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Leadership in Defending Democracy on the Poland-Ukraine Border

Dr. Mariia Levchenko is a 2022 McCain Global Leader from Ukraine. She is the European Director of Outreach and Training at the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding and the Executive Director and Founder of the Ukrainian NGO “Youth for Global Progress.” Additionally, she works as a Dialogue Facilitation Officer at OSCE. In her work, she educates young people, refugees, and women on themes of “Civic Dialogue and Peacebuilding” and “Fighting Propaganda, Disinformation, and Extremism.” 

Fellows from McCain Institute’s McCain Global Leaders 2022 Cohort participated in the program’s first Changemaker Tour in Poland on the topic of defending democracy. And there was no better place to start the tour than in Poland – the first country to open its doors to Ukrainian refugees, providing support and creating a feeling of safety away from home. Now, almost six months after the beginning of the full-scale war, many people keep asking themselves: what do we do now? And the answer to this question is closely tied with the necessity to start thinking about democracy in the long term rather than as a day-to-day concept.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Poland has taken in 3.5 million refugees and has developed a system through which refugees from Ukraine can legally stay in the country, work, study and count on social benefits. However, many refugees who flee from the war arrive in a terrible state, emotionally depressed, many of them leaving their relatives and friends at home. They are afraid of uncertainty. They do not know where they will live and do not have the money or connections. On the other hand, the host communities face different challenges of social adaptation and many unanswered questions on what to expect in the future.

Nevertheless, Polish citizens treat Ukrainians as “guests” and not refugees. The reason for that is in the mutual history of fighting for independence and understanding that Ukraine is going through existential survival and fighting for the democratic values of the whole world. Because now, there is a crisis of democracy in the world. It is a global war, and unfortunately, Ukraine is the main battlefield.

However, while Ukraine is at the forefront of the fight for democracy, the global arena is changing quite fast. Many other countries are also impacted – from Europe to Africa and Asia. The old world structures are changing and shifting, and it is quite evident that they are not working anymore. Many international networks failed to work after the war in Ukraine started, and those are new trial times for everyone – those who work in the civil society, government, education, peacebuilding or environment.

The experience of spending a week in Poland, together with other McCain Global Leaders 2022, who come from different and diverse backgrounds, was life-changing and enriching. Numerous meetings with Polish activists, MPs, civil society and volunteering with World Central Kitchen at the Ukrainian-Polish border have influenced all of us. The impact of seeing Ukrainian women with kids running away from the war and being welcomed by the first words in Poland: “Now you are safe here,” helps to appreciate the scale of the support from Poland and the people living here. For some of us, who are refugees like me or who have lived through traumatic experiences during the Yugoslavian war, it was another reminder that suffering still goes on.

However, such experience helps to see democracy working in its most raw and sincere form. It is the balance of interests and values. This is what Ukraine, Poland, the United States and many other democratic countries stand for. It is the intention to cherish the value of human life and human rights and to support them to the fullest extent. And now, democracy is going through a period when it needs to be encouraged and supported. And there is no other way to do it but to invest in people, think long term, and help those who can take over when the transition period is over.

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DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Mariia Levchenko
Publish Date
August 1, 2022