by Sanja Dejanović
As part of the ACT4Ukraine campaign, I had the incredible opportunity to volunteer with ACT Foundation for two weeks, dividing my time between Romania and Ukraine. This experience has left an indelible mark on me, enriching me on multiple levels. As I sit here writing, I still feel a slight tiredness, but it is outweighed by a sense of lightness and joy knowing that I was able to make a meaningful contribution.
Gratitude fills my heart, not because there is a conflict raging, but because I had the privilege to offer assistance in some way. I earnestly pray for the swift end of this conflict so that people can return to their homes and find solace.
Our base was the charming town of Dorohoi, situated just half an hour from the border. Each morning, the ringing of bells from the nearby Orthodox church would awaken me, creating a serene start to the day. On one Sunday, I attended a beautiful liturgy where the congregation humbled themselves by bowing down, a gesture that resonated with me. In the past, I experienced a similar urge to bow down during church services in my hometown of Belgrade, Serbia. However, my attempts were met with confusion, leading one lady to inquire about my well-being. This time, in Ukraine, I found solace in surrendering to that innate inclination.
After a grueling 17-hour journey from Belgrade, during which I drove the entire time, I arrived in Dorohoi exhausted yet satisfied. This was the first test of my endurance and a personal milestone. While some might consider it an ordinary day, for me, it was a new experience to drive for such a long duration. The following morning in Dorohoi, I met the other volunteers and we were briefed on the ongoing efforts, past achievements, current projects, and plans. Without delay, we set off for Ukraine on the very first day.
During our two-week stay in Ukraine, we collaborated with two schools and a home dedicated to caring for abandoned children with developmental disabilities. Each of us contributed in a unique way. Our activities were concentrated within a half-hour distance from the Romanian border, as we didn’t venture deeper into Ukraine due to the conflict. Many individuals in the schools had sought refuge from conflict-affected regions like Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv. When the chaos began, and the ACT4Ukraine team sprang into action, the schools initially accommodated a larger number of displaced individuals. Over time, some found shelter with local families in the villages, while others moved on. Those who remained found temporary respite within the school premises. Witnessing families sleeping on mattresses, having their meals, spending their days, and even bathing in makeshift facilities was heart-wrenching. Their only wish was to return to their homes. Most of the displaced were mothers with children, while the fathers stayed behind as military personnel. I felt immense gratitude seeing our ACT4Ukraine team construct a bathroom with showers in one of the schools, providing some semblance of normalcy amidst the upheaval.
While I was there, I learned that numerous organizations were providing donations of food, supplies, and medicine, but we were the only group focused on connecting with the people directly. For more information on our team’s activities, you can visit ACT Foundation Global.
When I learned about the need for volunteers in Ukraine through our ACT group, I eagerly applied, immediately envisioning the activities I could offer. With my experience in stress relief techniques and raising vibrations, I imagined myself engaging with both children and adults. Upon arrival, I sought to understand their preferences, starting with a gathering filled with music and dancing, followed by laughter.
When I appeared there for the first time, I wanted to feel what they liked best, so it was a gathering that started with music and dancing, then we moved on to laughter yoga, then to yoga (asanas and short breathing exercises), and then we ended the gathering with hug yoga. Everything pleased them, and everyone found themselves more in something, while everyone found themselves in the hugs. My colleague Pedja, who was with me almost all the time and who took most of the photos and videos, would play the Freedom meditation given by Mohanji at the end of the yoga classes I was leading. It’s a nice ten-minute meditation designed for children, but it’s good for adults too. Short, but effective. Since it was translated into Ukrainian, it was played in their native language. As for other activities, someone always had to translate from English to Ukrainian.
At first, when we first came, the children were a bit shy, but after the first hug workshop, the next time when we came, they would come up and hug me. It was just beautiful when they approach me for a hug, and others were standing in line waiting for us to hug. The exchange of love was wonderful and overwhelming, and the little ones needed it endlessly. At the Bojan school, the teacher Daniela thanked me in front of everyone for showing them the hugging exercise because, as she says: now we can practice it with the children. It’s hugs that last, in which the being we embrace breathes and blesses. The teachers also hugged each other, and the exchange was wonderful. All those people there are really special, somehow cheerful in spirit regardless of the situation, and very believing. And those hugs are the most natural thing from which it seems to me that we were alienated.
