first.
ZC: In December 2021, I moved from Moscow to the German town of Hanover, where my husband, an Iranian, works at the university. I casually studied German, completed my dissertation on American political history, and worked remotely. In February the war started, and I joined the Europe-wide volunteering effort.
Zhanna Chernenko, photo from personal archive
S: How did your Fempodmoga and Lingvo Volunteers initiatives start? How closely linked are their activities?
ZC: Lingvo Volunteers appeared first. I participated remotely as a coordinator in various groups which helped refugees to evacuate. I was looking for transport and hosts for refugees entering the EU, collecting information about treatment and arrival regulations in different EU countries. Other volunteers and I constantly had a need for translation, as it is impossible to know every European language. Remote translators were needed to cross the border, communicate with those we were meeting, translate documents. Language assistance was also needed for European hosts and drivers who did not know Ukrainian or Russian but wanted to help.
I consulted with other volunteers, and together with a remote volunteer from Washington, Masha Borisova, we started a chat on Telegram, where we began to invite famous translators and their subscribers. In some ways, we found each other. Translators are people of the world; many of them had already been involved in various volunteer initiatives and wanted to help more.
We created a platform, where volunteers and refugees can resolve translation issues centrally. Then we grew: we started an audio translation chat and an initiative for free language training from translators in small groups. We also had a hotline, but with time the need for it disappeared. We automated many requests, we accumulated document templates, and we created a community for joint translations. For example, two translators ‘from Ukrainian to Russian’ and ‘from Russian to German’ working together, can handle many more requests than one translator from Ukrainian to German.
Fempodmoga also arose out of necessity. Its participants are feminists and volunteers who are also engaged in translations, helping refugees to adapt, psychological assistance, and so on. Almost all are my virtual ‘friendesses’ who gathered through the power of Facebook. The first thing we did was to collect safety information for women and girls evacuating alone. Memos and recommendations were created by our volunteer Yana from Moscow, together with a group of designers. Through the efforts of European volunteers, we distributed them at train stations, in refugee reception centers, on social networks, through people in charge of evacuation, and through the women themselves. Then we started making memos for each country: with important phone numbers, local tips, instructions on how to recognize a pimp, phrases for work and other important information on women's safety in every EU country. Then, with the help of volunteer programmers, we made a reference chatbot, where we put the information from the memos. A wonderful designer, Tanya M., also from Moscow, made us a website where we collected all our initiatives in one place.
Another Fempodmoga initiative is to support a petition against the involvement of Ukrainian women in prostitution, which is legal in some EU countries. Women with radfem views have gathered around the initiative. In practice, Fempodmoga volunteers have done the same things as other volunteers, but our focus is on women. Fempodmoga is a community of women – each one of whom is her own volunteer centre. Both initiatives are closely intertwined. For example, Lingvo volunteer Elena translated a self-care course for women survivors of violence, which, through Fempodmoga, we distribute to women fleeing the war.
S: Is Fempodmoga an exclusively volunteer initiative, or do you have employees? Can anyone join, or are there any selection criteria?
ZC: We don't have employees, but friends. We are based on mutual sympathy and non-hierarchical views of the world. Usually, one of us brings someone in and introduces them to the others. But everyone decides for herself what to do and whom they want to help. It seems to me there is no criterion other than "this is fate".
S: How involved are the participants of the initiative? Do you have a large "turnover" or do people stay for a long time?
ZC: At Lingvo Volunteers, we have a core of 100 translators who regularly and free of charge translate refugee documents: certificates, medical records, vaccination cards, letters, diplomas, etc. And about 300 "flickering" translators who are ready to pick up one-time requests.
It is a grassroots, volunteer organization. Translators who get tired ask us to temporarily remove them from the available lists, and others take their places. Now we have 10 admins from different time zones, which we have recruited from among the translators. We are all involved in other volunteer initiatives in some way. We have a kind of Babylonian-volunteer spirit.
As for Fempodmoga, since we rely on sisterhood and mutual support, we have the principle of "Tired? Get some rest." It is a more intimate group. There are only 20 of us women, and we have to take care of each other. Right now, almost all participants have supervised refugees and their families, so we switched to the mode of providing help for specific cases, rather than looking for those in need in groups, as it was at the very beginning.
Volunteers on the Ukrainian-Romanian border. Photo: Michel E, Unsplash.com
S: As you have already described, Fempodmoga works across many areas — from translation of documents to psychological assistance. Which one is your priority? Or are all of them equally important?
ZC: It seems to me that no matter what we do, our activities are permeated by feminist optics. For example, when we are looking for psychologists for women, we often turn to psychologists from the Femtherapy Association. And yes, we have a focus: the prevention of violence against women, counseling and friendly support to women. And this support is very wide-ranging.
