GV alumna, Ukraine native volunteers to support country’s civilians



Lauren Formosa, Staff Writer

Upon her graduation from Grand Valley State University in 2018, alumna Iryna Bilan moved to her current home in Kyiv, Ukraine. There, she began working as the Grants and Donor Relations Manager for the Mystetskyi Arsenal — the country’s art and culture center — to secure funding for their many programs. 

“We did museum exhibitions,” Bilan said. “We did the Book Arsenal Festival, which is the major book fair in Kyiv where we host different writers from all over the world and we even received the award as the Best Literature Festival of Europe. We would also do different hybrid programs on the intersection of literature, music and visual arts.”

On the day of the Russian invasion, Bilan said she woke up around 5:30 a.m. to the sound of windows shaking. She said she remained calm and waited to hear from the institution about their next plan of action, which had been discussed months prior to the invasion. 

After spending the day following the news, checking in with friends and colleagues and working on the Arsenal’s official statement, Bilan said she didn’t move to the bomb shelter for the night.

“I did not really want to go, so I moved to the corridor where there was no windows and anything else and I made my bed in the corridor,” Bilan said. “It was probably the most unusual night that I’ve had. I was trying to charge my phone and at the same time, I was sleeping and I was trying to listen whether there will be the warning that something is being bombed and I have to leave. I think I slept in that way until three in the morning.”

Bilan made the decision to leave the city and go to her parents in Lviv two days after the invasion started. 

Now, Bilan volunteers her time to support the Territorial Defense Force, which provides medical and personal protection equipment to civilians volunteering with the Armed Forces of Ukraine.   

Her days are spent balancing her volunteer work and her obligations to her colleagues at the Mystetskyi Arsenal. 

“My life looks like a nonstop action film,” Bilan said. “I feel like I don’t have time to chat with my friends or to meet with family members because they have more important things to accomplish.”

Once the equipment has been purchased and delivered, it’s sorted and sent to areas where it is most needed. Bilan helps to facilitate this process.

“They don’t have enough equipment and it’s not possible to buy here in Ukraine and it’s even now almost impossible to buy in Poland or neighboring countries,” Bilan said. “Our main goal is to deliver this protection equipment where it’s needed the most and then the rest will receive it when we have it. Unfortunately, we have 10 or 20 times more requests than we can support at the moment but I do hope that both financial resources and then options where we can purchase the equipment will be expanded.”

Through the chaos of this past month, Bilan said she has tried to find a sense of normalcy and keep hope that the Russian occupation of Ukraine will end soon. She said small things like gathering to celebrate a friend’s birthday have become a relief from the reality of war.

“Initially I thought it would look weird because at the same moment — probably in some other cities — people are being bombed and sitting in shelters,” Bilan said. “But in order for us to be efficient we need to be also in good health. So we gathered together and we sang songs, patriotic songs, new songs, fun songs, different songs that would cheer us up and boost morale. It was a really, really beautiful time.”

While there are many ways to support Ukraine monetarily, Bilan also stressed the importance of staying informed and keeping the conversation about the invasion going in communities and friend circles.

“We request you to pay more attention to what kind of information you consume in terms of understanding that there is a lot of propaganda in this world and it’s very difficult to make a distinction, especially if you are at a distance,” Bilan said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to see the clear line in between what is wrong or what is right. Do your due diligence to educate yourself and then, perhaps, do some little action to somehow impact on this.”