Article by Gyöngyvér Gulyás
We talked to Ági Domonkos, the actor of the Hungarian-Ukrainian company PTAH Theatre, on the terrace of their home in Badacsonytomaj about the project “Playful Sundays for Ukrainian families”. Through the stories, we can gain insight into the importance of mental health support for war refugees, how play and theatre support this, and how these activities have been able to create a community that later became self-organising.
Ági, you are particularly affected by the war through your Ukrainian husband and fellow artist Mykola. Together, through the means of the theatre, you are helping those fleeing the war in our country.
Yes. My husband and I are both actors, we met on a scholarship programme in Kiev. We started to create together, and now we create our own theatre company, which does movement theatre and object theatre.
A performance by PTAH THEATRE, which is dealing with the separation caused by a war situation
When this whole horror started at the end of February, we were gasping for breath at first. Mykola’s parents and brother are still in Kiev, and she has many friends and relatives in Ukraine.
At first, we obviously tried to help like everyone else: going out, collecting. We have worked with the Dnipro National Ukrainian Cultural Association before, and we are finally working with them on this project. They bring together the Ukrainian minority in and around Veszprém, and under the leadership of Irina Zakar, they started helping as soon as the war broke out. We helped them to put people up at people’s houses, to translate, my husband went to the border, we forwarded donations to them, which they distributed to refugees arriving in Veszprém, but they also delivered parcels to Kiev.
Then, when we woke up from the first shock, we thought that even if we could not help financially for a long time, we could support refugee families with our profession.
Those who are here for the long term need to be able to switch off for a while. It’s important for mothers to have a safe place to leave their children while they take a breather or put their heads together. We wanted to create a safe place for them, a community where they could connect.
We managed to organise all this very quickly, and the Pannon Theatre School was happy to offer the venue, where we held our first Sunday theatre session with movement and playfulness at the end of March. About thirty children, from toddlers to fifteen-year-olds, parents and grandmothers, all came and participated.
Then, as they started to feel safer each week, the parents stayed outside to talk while we played with the children. A grant from MoNa helped us to continue the work we had already started, so we worked with their support until the end of June. Later, we were fortunate to have the support of another foundation.
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There was a period when two psychologist ladies who had fled from Ukraine were working with the parents while the sessions were taking place inside. Dnipro staff provided cakes, coffee and soft drinks, and there was a café atmosphere. One lady, who was a university lecturer back home, told us that she had a job in a factory in Veszprém, where she works the night shift and then teaches her university classes online. She did all this with humility and joy, and also came to help on Sundays.
Eventually he found a better opportunity and moved on, but that’s how it goes. A lot of the kids were replaced too. It’s harder not being able to work with a permanent team, but that’s the nature of the job at the moment.
Fewer people come now in the summer. One reason for this is that
we finally achieved what we wanted: a community that is now self-organising. The people here have got to know each other, have bonded and are now organising their own programmes.
The other day, for example, they were picking lavender in Tihany. But they have also gone to the cinema, the Parliament, the zoo, and organised sports activities for themselves. They’ve been on several excursions together, and we’ve also been on picnics with them. So it’s an active little community.
There are at least 250 Ukrainian refugees living in Veszprém and the surrounding area, for whom the local government is helping to provide factory jobs. Many of them are planning for the long term and do not want to return home. Especially families where the father has worked here before and now the others have come to join him because of the war. Until the summer holidays, the Hungarian-language institutions accepted the children, and from the autumn there will be a Ukrainian-language school for them.
From what social strata did people from Ukraine come to the Veszprém area?
It is completely mixed. From university lecturers to people living in much simpler circumstances. I am smiling now because I am thinking of a lady called Ludmilla. Imagine a sweet little grandmother with a gold tooth. The other day we had a joint event for adults and children. I really like these occasions, it’s so nice when everyone is there and it’s such a treat for the children to have their parents playing with them. Ludmilla was there, who despite all our gentle attempts refused to join in. Finally, there was a game in which everyone could “pick” something from a “treasure chest”. It could be a small thing, like an earring, but it could also be an experience, anything. We have to guess what it is, without using words. In this game Ludmilla finally joined in, she went to the box, we clapped her hands. She took out a lot of money and put it in her pocket. It was so sweet, she seemed so happy.
What tools and methods do you use in your sessions?
We try to play games that do not directly touch on the trauma of war. We use indirect tools and focus on the good at first.
There is a group of judo kids, older boys, who are here in Veszprém without their parents, with their coach. Apart from training sessions, there was no structure to their days, so we included them in the Sunday sessions. We know about them that they saw the killing at close quarters, they said there was a storm one night and they were terrified. So when working with them, for example, we have to be very careful what we touch and how. For example, my husband warned me that although I really like working with balloons, I shouldn’t do it with them because if one accidentally goes off, it can be particularly frightening for them. I am also learning, I have never worked with war refugees before.