It may seem that day-to-day help should not be gender-specific, but in practice, a volunteer with feminist views offers healthier support and helps a woman see hidden threats that she cannot always recognize due to stress. We had a case when our volunteer from Italy accompanied a group of girls to the Italian police as a translator. She saw the signs of harassment that the Italian officers allowed themselves and stopped them. More recently, I had to explain to a French volunteer that his desire to resettle a pretty girl with him is, to put it mildly, unhealthy, that this girl will not be calm and safe next to him, and a cocktail of gratitude and awareness of her dependence is not the best combination in her situation.
And I'm not only talking about a few criminal cases that our volunteers have encountered, but about the mechanism of power imbalance itself. Feminists know when the balance is out of whack, and the "damsel-in-distress" mechanism is activated, and help women avoid falling into abusive scenarios.
S: What problems do refugees most often come to you with? How do they find you? How often do you manage to help them? Do male refugees come to you?
ZC: People come to us asking for help with information, in search of psychological help, to solve specific problems (housing, education, community search, help with children, etc.). Now, as I said, we have switched to the model of supervising women and their families. Each volunteer has women under her care, to whom she helps to understand the local bureaucracy, everyday life and sometimes herself, if there is a request for moral support. In fact, we are trying to provide friendly assistance to women who have fled to a foreign country and found themselves without friends and acquaintances. That is to say, at least for a while, to give women a sense of friendship and support.
Men? Every morning I start by chatting with teenagers — Ukrainian guys scattered around German cities, whom I personally helped to travel to Germany before they came of age. As for men of military age, there are very few of them among those seeking help from us, for obvious reasons (since martial law is in effect in Ukraine, men from 18 to 60 years old, with rare exceptions, are prohibited from traveling abroad — ed.). Usually, they come together with their elderly mums. So, our focus is still on women.
S: Do Ukrainian refugees face labour discrimination? In what form?
ZC: Ukrainians come with children, and the social systems of European countries are not designed for such a number of children. Kindergartens are overcrowded, and it is almost impossible for a refugee child to get into them. It is a little easier with schoolchildren, since school-age children are required to go to school, but this requirement is no longer strictly observed. In Berlin, for example, about 1,600 Ukrainian children have not yet been able to go to school due to a lack of places. Women find themselves tied to children. At the same time, they are obliged to attend integration courses, where children will not be taken. There are no close friends or parents nearby. It is a step backwards, towards loneliness, inconvenience, and a need to compete with tied hands. The difference with Syrian refugees is that Syrian refugees come in large extended families; in Muslim families, the man works, and the woman looks after the children. Ukrainians usually have no husbands, no family, no relatives nearby. This family gap reduces women's mobility and complicates the job search.
In addition, the same German government plans to solve problems with shortages of medium-specialized personnel with the help of Ukrainian refugees. Germany has a good system of professional retraining, but to get there, you need to raise your language level to B1 or B2. Retraining, for example, as a masseuse for a university lecturer or a journalist is morally difficult. It is easier for women with technical and IT specialties, because they are not forced to retrain, but are offered the chance to brush up their language first.
I talk about Germany so much because probably most of the women fled here. 3 out of 4 requests for translation in the Lingvo Volunteers group concern Ukrainian-German pairings.
S: Do you collect information about the actions of the sex industry in relation to refugees? Was there an increase in cases of sex trafficking in connection with the war?
ZC: At the very beginning, we were dealing with these stories, trying to collect data, individual cases, not out of curiosity, but to prevent women from getting into human trafficking.
I have personally handed over to the police and journalists, ads from German pimps who openly published invitations in refugee aid groups to work in brothels. In addition, we received evidence of the presence of suspicious people pretending to be volunteers at the borders. We had a case when our volunteer managed to separate a refugee girl from a new dangerous acquaintance by informing her. The refugees themselves are quite reasonable, but in a state of stress caused by the war, it is difficult to react quickly. And generally, it is not easy to distinguish a volunteer from a non-volunteer.
We were somewhat disappointed in the actions of the police in different countries. We communicated with the German and Austrian police regarding separate cases. They did not take the measures we had hoped for. The cases we have encountered indicate that the criminal sphere of Europe is happily rubbing its hands, and human trafficking has grown. But it would be strange to expect something different in the context of a huge number of poorly protected women without proper social connections.
S: How can sexually exploitative practices towards refugees be countered?
ZC: Sexual exploitation, like any other exploitation, appears where there is an imbalance of power. And war is not just an imbalance, it is the destruction of all habitual ties, it is a trauma with which a woman is forced to flee to foreign lands, it is stress and physical inconvenience, a long experience of vulnerability and dependence.
