Like a butterfly emerging from a long, cocooned dormancy and against all odds, since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine had been breaking through in its development and spreading its wings – a metamorphosis decades in the making. Progress was hampered by an ongoing conflict so protracted that it was rarely making international headlines despite the persisting shelling and mines in the eastern part of the country.

Now, the Ukrainian war dominates headlines across the globe. In addition to taking thousands of lives, the conflict has forced some 12 million people to flee their homes. More than five million have left the country, 90% of whom are women and children.

The Ukraine war, which risks pushing more than 90% of the population below the poverty line, is already having a detrimental effect on food security, energy and finance for most vulnerable people and countries around the world.

Ukraine: a country built on hope

Between 2016 and 2019, I spent three years in Ukraine, a country that welcomed me, my newborn son and my parents wholeheartedly and soon became our home. From day one of my arrival to Ukraine, I was impressed by the contagious energy of the people. Ukraine was progressing in key areas of reform; resilience was winning over despair and the country was overcoming the economic and human consequences of the ongoing conflict.

It was deep in society, especially the youth and local communities, that I found change most dynamic. Everyone I met in the country told me their desire was for Ukraine to progress, to move closer to Europe. Many young people wanted to be educated abroad so they could come back to rebuild their country, to make it even more modern and greener. I was proud to work with a team consisting of the UN and its partners that was innovating daily, whether through mobile applications designed by young people to hold government officials to their commitments, or through mobile clinics and other digital services that were built to assist people affected by the conflict. Many of these digital innovations are proving essential now, providing life-saving information, services and humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians across the country.

The most rewarding moments were working with local communities, investing in small businesses and their ideas, from the high-tech to making bread, pottery or cheese. Although many of these people had been displaced and were making a living in a new home or community, they managed to build up businesses, often using newer and greener technology as they went along.

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How Ukraine is set to recover

As part of its reform agenda and EU integration processes, Ukraine was breaking ground in the fight against corruption by establishing new anti-corruption laws, institutions and tools even more modern than many of those on offer in Europe. Our teams across the country were working with the government, civil society and many other partners to achieve this. Ukraine’s progress in many areas of reform, whether health, economic development or anti-corruption, has provided a strong foundation to help the country recover when the war ends.

I worked closely with the then Deputy Minister of Health, Olga Stefanyshyna, who through her work – first with the Patient Associations and then the Ministry of Health – fought tirelessly to bring about health reforms to Ukraine. Through her leadership, our teams managed to deliver medicines at a much faster and more cost-effective rate than had previously been possible. In April, Olga lost her husband during the war, while distributing humanitarian aid.  

“This is a choice we made a long time ago. I’m trying hard here for you, for the country and universe. I’ll work hard to ensure our victory,” she writes about him, with a voice that screams out for peace and justice.

The same is true for all the Ukrainians I met. “We can be bombed, destroyed or killed, but the war can never take our soul, our identity,” said my former colleague Yana, who fled to Romania with her mother and her two-year-old daughter, leaving her husband and father as dictated by martial law in Ukraine. “I hope the war will end soon so that we can rebuild our land even more beautiful and greener than ever before,” she smiles, her warm eyes sparkling with optimism.

I know the Ukrainian butterfly will rise again soon, spreading its wings further, watching over its people rebuilding their country even better and stronger than ever before.