Chytomo Spotlights

Steppe people in the mountains: how the New York Camp took place


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The New York Literary Festival was held in the village of New York, Donetsk region, in October 2021, just a few kilometers from the front line. Organized by the NGO Cultural Elevator, the festival’s team included Kateryna Mikhalitsyna, Tetiana Pylypets, and Tetiana Vavryk. The festival was founded and curated by writer and PEN Ukraine member Viktoriia Amelina, killed by a Russian missile in Kramatorsk in July 2023.


Heavy puffs of smoke tickle the railway tracks. People and their luggage disembark from the grey and blue carriages at Slavske station. The vast distance of over a thousand kilometers separates this mountain village from New York in Donetsk region. Since the onset of the full-scale invasion, the village’s residents have sought refuge elsewhere, starting their new lives in evacuation. Among these evacuees were 14 teenagers, participants of the New York Literature Festival (NLF). Over five days, from September 13th to 17th, they gathered under one roof at New York Camp.


“This is the final project in which she remains so close to us…”


The sky above the location is overcast with thick clouds, veiling the mountain peaks in a heavy fog, typical of early autumn. A light drizzle falls outside, yet inside it’s warm because of smiles and herbal tea. The room is filled with teenagers, having just concluded a storytelling masterclass led by journalist Olena Maksymenko. Throughout the camp’s duration, the teams will craft story projects, each ultimately interwoven with their hometown of New York.


Olena Maksymenko’s masterclass


Opposite the children writer Olia Rusina and radio host and poet Olena Huseinova sit. Beside them translator and writer Katia Mikhalitsyna are, along with journalist and communications manager of the NLF Mariia Masiuk. Later, they will be joined by Sofiia Cheliak, the program director of BookForumLviv. Engaging in brief conversations about the war, the camp’s program, and memories of Vika Amelina, they surround themselves with laptops, papers, and cups while filling out a form to submit the writer for the Chytomo Prize.


Amid the onset of the new phase of the war, Vika Amelina actively informed foreigners about Russian aggression. She joined the human rights organization Truth Hounds, documented war crimes, and supported defenders and residents of New York. Vika lost her life in July due to a Russian missile strike on Kramatorsk. Initially, the organizers were uncertain about proceeding with the New York Camp, but they ultimately decided to push through as it held significant importance for Vika.



“She was determined to be true to herself. Vika couldn’t stop the missiles, so she wanted to make the most of her capabilities. I still have Vika’s Docs with the first ideas for the camp [New York Camp – ed.], her comments, and the layout of the children and lecturers on my Google Drive. This is the final project in which she remains so close to us,” says Olia Rusina.



Olia Rusina


The first New York Camp project stemmed from the New York Literary Festival, an initiative in 2021 spearheaded by Vika Amelina, Oleksandra Papina, and Khrystyna Shevchenko, head of the NGO Initiative Youth of New York. The second NLF, themed “De-occupation of the Future,” was scheduled for 2022. The constant shelling of the village made it impossible. Although there was a proposition to organize the event abroad, Vika declined, as remembered by Olena Huseinova:


“I remember the moment when organizing the NLF 2022 in New York, USA was proposed to Vika. It involved readings of girls’ essays in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The following morning, Vika responded, “This is the worst idea. We will host the NLF in New York Donets region, when it becomes possible. Even if there’s nothing left, we’ll sit by the riverbank and read poetry.”


The funding for this year’s New York Camp was secured through grants from the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Initially, the NLF received these grants for translating a book by French writer and journalist Sébastien Gobert into Ukrainian. His series of reports on Ukrainian New York life was to be published in 2022. However, following the onset of the full-scale invasion, with Sébastien’s approval, the NLF repurposed the grant, allocating the funds toward a camp for teenagers from Donetsk region, where the journalist participated as a lecturer.


Sébastien Gobert and his book of reports on Ukrainian New York.


Look inside


A lecture on creative writing by Olya Rusina is on the schedule. Girls and boys nestled comfortably on soft armchairs and sofas, having just caught their breath after scaling the hill to reach the residence. The thing is that the residence is located at the very top of a hill, access is only achievable via numerous wooden steps. Each time, one’s stamina and balance fail, and one falls gracefully to the wet ground. “Vika would definitely joke about the stairs,” the participants share a unanimous sentiment.


Beginning with the theory of humor and delving into meme culture, Olia encourages the participants to craft a humorous narrative around the infamous stairs. Step by step, the teenagers offer their spontaneous associations, shouting out phrases to construct the tale.


“The way to the goal!”

“The victory of Ukraine!”

“For me, the stairs are a metaphor for our meeting. We are apart, but we managed to see each other.”

