Faith is of extreme importance for great works and victory. “Little Stories of a Big War,” a project by the Ukrainian Catholic University, tells of the faith of ordinary people: colleagues, friends, neighbors, longtime acquaintances who selflessly hold their own lines in this war.
While some have taken up arms to defend Ukraine, others hold down the fort with their volunteer work. This does not take Herculean efforts, it is enough to do your job well.
For Halyna Zherebetska and her team, care has a specific flavor. It is the taste of fresh pastries. From the earliest days of war, they have been baking honey cakes. Working with dough is full of sacredness: love and faith are the secret ingredients. Halyna says that the soldiers’ spirits rise, when they receive her cakes.
Halyna temporarily changed her place of work from the Ukrainian Catholic University Department for Development to a volunteer kitchen. After building up capacity, the team of volunteers has been baking treats for defenders of Ukraine every day. Along with honey cakes, they send paintings and well wishes, often created by the volunteers’ children. Halyna Zherebetska, head of the benefactor liaison sector at the Ukrainian Catholic University development department, has agreed to tell us about the work of volunteers in Lviv who’ve been sending food to frontline military personnel for the past two months.
How is your volunteer work organized?
There are more work-related responsibilities. In order to combine them with volunteer work, we’ve had to take shifts. We’ve been working without lunch breaks, starting in the morning, ending in the evening. I came home falling off my feet; I gave the kids a hug and collapsed to sleep. Next day, same thing… This was a physically exhausting but very necessary period – it brought down war-related stress levels, and added confidence in tomorrow.
What do you make now?
Honey cakes, energy bars. Previously, we’d provide for the needs of the volunteer kitchen. For example, say you need to bring several tons of carrots and make a salad. We also brought vegetables for drying, processed potatoes for soups, etc.
How did you start baking honey cakes: is this process any different from what we would do at home? How many do you bake in a day, where do you send them on?
We mostly bake honey cakes for field rations. It can’t be moist or too soft. We mix a thicker batter than usual for honey cakes that are to be sent to the soldiers at the frontline. These foods are easier to transport, and they keep longer. Subsequently, they can be put in a backpack or in your pocket. We bake 20-30 honey cakes every day, and we send them on either through the Lviv Volunteer Kitchen, or by hand, when the military turns to us directly.
How do you attract funds to make these foods?
We fundraise (laughs). We’ve done a few posts on Facebook and Instagram. Friends and acquaintances help. For instance, our friends from Denmark raised funds in the earliest days of war, and sent us 24,000 hryvnias. We were very grateful.
And this wave of attracting charity funds continues?
People really leaned in at first, they brought groceries or helped with money. Starting in late March, the wave started dying down – we had to ask for help more often. Currently, we’re stable: we make one post, and have enough money for a week of work.
Who’s involved in finding funds?
Me and my colleague Natalia Batyhina, we work together at the Ukrainian Catholic University Department for Development, which is responsible for finding funds for the university. So our skills have come in handy now. We are transparent: all the checks, expenditures, the amount of food we have made, are all accessible. This creates a cycle of trust, so it’s easy to attract funds.
Tell us about your team.
I’m proud of our team – people with similar values attract. Each one of us has a steady job, but we’ve all set our business aside for a time, and decided that this is our priority at the moment, we have to do our best to support our army, the Armed Forces of Ukraine. This is a critical moment, when holding the fort is extremely important.
How has your life changed since the beginning of the full-scale invasion?
There were many plans. Big projects that provided motivation. Then one day it all simply stopped.
Children who had bright futures ahead of them, are now under daily threat. Missile attacks start, and you worry.
The sense of security has really shifted. We all ask ourselves, when will this war end? Nobody knows. Uncertainty is only oppressive when you don’t know what to do next. If you do know, you simply take small steps towards victory.
Does it become easier for you to deal with the cruel reality all Ukrainians have found themselves in, when you work at the volunteer kitchen?
According to the volunteers, it really helps, it creates a community where you get a sense of making an actual difference in the current situation. Every volunteer says: “Just please don’t let us stop. It’s very important.”
You plan to bake pasky [Easter bread] for the military. You’ve already settled on a recipe and bought the ingredients. Will the baking be somehow special?
