Lyuba Maksymovych never imagined she would be rescuing women and children amid a hot war. She also never foresaw that a war could unite her country and induce deepening respect for women there — a “big step,” she said, for the nation. Indeed, in the last 13 months, Ukraine has changed — despite the endless annihilation by Russia — at least one way for the better. That has included a donation of thousands of leggings.
Maksymovych, 69, founded the Center for Women’s Perspectives, in Lviv, western Ukraine, in 1998. The organization’s main work has been protecting women’s rights and ensuring their equal opportunities throughout the country by helping women suffering from domestic violence and increasing their value in the labor market. The center provides small grants to groups advocating for women, including support of entrepreneurs, and has received funding from the United Nations Development Program, Open Society Foundations and the United States Agency for International Development, among others.
Maksymovych is obviously busy, but Russia’s full-scale invasion turned her operation into a new direction: providing shelter for women and children escaping the deadly bombardment of Russian troops in their towns, cities and villages. She quickly prevailed upon her extensive network of friends, businesspeople and good-willed citizens to help her set up an impromptu shelter in Lviv as soon as the war hit in February 2022.
In the last year, she has since created a network of places of refuge, temporary and long-term, for women and children. She had no experience in handling such work, yet with her own know-how and that of others’, she has achieved what women and their children have desperately needed as Russia attacks civilian infrastructure and its troops inflict sexual abuse and other war crimes in Ukraine. Telling her story to PassBlue in March at the UN in New York City, during the annual women’s rights conference and a day before she flew back home, Maksymovych relayed how she has enabled others to survive and even thrive in the last year, tearing up at one point as she described the shock of her country being invaded and realizing how traumatic it has been for her and her fellow Ukrainians.
The interview has been edited and condensed. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
PassBlue: Tell us about your nonprofit organization and how it has changed since Russia’s full-on assault began on Feb. 24, 2022
Maksymovych: I head the Center for Women’s Perspectives, and our organization has been working in Ukraine for about 25 years. Our main activity is prevention of violence, prevention of trafficking, gender equality; we help women in decision-making, such as working with women parliament members to be leaders and learn how to work together with other women from different parties as well as on the local level. We help women who are unemployed and in crisis situations. Sometimes, we help them to start their own businesses and offer mentoring, promoting the feminist trend in Ukraine. We are based in Lviv, western Ukraine, and work as a hub to support women’s rights organizations. We unite more than 20 women’s groups, helping them to promote their own development and providing micro-grant programs for their activities.
The war changed the focus of our activities. Since it began in 2022, we have organized a big network of volunteers to give humanitarian aid and shelter to refugee women and children who arrived in Lviv from the eastern regions of Ukraine. Before, we had only a small shelter for victims of domestic violence and taught them about court processes and advocacy. At the start of the war, however, many women’s organizations in Ukraine called us and said, Please help. So we took in women and kids, who came with hardly anything, only a small bag, and it was winter. We helped them with clothes, food, housing, psychological and medical support. Some didn’t have a passport, so we helped them with that so they could go outside the country. We never did this before. We got help from foreign organizations who sent humanitarian aid. On March 24 , I received a letter by e-mail from the chief operating officer of a large company in the United States. He told me that his brother, who works for the British Red Cross, sent him my contacts. In particular, he wrote: “We are all aware of the terrible situation in Ukraine and other than direct monetary donations, which we have made, we are uniquely suited to assist women displaced by this war. As one of the largest manufacturers of women’s leggings in the United States, it would be an honor to donate 10,000 leggings to women affected by the conflict. We are prepared to ship them to a single location or locations of your choice — wherever the product is most needed. These leggings are weather appropriate, and our Company is hopeful that this product can assist women in need during this terrible time I look forward to hearing from you. We are all praying for the people of Ukraine.” He felt he could trust me. I said, O.K., but how can I give away so many leggings?
PassBlue: So how did you distribute 10,000 leggings in Ukraine?
Maksymovych: We gave them to women on the front, to IDPs [internally displaced people], to women in our shelters, to women going abroad. I also offered him the contacts of 10 other women’s organizations with which we cooperate and guaranteed that the leggings would be given to those who need them most.
PassBlue: What did the leggings look like?
Maksymovych: They were excellent quality, black, gray and brown gaiters. I was really impressed. The leggings were shipped from Los Angeles to New York. Then they were sent by plane to Warsaw and then by train to Lviv. He never met me, but it was especially important for us to pass it on to women who needed it. Such examples give us strength and faith in our victory. A few weeks ago, I got another letter from Los Angeles that said that they are willing to send us another 10,000. I am truly amazed at such a generous gesture.
PassBlue: What is the situation like now in Lviv, far from the front line in eastern Ukraine?
