Little Mariupol in exile in Dnipro, Ukraine

Mariupol before it was destroyed. Photo by (CC BY-SA 4.0.) via Wikimedia Commons.

This story is part of a series of essays and articles written by Ukrainian artists who decided to stay inside Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. This series is produced in collaboration with the Folkowisko Association/, thanks to co-funding by the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia through a grant from the International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe. 

Countless residents of Mariupol, a city in the Donetsk region that was largely destroyed by Russian forces in 2022, have relocated to Dnipro, the nearest large city in the east, and are now helping those who have also lost their homes and livelihoods.

One day, a girl entered a café called Little Mariupol in Dnipro carrying a clay pot. The staff put it on a shelf with other artifacts which reminded them of the city their business was named after. Motanka rag dolls, paintings, books, and flags adorned the wall and shelf. From the girl's short explanation, they learned that the pot was somehow — with no details about how — taken from Mariupol, where it had been part of a museum of Ukrainian life organized by the Cathedral of St. Petro Mohyla. The pot gained special significance as the Russian occupants had looted and demolished the city.

The Petro Mohyla cathedral was famous not only among parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Since the late 1990s, it housed a charitable kitchen for those in need. Several years ago, a local activist Kyrylo Dolimbayev joined the clergy and turned the church into a cultural center. They established a library of Ukrainian literature, a bandura musical school, and foreign languages and folk crafts courses. Inside, they decorated the building with Petrykivka paintings, a traditional Ukrainian ornamentation style. It is usually painted in various shades of red and yellow, but in Mariupol, a port city, they verged away from this custom and used blue and white paint to symbolize the sea. 

In late February 2022, Kyrylo had to leave everything and flee from Mariupol. He was warned that the Russians had put him on their “shooting list.” They robbed the church and burned the library. All the clergymen left. The senior priest was the last to evacuate when the city was nearly encircled. 

But a week after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, people from Mariupol created a new humanitarian hub in a service station in Dnipro, where they had fled. In the beginning, they provided aid to 50 people each day, but now they can help up to 2,500 visitors. They call the center Good Morning, We Are from Mariupol.

Later, while talking to refugees, Kyrylo realized that they needed not only humanitarian but also psychological help: 

“So we created a community space, Free Space Little Mariupol. We restored the library which the Russians burned in Mariupol, and we provide free psychological and legal aid. We help both civilians and people from the military. We fundraise to make gifts to children affected by the war.” 


Kyrylo Dolimbayev in Little Mariupol. Photo by Arsen Dzodzaiev, used with permission.

After considering which kind of a humanitarian center could potentially earn money and, in the longer run, become self-sufficient, Kyrylo chose to create a social enterprise. This is how three cafés emerged. All of them are called Little Mariupol, with two branches: Svoï (Ours) and The Best Inside. They are like miniature ecosystems representing the currently occupied city. Near the community space, a tiny shop opened named Little Mariupol Local Food.

“I didn't plan on finding friends”

Lina and Valya work in the café Little Mariupol Svoї. At first glance, it was clear that they were not only colleagues but dear friends. They became friends recently because Valya came from Mariupol and Lina from Izyum in the Kharkiv region — both towns were heavily bombed at the initial stage of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “I didn't even plan on finding friends here, in the new place,” Lina said. “But it happened that Valentina appeared here!” Valya laughed because only friends called her by her full name.

In Izyum, Lina stayed with her family in a basement after the first bomb fell on the town. They spent two weeks without phone or internet connection and didn't even know that the Russians had already reached the opposite side of the river until days later. Once the territorial defense fighters knocked on the door to the basement and said that it was time to evacuate, Lina and her family left.

In Mariupol, Valya was in her parents’ house where all her relatives had taken shelter together — 17 persons in total. Valya says that she was lucky: “I didn't lose anyone, didn't bury anyone in the yard, no one was killed by a blast before my eyes.” All of her family managed to evacuate. 


Lina and Valya in Little Mariupol. Photo by Arsen Dzodzaiev, used with permission.

Lina, her daughter, her husband, and a dog were rescued by soldiers, but her parents remained in Izyum. She couldn't connect with her mother for over a month and her father for two months. “Once, I saw a video from Izyum, from the street where my mother lived. A bomb fell there. That day, I thought that, probably, my mother was no longer alive.”

As it later appeared, Lina's relatives survived, and her mother knew that her daughter had tried to find her.

Back then, in April 2022, when Lina's mother managed to call her daughter, it became clear that all that time, she thought that Lina had remained in Izyum. “Mum told me later that when I said ‘I'm in Dnipro,’ she realized that she remained in the town alone. She realized that that was not the right time to relax.” The liberation of Izyum was almost five months ahead. 

Swimming without water

However, being relocated doesn't necessarily mean peacde of mind. Internally displaced people have to endure intense fear for their loved ones who remained under the occupation while also searching for people with whom they lost contact with in the confusion.

Anastasia and her daughter Alina also work in the “Mariupol” café and shop. But in Dnipro, it is just the two of them while the rest of their family is still in the occupied Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region. Because of this, their names were changed for security reasons.   

Anastasia could not connect with any of her relatives. In the first days of the full-scale invasion, she and her daughter stayed in their apartment, but at the beginning of March, the house was shelled, so they had to move to a humanitarian center which was located in a local ice stadium; it is in ruins now. 

It took them 10 minutes to prepare to leave. A driver managed to take them to the center, in a rare pause in the shelling. Later, the Russians shelled the stadium, as well. Alina was wounded by shrapnel, but she says it wasn't serious. The driver was also shelled; he lost his car and part of his leg because of the injury. Alina saw him later in the humanitarian center so she knew that the man had survived, but she never learned whether he managed to leave the city before it was occupied. 

When it became too dangerous in Severodonetsk, people were taken out by buses, under shelling, as well, to a railway station. This is how Anastasia and Alina came to Dnipro. 

“It was difficult at the beginning. For a month or two, I was unable to practice sports again. But later, I resumed training,” Alina said. Alina is a Candidate Master of Sports in the pentathlon, meaning fencing, shooting, horse racing, swimming, and running. In Dnipro, Alina came first to the regional federation for the contemporary pentathlon, but they already had a complete team, boys only. So she exercised independently, and in autumn, the Russians started to shell critical infrastructure, causing electricity shortages. Fencing, shooting, keeping pools open — everything required electricity.  

“Instead of fencing, I did exercise loads — squats, push-ups. Instead of swimming — I exercised with a loop band: I hooked it on a tree, wound it around a trunk, and took the ends in my hands, and I made moves like I would while swimming. Spine and arm muscles are exercising this way,” Alina explained. One of her trainers had already evacuated elsewhere; another was in the military. 


In Little Mariupol. Photo by Arsen Dzodzaiev, used with permission.

Branches of “little Mariupol” in Dnipro are gradually restoring what was developed by local cultural activists in the latest years in the Azov sea shore: musical evenings, language courses, and folk crafts classes. The church with the blue and white ornament remained under occupation, but in Dnipro, classes of Petrykivka painting have been held instead. Recently, a kitchen was established in the city to cook hot food for the Good Morning, We Are from Mariupol hub.

Mariupol, however, still only 300 kilometers from Dnipro, where so many of its people found shelter, feels like another universe. But, after all, the hope of the occupied lands lies in their people who are ready to rebuild everything — even if it starts from a humanitarian center in another city. 

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