Supporting Ukrainian Civil Society Heroes: Liudmyla Chychera


16 May 2024

With CEELI’s Support, Ukrainian Charity Leader from Mariupol Embarks on a Pilgrimage of Reinvention

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Liudmyla Chychera ran a small community center in the heart of Mariupol, offering its residents a place to meet, talk, learn, and create.

Today, more than two years after fleeing Russian forces that continue to occupy her native city, Liudmyla has a very different mission: helping the Ukrainian military win the war—and one day, take her city back.

“February 22, 2022, upended everything,” Liudmyla shared with CEELI Institute’s team. “We ceased to exist as an educational center and community center.”

Since the start of the full-scale invasion, Liudmyla and the charity she co-founded, Halabuda, have been on a pilgrimage of reinvention. From their new home in Cherkasy in central Ukraine, she and seven staff members provide humanitarian aid to civilians and soldiers. It also runs a small repair facility, fixing the military’s drones when they are damaged during the fighting.

Last month, Liudmyla lived at the CEELI Institute as part of a short-term fellowship for leading Ukrainian civil society activists. CEELI designed the program to give humanitarian and civil society actors a place to live, work, rest, and network with Czech and international aid organizations.

The CEELI Institute spoke with Liudmyla during her final week in Prague before she returned to the frontlines of Ukraine’s citizen-led fight for freedom. 

You co-founded Halabuda with your husband, Dmytro. What was the organization created to do?

Halabuda, which means “tree house” in Ukrainian, has roots dating to 2014. Back then, our mission was simple: to provide volunteer support to the military. But we also focused our attention on new residents of Mariupol, people displaced from the Donbas who arrived in Mariupol from occupied territories.

We decided we needed to help make their lives easier—for them and for residents. Eventually we became a platform for building a dialogue between the public and local authorities.

The original intent was to fill a void in the education space and provide training in business, art therapy, photography, and other areas. A pillar of the educational program was a photography school, which was founded by my husband Dmytro Chechera. A lot revolved around that.

The last big project, which was interrupted due to the Russian attack, was to educate women who live in small towns in the Donetsk region. We were going to teach them business skills so that the women could be self-sufficient.

Your mission changed dramatically in February 2022, and now one of your key projects is repairing the military’s damaged drones. What does that project entail?

Repairing drones is cheaper than buying new ones. We’ve already repaired more than 900 drones and saved the Ukrainian government more than 100 million hryvnias (2.3 million euros/2.5 million dollars). This is our contribution to the future victory. 

In March, Halabuda became a full-fledged drone repair hub, as the range of services expanded to hardware repair of almost any complexity. Repair times have increased significantly because of this. Not everything can be repaired, not all parts can be purchased. But what's available is what we do.

When you left Mariupol, in March 2022, many people followed and today you are also providing psychological support to military families, correct? 

Yes. We’ve implemented a large project to support the families of servicemen. Many members of our team have relatives who serve in the ranks of the armed forces. We’re helping our society prepare for the return of our soldiers. Everyone should know what topics can be raised with the military veterans, and what should not be raised, what words can serve as “triggers.” We want to make it as easy as possible for returning fighters to adapt, and for families to be accepting of the new conditions and the new character traits in a person who has returned from the front.

What is your long-term vision for Halabuda?

There was such confusion as to whether Halabuda would continue to exist [after February 2022] and what should we do if the team members are scattered all over Ukraine and even abroad. But we collectively decided that Halabuda must continue because we are needed by many people. Many former residents of Mariupol know—and this is not an exaggeration—that if Halabuda survives, so too will the hope that one day we will return to our city.

How have you used your time at the CEELI Institute as a fellow?

We were able to break out of the routine of war, which was a big help to us. Just having time for psychological recovery, I am grateful.

We’ve had many meetings here with many Czech organizations who are concerned about the situation in Ukraine. Our main goal was to talk about our activities and in general, about the true state of things that are currently happening in Ukraine.

Going forward, we hope to cooperate with some organizations that we connected with during our stay. For instance, we met with [the Czech charity] People in Need and talked about our experiences in social and psychological support, for both civilian and military internally displaced persons. We also met with other organizations to discuss humanitarian projects, and what humanitarian aid can be provided to support our work.

Liudmyla Chychera, co-founder of the Ukrainian non-profit Halabuda, was a CEELI Institute fellow in April 2024. This interview was recorded on April 24th.

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