Maksymovych: We are far from the front line, but we are still in danger. There are no safe places in Ukraine today. Almost every day we have anxiety and the threat of Russian missiles hitting us. That’s why everything changed during the war. In the beginning, it was a situation where you had to make decisions as quickly as possible, you had to be creative. From the first day of the war, many people supported each other. So I created a shelter on the second day of the war. I was in Kyiv in the morning, at the railway station, waiting for a train to Lviv, when the war started. I heard explosions in [north-central] Boryspil and understood that this was very unusual. I received a call from a friend from Kharkiv, in the northeast, who said that Russian soldiers were bombing his city. I said, Is this war? A colleague called and said that the Russians were bombing Kherson [in the southeast]. It was hard to accept. Because it is the 21st century, and people understand what the price of life is. Why suddenly a war, a real war in the center of Europe? My brain did not want to accept it. I then went to Lviv. Many representatives of women’s organizations in Bucha, Irpin and Kharkiv called me, asking me to help shelter women from those places in Lviv. I called my friends in Lviv and asked them to shelter certain women with children who were coming to the city. But I needed to look for other opportunities to shelter these refugees. Martial law was declared in Ukraine. It was night, there were no taxis, no cars, everyone came by train, mostly at night, so the shelter had to be close to the station. I started looking for someone who could help me find a place to shelter women and children. I called a friend in the construction business — after not calling him for seven years — and he said, Hi, Lyuba. I said, War. He said, I know. I told him I needed a place for a few days for women and children. He said, I have an office near the station. After 15 minutes, I was already in his office, and the conference room and the office hall were released to me. He gave me the first floor; his office and five more rooms of his employees remained on the second floor. I said, Thank you. I called on other people to help me create the first shelter. Three hours later, a car arrived with 17 mattresses, which were placed on the floor of the conference room, where 17 women and children were already sleeping in the evening. I went to the market and bought juice, bread, sugar, coffee, milk, cereal. I thought then that it would be temporary, about a month. But we stayed eight months, 700 women and children passed through. Many volunteers helped us, psychologists provided consultations, donor organizations provided food and accommodation support.
PassBlue: Where did the refugees coming to Lviv originate?
Maksymovych: Mostly they came from the east, first Bucha, Irpin, Kyiv, Mariupol, Donbas, Kherson. They got to our shelter by word of mouth. There were no incidents at our shelter. Nobody got sick, nobody stole.
PassBlue: In the last year, you have opened a network of shelters in the Lviv region; how did they evolve?
Maksymovych: We created shelters for women and children who remained in Ukraine. Of course, not all women planned to go abroad. Some rented apartments in the Lviv region. There were those who did not have the funds to rent housing, and the question of other shelters arose. At that time, we began to be supported by international donors and we created seven more shelters in which more than 200 women and children live today. They have nowhere to return. There is a war, and their homes have been bombed. We provide psychological consultations, look for opportunities for their employment and self-realization. My experience in prevention of human trafficking and quick decision-making motivated me to provide the shelters. The fact is that most of the women and children went abroad. Their goal was to get away from the war to save themselves and their children. I understood all the dangers that could await them in another country. Most of the women did not know any other language than Ukrainian or Russian. Others did not even have a foreign passport. Therefore, it was important to provide them with information to warn them of the threat of falling into the trap of human traffickers. In addition, we created chats in Viber and Telegram to have contact with each woman. The chats are still working today. This allows them to feel safe.
PassBlue: You had to come up with a lot of bread and cheese to feed 700 people in the last year.
Maksymovych: I want to say that we were helped a lot by volunteers, international donors, local authorities and businessmen. Every day, our refugee women and children were warm and had enough food and clothing. It was a time when I felt that we are all ready to help each other, because we are fighting for the right to be a democratic free country. We still have this feeling of solidarity in Ukraine today.
PassBlue: You’ve seen the kindness of people amid the horror of this war?
Maksymovych: Yes, and the network I have is very good. When the women and kids first arrive, they are very stressed. The first shelter was operating until Sept. 30. It was the first but not the last. We opened an additional shelter. We have seven now. A private business gave us its premises; and two local governments gave us a college dormitory, and one gave us a two-floor building for $1.
PassBlue: Running a shelter system in the middle of a war zone is your specialty now.
Maksymovych: Not a specialty but a necessity. We provide a lot of psychological support. We provide a reintegration program, to help them to find a job.
PassBlue: Are Ukrainians coming together in the war? Has it improved relations between men and women?
Maksymovych: Good question. Before we had an equal opportunity law, for men and women. We tried to ratify the Istanbul Convention [on violence against women] in Ukraine, but it was hard. When the war started, it helped us to understand how important it is to work together, as men and women. It was a big problem with Ukraine, the war, but it was a big step for gender equality.
PassBlue: Will the understanding between men and women and gender equality last?
Maksymovych: Everybody understands that they need to do something. Not, this a job for men, a job for women. War is giving us an opportunity to understand what this means. Gender equality . . . gender issues. We ratified the Istanbul Convention in July! In Bucha, we have a lot of sexual violence, a big number across the country, a big risk for trafficking. The convention helps us help these people.
PassBlue: How do you see men and women relating differently now? Is there more respect?
Maksymovych: Yes, more understanding about men and women, especially in local government and parliament, in the Kyiv government. The understanding is that we will win if we work together. It’s our country. So many women are doing very important jobs. More people understand that, especially as we correct some of our national action plan [based on UN Security Council Resolution 1325] on women, peace and security.
There’s going to be a strategy plan for postwar reconstruction, money for that. Women’s organizations need to have more active participation in the process of deciding how money will be spent, and it should include a gender part. We would like to build a sport stadium, for example, in Lviv. We ask, Who will use this stadium? Mostly boys. I’m talking about gender budgeting, you understand? I’m worried about men saying, O.K., let’s build a stadium. But women say, in the decision-making, Please look at how much money we have. We have fifty percent girls, fifty percent boys. How could we spend the money that could be good for girls and boys? Men don’t think about it. But women think about it.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.