In Laughter Yoga, there is an exercise called dead man’s laughter. And it is excellent. The idea is that the person lying down pretends to be dead, and the rest of the group revives him with laughter. When I do it with the children, I tell them to pretend to sleep, and the rest of us should wake him up with laughter. I held this exercise as part of a laughter yoga workshop in Ukraine at the Mahala school. Almost all the kids couldn’t be serious at all, except for one blond boy who we couldn’t make laugh. He remained to lie completely still. We all congratulated him. A few seconds later, I saw him crying in his friend’s arms. I approached, we hugged, and I asked what happened. The English teacher translated for me when he said, ‘I thought of my dad who stayed where the war is, and I couldn’t laugh.’ The soul ached.
And one day that boy will be a grown man who will probably carry the trauma. And so let’s be considerate of everyone on our way because we can never know what someone’s past has written on the life pages of the person in front of us. Some bear traumas more easily, some heal them in time, and some, unfortunately, do not deal with them at all. So let us cultivate compassion for every being in front of us. The other day a woman said, “Well, the man has grown up.” Yes, but did the boy in him grow up? This does not mean that we will necessarily justify every action, but we will try not to condemn and reject it from the first.
The visit to the home for children with developmental disabilities was the hardest for me. We were standing in the yard and some children would come up to hug and shake hands, and one boy pulled my hand and led me to the wooden house. We played Tashi Tashi ta there. At some point after that, while I was standing in the yard and observing the sight and children’s sounds, I felt something in my chest and started to cry. It wasn’t crying, it was pouring, so I stood aside and quickly realized I wasn’t going to be of much help there. A part of our team has stepped in to help them in terms of dressing up the playground, adding, painting, etc. Before the situation in Ukraine, that home had ten children under care, and at the moment when we were there, there were fifty-two children.
I also led yoga classes in schools as a certified instructor and everyone responded well, both children and teachers. They liked it even though some of them thought they weren’t for yoga, and maybe they weren’t because yoga is here for us. When we connect breathing with exercise and it becomes a conscious exercise, then the body relaxes, stress is released, and thus we get more quality energy for the future. They even asked us to record a Sun Salutation so that they could continue the regular practice in my absence and in case any new volunteer line-up didn’t have a yoga instructor. In the meantime, Mahala School wrote to me that the children are asking when they will have yoga again.
Before the return, we organized a mini-festival in one school, which was a team effort. Each of us contributed in our way, and the festival included conscious walking, mai tri, a planting workshop, stretching and warm-up exercises, conscious dancing, Freedom meditation, and a short amateur violin concert. We, as well as all the participants from the youngest to the oldest, were particularly inspired and filled with good energy that day. May God grant that all these activities take place in peace as soon as possible.
Considering that we in the Balkan have been through everything, some through our own experience and some through the testimony of others, it was easy to truly sympathize with the situation in which this nation found itself. It is not a question of nation, belonging to a country, but a genuine concern for all the people of the world. ACT FOR PEACE. We should all have that on our minds and in our hearts. Let’s avoid that national nonsense regardless of where we live on the planet and spread the energy of love and peace all around us.
Also, a two-week experience with a certain group of people can be challenging. Eight different people with different habits, and characteristics, but again when we all have the same goal and purpose, then good cooperation happens. It is important to be able to put your everything aside and make the focus so that the actions for which you are there are truly selfless, to set yourself up so that everything flows through you without taking ownership of what has been done, and you hand everything that manifests through you into the hands of God. His Will, his manifestation, and your conscious attention and gratitude. I believe and feel that we got much more at all levels than we gave. It was real magic to hang out with those little ones, but also with the teachers from the schools.
Some of the written messages I received are as follows:
“I’m very happy to meet you.” I want to say thank you 🙂 for your help, kindness, smile, and yoga. Just thank you for everything. I hope next time we will meet each in better condition I mean with no war.”
„We are also very grateful for your big hearts, for the light you’re emitting, for making our days a little brighter. I know that for all your kindness and great work, you have a special place in paradise. We hope to meet in peacetime. Embrace with all our ❤“
Peace and Joy to all and Light to the world.