“I don’t want to worry about the stairs! They’ll become just a memory!” Suddenly, the creative flow is interrupted by a girl’s voice: at the end of the camp, they will have to go down them to go back.


Creativity and art are foundational elements woven into the entire concept of the camp. The organizers aimed to foster a secure environment where participants could channel their emotions and process traumatic experiences through diverse artistic expressions. Under the guidance of director and screenwriter Maryna Stepanska, teenagers delve into acting techniques, concentrating on bodily expressions and emotions. Meanwhile, art therapy sessions led by Katia Mikhalitsyna encourage introspection, prompting participants to explore their inner emotions, representing their fears and aspirations using colors and textures.


Art therapy with Katia Mikhalitsyna



“The core idea of the NLF and the camp is to offer children as much positive experience and a sense of normalcy as possible, enabling them to make choices and discover themselves. Creativity serves as a positive force for children and teenagers growing up in challenging circumstances,” mentions Olia Rusina.


Additionally, the camp hosted a lecture about the Museum of War Childhood and its mission to document the experiences of individuals whose childhood was impacted by war. Andrii Borutia, a researcher from the museum, participated in the New York Camp and documented the stories of seven camp participants. Throughout its existence, the museum has gathered memories and personal belongings from over a hundred children, preserving their narratives and legacies.


Andrii Borutia tells about the Museum of War Childhood


Life in evacuation


The effects of the Russian invasion in New York have been starkly visible since the full-scale aggression began. Where homes once stood, there are burned-out buildings, where there were people, there is desolation. In May, the occupiers dropped a FAB-250 bomb on the village, causing extensive damage to high-rise buildings, an outpatient clinic, a cinema, and the Cultural Centre of the phenol plant, which had hosted the New York Literary Festival in 2021. The explosion wrecked the roof and some of the surrounding structures, yet miraculously, the stage where the NLF participants were awarded remained intact. It’s been 1.5 years since the New Yorkers last met. They arrived at the camp from various places like Kyiv, Odesa, Poltava, Dnipro, Bukovyna, and Lviv regions. Over this time, the teenagers have undergone changes and grown significantly.


As the song “Home” by KALUSH and Skofka echoes from a portable speaker, they hug each other, singing along to the familiar melody. Alina, a black-haired girl in a white shirt, covers her face and cries.


Alina, a camp participant


In 2021, Alina, along with her peers, engaged in the NLF, making plans and preparing for graduation. However, the full-scale invasion disrupted their lives with insecurity and upheaval. A few days following the 24 February, the Russian military targeted a bus headed for New York. Among the passengers, Alina’s friend was on board. The driver lost his life instantly, several passengers were killed, and her friend sustained severe injuries.


“Once, we were searching for three girls from New York who were attempting to evacuate the village. One of them, named Alina like me, was among them. We weren’t close. I recall meeting her once—she was radiant and always smiling. Sadly, the girls were found dead. It was heart-wrenching to see their parents and realize their children had no future,” Alina shares.


Eventually, Alina’s family relocated to Chernivtsi, and she entered Kyiv to study journalism. She hoped for a return to New York in a few months but brought along only the essentials: her certificates, her NLF diploma, and a box of photographs. “You understand the true meaning of ‘home’ when you’re forced to leave it. Most of us [at the camp – ed.] no longer have homes. But here, surrounded by people from New York, I feel a sense of home,” she expresses.


Most of the participants are experiencing the Carpathian Mountains for the first time; so they name themselves “steppe people in the mountains.” The landscape of New York differs vastly from Slavske: for every familiar spoil heap, there is a mountain range, and for every piece of vast steppe, there is a dense forest. In the background, the melody of an out of tune piano can be heard— perhaps because he is sad, but mostly because of the curiosity of five-year-old Artem, Olena’s son. Olena, accompanying the teenagers to the camp, is a mother to Nastia, who won with an essay contest at the New York Literary Festival. After the beginning of invasion, Olena and her children relocated to Dnipro, where she continues to teach online for students from New York.


Olena and her son Artem


“We had many conversations with Vika during the invasion. She inquired if we needed any help. We also talked about New York. I had recently returned from there with my husband—I cried a lot. I recorded a video for the children and captured photographs. Vika mentioned she was planning to visit the village. She asked what I was doing there. I recall telling her that I was kissing the walls. Her response was, “Well, I’m going too. I’ll kiss them too.” I haven’t deleted those messages; they are very precious to me,” Olena added, hiding her wet eyes.