We’ve acquired the ingredients, and – what is extremely important – everybody is involved in our endeavor. Some volunteers suggest decorating ideas, others suggest recipes. We have thought about all this, and planned it. Volunteers are already sending pasky to the soldiers, so that they arrive on time and so that the soldiers can enjoy them for Easter. (The interview was recorded on April 14th, Easter in Ukraine fell on April 24th, 2022.)
I get the impression from our conversation that honey cakes are sort of the brand of your team. Why honey cakes? Was this somebody’s suggestion?
I’ll tell you more – it’s not honey cakes, but energy bars that are our brand (laughing). Volunteers started a whole marketing campaign about those bars. Honey cakes are a common treat that is taken to the front, because it keeps for a long time without losing taste. Same thing with energy bars, they are high-calorie foods. They are our main product. We send hundreds of those.
As a confectioner, it’s important to get feedback. Do you get reviews?
There is feedback. We get a positive response, they seem to enjoy it. The soul we put into this job…
Have you entertained the idea of going abroad?
Of course I’ve had such thoughts, especially considering the safety of my children. Especially when air strikes started in the Lviv region. I heard explosions, because we live outside the city. When your children’s lives and limbs are down to your decision, you tend to think quite hard.
But when emotions die down, you ask yourself: “OK, so I’ll leave — then what?” Then you realize that your life and your future are here, and you have to fight for them with whatever strength you’ve got – right now.
How are your children responding to the war?
We tried to protect them in terms of information. On the first day, when it all started, we even let them sleep in, didn’t wake them up for school.
However, the sounds of air raid sirens affect everyone. Having gone outside the city with the kids, we’ve at least sheltered ourselves from acoustic triggers.
The children understand that it’s not just this month, that the war has been going on for 8 years. They are aware of who our enemy is. They worry, they ask what comes next, how our military personnel are, did mom’s honey cakes reach them? They have an interest in how it works, how our Ukraine is being defended.
Do you get them involved in drawing pictures that you send along with the cakes?
Yes, they drew, they even wrote poems. Actually, these pictures have been seen all over the volunteer kitchen. The children contribute too (smiles).
You live in the Lviv Oblast, which is considered to be safer. Some say it is an illusion. Did you experience “emotional swings”? Do you have rituals that return you to ordinary life?
I’m quite demanding of myself. I let myself relax when I spend time with my kids.
We are filming this video in my husband’s office. Here, they’ve started a shelter for victims of Russia’s invasion. Some people have lost their homes, some ran from explosions.
Reality has changed, we need to adapt: we need to find time for sleep to maintain productivity. I thank God that I am here now — in my city with my family.
What occupies your thoughts now? Are there things that make you worry or perhaps provide emotional relief?
I am very anxious about the need to finish the job. I worry that the war will slip our minds.
When the echo of the last shot dies down, we have to understand that we have a lot of work ahead of us. It’s not just Ukraine’s recovery, it’s building systems and institutions that will protect us from another invasion by Russia in the future. Because if we don’t finish the job now, it is quite likely that in another decade or two our children will have to fight a war against the invader again. This vicious cycle will continue until we break out onto a new level.
Do you have friends, acquaintances, family who are fighting now, or are in the territorial defense units?
Many. I have acquaintances that will not return. This is very hurtful. Every time I hear “Heroes don’t die!” — it hurts. Families are left behind that will always feel this loss. Every life claimed by the war is utterly valuable. Our heroes — they should live. It is important to save as many lives as possible. These brave people are our future.
As far as the future is concerned. We all talk of victory — we simply do not contemplate other possibilities. Do you have plans for what you will do afterwards?
In our team of volunteers, we have agreed: the moment we hear of victory – we will go to the Carpathians, climb some summit, and definitely bring our honey cakes. I had the idea to invite friends who supported us in this work. Additionally, I simply want to rest, spend time with my kids, and show them — we have defended our world.
This is a historic, watershed moment, a phenomenon. Everybody’s talking about Ukraine, there’s a brand we have to support. If we are the symbol of freedom in the world, then we must broadcast our values to the world. If we are the symbol of struggle – we must struggle for truth, show transparency, get rid of the “post-Soviet,” and be the sort of Ukraine that is attractive for tourists, for businesses, for young people who will want to come here to experience the spirit of Ukraine.
In conversation with Olha Katsan, Petro Didula, April 14, 2022
Photo: Olha Shakhnyk
Translator: Pavlo Hrytsak
Proofreader: Shari Henning Garland