Therefore, getting into exploitation can only be prevented by the social resistance that society must provide to protect the most vulnerable members. Refugees are a vulnerable group; women are a vulnerable group. When in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and other EU countries there is a huge sphere of legal trafficking in women, and there are 9 more illegal circles openly recruiting women and children around it, one cannot talk about social resistance.
In other words, formal concern for the existence of legal red-light streets and thousands of illegal alleys in the centers of European cities is insufficient, given the scale of the disaster. You can't dig a hole in the city center where people regularly fall, keep saying that they fall there voluntarily, and at the same time try to hold millions of women by the hand, away from falling into it. In the case of the legalization of prostitution, the idea of controlled evil, the victims of which are, primarily, vulnerable women, does not work.
S: Do you cooperate with other volunteer initiatives that help refugees? If so, which ones?
ZC: We regularly cooperate and exchange information with evacuation groups, for example, with the wonderful guys from Rubikus. We advise women who are in Ukraine or who find themselves in Russia to travel with this group. We developed the first memos on women's safety in cooperation with their volunteers. I have seen our memos in almost all the feminist group chats that I have read.
Lingvo Volunteers translate a lot for various volunteer initiatives in Europe: for medical projects, projects to help children with autism spectrum disorders, etc. We also cooperate with various translation projects and help lift the workload for their translators.
Each Fempodmoga volunteer is connected by threads with offline volunteer initiatives in her city/region. I have such a thread — an initiative to collect humanitarian aid from the local municipality. Our volunteer Katya teaches refugees German full-time, solves their everyday and bureaucratic issues, and as an opera singer, helps Ukrainian children to adapt to the new environment through art. Another volunteer, Ksenia, hosts the cool TG channel "Damn Ambivalence" and the podcast "My Room" and helps Ukrainian feminists who fled the war to Berlin in a friendly way. Daria brings Ukrainian teenagers together in another German city and translates for Lingvo Volunteers. Girls in Italy, France and Austria continue to guide ‘their’ families and provide them with friendly support. Volunteers from Russia translate, administer, design, and help remotely. We discuss particularly difficult cases in a group and look for a solution together.
Photo: Marjan Blan, unsplash.com
S: Do you know how the fate of the people you helped develops? How often do refugees return to Ukraine?
ZC: Yes, in Fempodmoga, because of the specifics of our assistance, we remain in contact with those to whom it was provided. At Lingvo Volunteers, the flow of requests is too high to track the further fate of a person. But I increasingly see Lingvo Volunteers accompanying families who have been helped. They form groups where they distribute time. For example, someone may be engaged in full-time family support 1-2 hours a day, someone less and less often. Usually, such regular language assistance is needed in families where there are sick and elderly people. We translate a lot of medical documents.
From those I communicated with, I personally know two examples where women have returned to Ukraine. In the first case, the girl returned to her elderly mother, in the second, the woman returned to her husband wounded in the war. It's hard for me to say how often people come back. It is probably better to look at the reports of the border service of Ukraine.
S: What usually motivates return — the hope of an early victory for Ukraine or the lack of opportunities in the country to which refugee women emigrate?
ZC: The refugees are not emigrating but fleeing. If they do not have relatives who have already settled in the EU, then they fall into a very tough, morally difficult refugee funnel. Refugee reception centers look like tent cities in exhibition centers, where a woman is deprived of personal space and familiar comforts. Bureaucrats live in their own world and sign people up for an appointment once every 3 months, which is why refugees are in limbo, with a lot of unresolved issues and a list of examples that progress in slow motion. I have already talked about the lack of proper help with children and the restriction of women's mobility.
Renting a home independently is a difficult quest, as it is more difficult for refugees to get recommendations, they often cannot show the owners a work contract. The euphoria of help during the first months of the war has passed, and landlords often demand a set of guarantees from a refugee, as they would from an average German or Dutch person. Increased competition and lack of housing make this process very labour-intensive. Of the women I'm talking to now, everyone is drudging along this way. Morally, it is very difficult when they left their parents, an established way of life, all their social ties in Ukraine.
Recently, one of the teenagers with whom we became friends and whom we helped to cross two countries on the way to Germany, said that he wanted to return to Ukraine. He is 18, his mother pushed him out just before coming of age and stayed at home with the elderly. We have no confidence that he will be allowed back to Germany, and therefore I dissuade him. And he just wants to go to his mom. He was tired of adult decisions, of loneliness and this alien world. And although theoretically everything is fine for him — there is a German family that takes care of him, there is a social worker who teaches him about life in Germany (here teenagers can receive support up to 21 years old), he wants to go home. To protect his home and to just be with his family. And at home — there is war. It's very scary to understand that there is a war at home. And it seems to me that this understanding causes in people both the desire to return and protect those who remain, and a fear of returning, and heartache caused by it all.