Before the war, Valentyna lived in Horlivka, working at the Horlivka Mechanical Engineering Plant that manufactured coal cutters. Her position was titled a “chief specialist for stock management at the production support department”. In fact, she oversaw 12 large storage facilities employing 28 persons.
‘And what about now?’ I asked her. ‘How many people are under your charge today?’
‘Sometimes, another woman is helping me’, Valia [a diminutive of Valentyna] smiles.
She now runs Lavka Rukodillia, a small shop in Pavlohrad, the city where Valia and her large family – the husband and three children – have settled down.
From Horlivka, Valia recalls, they fled twice: the first time was right away, in June, when they went to seashore to get away from war. Valia’s son was only 6 months old at that time, and her daughters were 7 and 10 years.
In July, they returned home to Horlivka, where they heard about the liberation of Sloviansk and about a military column advancing towards their city.
‘At night, we picked up our kids and went back to seashore. Waited for our city to be finally liberated, so that we could go back home for good. However, our troops did not reach Horlivka…’ she says, and you could physically feel what these few miles mean in her life.
The family landed in Pavlohrad, because Valia’s husband works with mining equipment.
Their head office was transferred to Kharkiv, and the personnel were given the choice between Kharkiv, Dobropillia and Pavlohrad.
‘We were afraid to go to Dobropillia, because it is too close to Donetsk, to the fighting; Kharkiv is too far, as we thought that we’ll go back home soon and didn’t want to move far away… If we only knew that it’s for so long, we would have surely chosen Kharkiv – a large city with great opportunities’, Valentyna reflects upon the situation in 2014.
Back then, they thought that it’s not for a long, that the war would end soon – they just had to be patient… They sent their girls to the first school they came across, the nearest one, without even looking for a better option.
They thought that they would go back home soon, sending the girls to whatever school they found to make sure that they won’t fall too far behind the academic program. They still go to that school, in their fifth year there.
‘We had just one saucepot in our first apartment in Pavlohrad, and the budget was tight after spending a summer on the shore of the Sea of Azov. Therefore, I had to cook a main course first, which could then be placed into plastic bowls, and then cook a soup’, Valentyna recalls the year 2014.
She also talks about depression that struck her…
‘I just keep recalling my house, my family nest where I had everything: saucepots, comfortable beds; and here, I have to sleep on a couch with a spring sticking into my body… And even the couch isn’t mine’, she sighs.
The school uniforms of her kids were left in the occupied territory, along with the entire school implements. Even the children’s toys are also occupied.
In 2014-2015, Valia worked a lot as a volunteer.
‘That’s the way it was’, she says as if excusing herself, but speaking to her, you realize that that was the only way it could be.
At first, she helped some people receive humanitarian aid, then helped others, and then started to bring humanitarian aid from Dnipro for the entire Pavlohrad.
In 2015-2016, her phone wouldn’t stop ringing: “Valia, how do I get my papers done?”, “They decline some of my papers”, “Where can get a reference?”
‘One day, I overheard someone saying in the street: “You better ask Valia.” “Who’s that?” “She’s the chief IDP in Pavlohrad“’, Valia recounts what she heard.
Back then, she often had to listen to numerous complaints from people: why there is no canned meat or why the pasta is not the way it should be, why someone’s got something and someone else hasn’t…
‘So, I’m listening to all that and think to myself: when would you finally say “thanks”? Obviously, it isn’t our fault that we had to flee and that we were left with nothing, but one has to appreciate whatever one has, and most importantly, one has to do something about it. That’s the most important thing – to do something about it’, she keeps repeating it like a mantra.
A fair was held in Pavlohrad in 2015, and Valia was offered to attend it, as the woman was from time to time making original hair decorations for her daughters.
‘A woman from Donetsk who knew me suggested that I go to the fair to show by decorative works. They didn’t charge me for the vending spot, and the goods I brought with me weren’t that many’, Valia recalls her first vending experience at a fair.
She says that her sales were modest, but that wasn’t the point. Firstly, she saw for herself that she can sell her works, and secondly, she met other artisan women there.
That was how Valia started her first business venture: a VKontakte group for handmade product makers to buy materials together.
‘I was buying those very ribbons or rhinestones in large consignments, and therefore, at wholesale prices. Then, I would put them into parcels and ship orders to all corners of Ukraine.
I charged a certain markup for my work, but I earned more in materials than in money’, Valentyna recalls that period.
That was how she learned about various materials, about the terms offered by suppliers, and what other artisans do.
‘But at the same time, I saw how women display their works in our group: like, thanks for materials, look what I made.
‘And I didn’t have time to make anything: all the time I was doing packaging, measuring off ribbons, rushing to the post office while earning ‘peanuts’’, Valia explains what dispirited her the most at that time.
And therefore, she says, she’s very happy that VKontakte was banned. Although she’s happy about it now, but back then, it wasn’t that funny.
‘I really was lost, trying to move the group to Facebook, but it kinda stalled, so I decided that it’s a sign that I should quit packaging and start doing what I’d like to do’, Valia says.
It happened in the fall of 2017, when she attended a Ukrainian Women’s Fund business development training for internally displaced women.
At the end of the second training session, the attendees wrote a business plan. It was when Valia clearly saw her shop and described its development down to the tiniest detail.