“From the people of the Ukrainian village of New York…”


The sun replaced the previous days’ drizzle, and the mosaics of the House of Culture sparkle with either rays or smiles. On the second-to-last day of the camp, participants made their way to the Slavske center for a poetry reading. Olena Huseinova and Katia Mikhalitsyna were prepared to recite works by authors from Donetsk region, while Khrystyna Shevchenko would share the history of the region and Sofiia Chelyak would moderate the event. People wearing blue and orange scarves emerge from the greenery and tart autumn air – Vika Amelina tied them for the participants of the 2021 NLF.


Poetry readings at the Slavske House of Culture


Emerald velvet armchairs and the embarrassed look of the House of Culture deputy peek out from behind the door. Volodymyr busily maneuvered through the old foyer, bearing an important mission – to deliver a gift from the New York community. Upon seeing the reactions of the participants and organizers, a wave of relief washed over him, and he smiled. Blue and yellow balloons decorated the stage, a cake rested on a wooden table, and a card read “From the residents of the Ukrainian village of New York with hope.”


“I found out how it got here, and it’s clear that there’s no need to worry about whether the village community will continue to stay together, given their capability to orchestrate such small miracles. It’s remarkably touching and even courageous that they [the community – ed.] weren’t hesitant to connect with the individuals who coordinated it all. I believe Vika genuinely wished for the children to maintain communication even under such circumstances, even when they are distant from each other,” expressed Mariia Masiuk.


There were many tears after the readings. Hiding in hugs and their own thoughts, the girls and boys kept looking at the gifts.


Poetry readings at the Slavske House of Culture


A light of unity


The glow of flashlights illuminates the tired faces of teenagers wandering around the houses. Karina Varfolomiieva from the NGO Initiative Youth of New York sets up daily dance sessions for the participants. Nearby, Mariia pauses to catch her breath, expressing her excitement about feeling like a child once more.


“To be carefree, to revel in fun, to finger-paint without worrying about dirty clothes, but only about ensuring I’ve hugged those around me enough,” she says.


Mariia and Sofiia, camp participants


After the full-scale invasion, the girl relocated to Dnipro, marking her second escape from the war – her initial home was in Donetsk. Previously, she had lived in the UAE for several years before returning to her grandmother’s residence in Donetsk region. Mariia reveals that she often dreams of her home in New York.


“Russia stole my childhood from me twice because I evacuated from Donetsk in 2014, so gunfire and the sound of a machine gun became the norm for me. Several generations of my family have never been to Donetsk because of Russia’s aggression. My family believed that we would return in a month, but nine years have passed.”


For Mariia and many other participants of the festival, the competition, and their encounter with Vika set a new course in their lives. She mentions how the writer inspired her to write and shared her own works with Mariia.


“Once in an interview, Vika said how important it was that people in Donetsk region write in Ukrainian. She said she remembered every word of my essay. When I learned about her death, I took my laptop and started writing her a letter. I already have it printed, it’s in an envelope. When I am in Lviv, I promise myself that I will come and bring the letter to Vika’s grave.”


As the evening approaches, the participants head back inside the residence for the traditional New York hugs and the Evening Candle ritual. A small light in a glass container is lit and passed around the circle. Seated together, they reflect on the day that has just passed. The closing ‘candle’ moment becomes the longest of the camp. In heartfelt monologues filled with both sorrow and joy, the teenagers reminisce about New York, Vika, and the NLF. They make plans for their next gathering and prepare to return home.




“I really liked this day. It’s like some kind of dynamite!” shares five-year-old Artem genuinely.


“I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to everyone, especially to Vika – she brought together such diverse people who found a common ground. Each of you helped me open up and talk about things I couldn’t before.”


“Thank you to everyone here! This camp has been the most comforting and atmospheric place for me. I hope we all meet again soon, but in New York.”


“Thank you for fostering this sense of community. It’s incredibly important, especially amidst all the sadness, loss, and difficulties that happen beyond our control. But we’ll carry fragments of our shared space with us. Thank you for your openness – in laughter, joy, silliness, pain, and seriousness. Your hugs and shared glances are my personal treasures, held right here,” Katia Mikhalitsyna says, pointing to her heart.



This time, the candle remains lit. The organizers call it a symbol of unity. A song about a night campfire softly plays in the background, a tune that all the participants have come to know by heart. They link their arms, forming a radiant circle, shining like a living sun despite the darkness of the night. Tomorrow, as the New Yorkers prepare to leave, they’ll make space in their bags and hearts for the cherished memories of the New York Camp.


Photo: Mariia Masiuk


This article is part of the “Chytomo spotlights: Ukrainian culture on and after frontline” project. The project is supported by Goethe-Institut in terms of Stabilization Fund project.