I can see in the children that they have a lot of tension, and when you can see in their posture that they let it out a little bit, for example, they lower their arms more and more, it’s a great experience. We got a lot of hugs at the beginning, you could feel that they really needed to let go a little bit. Now there are less hugs because they are more relaxed.
They need a lot of encouragement, and they need to be treated more gently and more permissively than the average child. I have had some very good experiences. For example, one child who was totally resistant, once when there were fewer of us, he did go ahead and do the tasks and seemed to enjoy it, he had great ideas.
There are lots of movement activities, lots of sculpture games, pair exercises, concentration games with a ball. We always use soft toys, which is very important for them. And of course we always watch them, their reactions and make changes if necessary. We also have to be aware that there are always newcomers. And there are often one or two toddlers who arrive, who also have to find out different things than the older ones. There’s a lot of improvisation in our work, (laughs) and we have to accept that we can only move forward slowly.
The issue of trust is much more acute than in a normal situation, because these people come from places where trust has disappeared. I also like the fact that there are mats laid out on the ground everywhere in the venue, because as soon as the kids come in, they can roll and roll. It’s spectacular how starved they are to be able to let loose and just play like normal kids.
This obviously causes a certain amount of chaos, which has to be sorted out over time to make the sessions work. It is also an interesting question how much we can expect them to follow the rules. Obviously we treat them differently because of the situation, but at the same time there is a mutual respect on both sides, because that is how things can work, that is how we can give them security and predictability. So it’s important to know the day before, for example, how many people are coming, and to expect them to be there if they have promised to be there, or not to come in and out during the session. We need to have certain limits, because the helpers also travel from time to time, they put their souls out there, and pity cannot work in this. Besides, they don‘t need pity, they need support.
How much do you see their daily lives or thoughts revolving around war?
Absolutely, I think it’s perfectly natural. But they still try to enjoy life and they are very grateful for the help. Obviously the fathers are missing, it’s absolutely felt, so it’s a good thing that my husband and I are doing the sessions. We embody a kind of family model, and our little daughter is always with us. It works subconsciously and increases their sense of security that we welcome them into our family for that hour and a half.
Ági Domonkos and Mykola Bondarchuk
Of course, as a helper, it’s not easy as the tensions are put on us by the children. It’s not conscious, but it’s a way for them to release and for us to be able to cope with these burdens. We often get tired, but it is natural for us to keep going.
What drives you forward? Can you tell us a favourite story from these sessions?
I mentioned the judo boys. There’s a very tall guy, at least a head taller than us. He’s kind of the boss of the group. He’s a very nice, cooperative boy who the others listen to. One time we were playing a goalkeeping game, which is to stand in a circle and agree which two people will be the “goal”. Then someone comes in and makes eye contact with everyone, and based on that, you have to guess which two people you could pass between. There was a small shaped child standing in the middle, he was looking for the gate and this tall boy knelt down so that the small one could make eye contact with him. It was a very nice gesture. There are many beautiful moments.
This judo team, by the way, you can see that they are sportsmen, they are very disciplined. They have a gun and a bomb in their game. We don’t comment on that at this time, we just let it go. But it’s a great pleasure to see them relax, to see them slowly let go.
What should you know about the Ukrainian people?
They are very social people, for whom shared meals and holidays are particularly important. It is typical that they share what they have. For example, during a train journey, it is common for everyone to unload their own luggage in the carriage and share everything. They are used to not relying much on the system and do everything themselves, in small ways, without money. Their country is very important to them, now more than ever, and they resent being seen as Russian. National symbols, national costumes and the flag also play an important role for them.
The war has been dragging on for months. What kind of help do you see the refugees need most right now?
It is clear that mental health and psychological help is very much needed. For refugees as well as for the helpers and volunteers who work with them. There is also a constant need for interpreters, language skills, and people who can help with everyday life or official matters. At the same time, new families are constantly arriving, so there is always a need for accommodation, clothes, books, stationery and medicines.
If readers want to support your activities, how can they do so?
If anyone would like to connect with us, you can find us here and contact us at this email address.
The project was supported by MotherNature-Anyatermészet Association, MINE, Mother Centers International Network for Empowerment and the State Ministry of Baden-Württemberg.
Kiss Judith – MoNa
Judith Kiss | MotherNature – Mother Nature Association: ‘Now is the opportunity to do something, even in small ways, as much as we can, instead of complaining. It is a great feeling to work with the applicant organisations, to feel the energy that everyone puts into their programmes, the way they connect with us and with each other. The power of community shows here too.”
The article was first published at mum park.