‘I clearly realized that I don’t want to sell things off a vending table in the street anymore, that I don’t want to live from one fair to another, that online sales involve huge competition and long, exhaustive correspondence a-la “can you do like this, not like that“’, she explains what she had come to realize at that time: that she has to have a permanent sales outlet, an “own corner”.
Right on the eve of the New Year 2018, Valia received a phone call from the Ukrainian Women’s Fund and was told that her business plan for a shop was approved.
The grant was to cover the costs of producing the furniture, but finding the premise was her responsibility.
The things were set in motion: Valia describes in detail how she wanted to have a shop at Pavlohrad’s Olympia retail center but they did not have a vacant premise she needed, and how long the negotiations took:
‘I was lucky: the retail center’s lease manager got interested in my idea, for Olympia has never had a shop like Lavka Rukodillia before.
You see, if I were proposing to sell accessories for mobile phones, hardly anyone would have been interested.
But they liked my idea, so as soon as a premise was vacated it was offered to me’, Valia explains how you should act in a difficult situation: you should get the one on whom the solution of your problem depends interested in your idea.
The shop was opened in April 2018.
A new period in Valia’s life has begun.
Since the first fairs in 2015, she has established extensive contacts among artisan women in Pavlohrad, so now she offered them to sell their works via her shop.
‘Today, my shop sells both the handmade items themselves and the materials needed to make them. And right in my workplace, I do what I like doing – hair decorations’, Valentyna says.
And also, she loves telling various stories about her customers. For instance, some girl wanted to become a unicorn. Then, her aunt went to see a fairy…
But in fact, everything was different.
‘I received an order for a unicorn hat for the girl’s birthday. I designed the hat, made it, and then was told that the little unicorn also needs wings. So, I had to make wings.
‘Eventually, I received a letter saying that the girl was very happy, jumping and shouting: “Hooray! I have finally turned into a pony!”
There was another story:
‘One day on the eve of 1 September, the parents of some kid stopped by my place, looking for a brooch. I had the idea right away…
‘The brooch was ready in no time – they just finished shopping, and I was already done with it. I saw their jaw dropped, and the dad said: “That was a great job you did!”
…The furniture wasn’t ready yet and the shop still hadn’t been opened, and Valentyna has found another grant – from the European Union’s project “Bridges of Public Activity”.
She submitted her business plan to that project as well, and won equipment for automation of a business: laptop, printer, scanner, and licensed Bookkeeper software. 48 thousand hryvnias for everything.
Imagine, Valentyna explains, 50 artisan women bringing from several to several dozen items to a shop for sale.
‘This program really helps me; it’s not like writing down in a notebook “Sveta Ivanova’s violet bear sold“’, she says.
On top of that, she found an additional source of income.
‘Since I bought a scanner-printer with the grant money, I began offering an additional service at my shop: photocopying. It’s a little extra money, but everyone at our retail center was happy, for that’s convenient’, Valia says.
She is already dreaming about enlarging her shop: today, Lavka Rukodillia is just a small corner at the retail center, adjacent to a wall, but she wants a studio that would have a sales area, a master class area and a work area where she could sit down and create things…
‘I’m so happy when customers call me to say thanks. I can’t get used to it, for I always feel a warm wave overflowing me then… I also like when women come over and bring new works of theirs’, Valia recounts what she likes her Lavka Rukodillia shop for.
While we were talking, Valentyna said: you know, this is totally different from what I used to deal with back in Horlivka: occupational safety, accident prevention, loading-unloading…
‘If you had the choice between going back to the manufacturing plant and continuing your decoration products business, what would you choose?’ I asked her.
‘Today, I would have chosen decorations. Although when I was working at the plant, I really liked it there, for that was our plant’, Valentyna says.
And adds: only the elder daughter remembers our home. She wanted very much to return home before, but not anymore.
‘That’s very hard, you know: we were planning our lives – I worked, my husband worked, we bought an apartment, bought a car… And we wanted our third child, too. Our parents lived nearby, a kindergarten, a school – everything was nearby, too. Everything was planned. And then, everything has just disappeared in a blink of an eye’, Valentyna says.
She recalls the last bell at the school her girls were going to, in May 2014 – all first-graders wearing vyshyvanky, the elder daughter finishing her fourth grade, children releasing yellow-and-blue balloons into the sky, and warplanes were already roaring close-by…
‘One can start all over again. And I could say it myself: it’s all right, you can start over again… But when that concerns yourself, it really hurts to realize that the childhood of your children goes by not in the nest you made for them but in beds that aren’t yours… They don’t even have a corner for themselves here. I understand that there are people who live like that all their life, but we were creating different conditions… And these conditions are over there, where there is no place for us’, Valia says.
‘You know’, Valia says, ‘on the eve of the last New Year I felt so distressed. And suddenly, I saw a picture: there was someone sitting on a snow-covered bench, and the inscription: “Where are you, oh wonder, I’m waiting for you!”
‘I was so longing for a wonder back then, and then, I got a phone call and was told that I won a grant’, she recalls.
An elderly man with a cane walks by her Lavka Rukodillia almost every day, each time looking at new items like at an exhibition and saying: “Your shop is just fabulous”.
‘Maybe it’s fabulous indeed’, Valia agrees. ‘I could’ve hardly ever imagined that I will be making unicorns.’
By Lesia Ganzha