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3 November, 2013  ▪  Valeria Burlakova

The Wonder of Life

The amazing story of a girl who is a step away from death, helping others and making the world a brighter place

Tamara Shevchuk has time for everything. She smiles and holds up a poster saying “I love the Ukrainian language. Don’t break my heart!” at protests against the notorious language law passed last summer. Another picture features her sitting on the broken stairs of Hostynnyi Dvir (see Unwelcome Guests), crying after a clash with special police units that disrupted activists protecting the architectural site from being taken over by a private owner and transformed into a shopping mall. She goes on raids with Road Control, a group of volunteer activists helping drivers to protect their rights, and supports the young men accused of ruining the Lenin monument in Poltava Oblast. She is a young artist, studying at the Academy of Arts and selling her paintings at charity exhibitions. She paints murals on the walls in children’s hospitals and fixes playgrounds at her own expense. Now 18, Ukrainian doctors claim she has three more years to live at most. Tamara has already undergone several surgeries on her spine, but the pain will only get worse with time, and her heart will eventually fail.

RETURN TO UKRAINE

Tamara lived in an orphanage before a pair of Ukrainian emigrants from Argentina adopted her. When she was 12, her adoptive parents (“I think of them as my real parents” Tamara says) lost good jobs and had to move to a poor district of Buenos Aires. “Despite the poverty, every family had a TV set and a gun! Everyone watches football in Argentina!” Tamara recalls. “They shoot into the air every time the Argentinian team scores.”

Tamara can talk for hours about her childhood in Buenos Aires. But it was something else that was important for her there: this was where she met many generations of immigrants from Ukraine. “Some had left Ukraine before the Famine (1932-33 – Ed.), others did so after the Second World War,” she says. “UPA (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – Ed.) fighters lived there! This is where it all began.”

Half way across the world away from her homeland, Tamara felt the need to learn Ukrainian. “My parents told me that I don’t need it, that we won’t return to Ukraine,” she notes. “Fortunately, I was a serious swimmer. I got my master’s degree in sports in Argentina and was preparing for the Junior Olympics so trained six days a week. I told my parents that I trained seven days a week and went to a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church every Sunday. It’s a huge church, bringing together Ukrainians from all over Argentina. That’s where I began to learn, speak and read in Ukrainian.”

At 13, Tamara Shevchuk had a serious spinal injury. She had to quit sports. “I felt like nobody needed me anymore. Sport had been my life – I had nothing else. So I decided to change something.” That was when she made the decision to return to Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Letters from Angels

Tamara’s grandparents still lived in Ukraine. They stayed in touch through correspondence. In her next letter, she wrote that she was coming to Ukraine. Then she bought a ticket and left a note for her mother. “It was just two phrases,” Tamara says laughing. “The first thing I wrote was that Mr. Jose the son of two UPA members with whom my grandfather had fought, really liked me and treated me as his daughter. He took me to an amusement park where we won two huge stuffed toys. I wrote that I’m leaving one for my mum and taking the other one with me. I also wrote that I’m going to Ukraine. That was it.”

“This was Argentina! The procedure there is very simple: any child can leave the country without parental consent,” Tamara explains. At that time, she had Ukrainian citizenship, since she was born in Ukraine, and temporary Argentinian citizenship which she was granted in view of her athletic accomplishments.

Once in Ukraine, Tamara initially lived with her grandmother in Ivano-Frankivsk, then moved to Kyiv where she lived with her aunt until her parents returned to Kyiv from Buenos Aires.

A SPLASH OF COLOUR IN HOSPITALS

After secondary school Tamara entered the Ukrainian Academy of Arts. “I was taking my entrance exams during the language protests. I stayed at Ukrainian House (the location of the protest in Kyiv – Ed.), all the time cooking food and bringing it to protesters, and staying there overnight… But I somehow managed to pass the exams.” Tamara works to pay her tuition. She doesn’t complain. “I work as a guard at a kindergarten. And I do freelance painting. Plus, I clean floors in supermarkets. That’s how I make UAH 5,000-6,000 a month. It’s more or less enough to cover my tuition, rent and food.”

What she doesn’t mention is that she spends her money on a lot more things. After her first year at the Academy of Arts, she had some free time during the summer break. “I thought I should do something. But what? What could I do? Not much – just paint,” Tamara shares. “I have spent a lot of time in hospitals and I really hated the walls there… So I decided to paint murals on hospital walls.”

She announced her first painting campaign in a children’s hospital online. “I thought two or three friends would come. Instead, 15 people I don’t know came. I realized that someone else needs this, not just me, which added to my confidence. We’ve already painted murals in 15 hospitals. We’ve fixed the leaking roof at the children’s section of the Ukrainian Specialized Radiation Clinic. We climbed up on our own, fixed it and fell off it. We plastered the walls, too. In spring, we intend to fix the windows,” she shares.

READ ALSO: There Once Was a Dog

Young patients gladly help volunteers to paint murals. The authorities were going to shut down the hospital – the only one of its kind in Ukraine - because it was in a very poor state. “Thanks to us, it is still operating,” Tamara says. “It was considered to be a hazard. But it is actually in Pushcha Vodytsia (an elite suburb north-west of Kyiv where medical centers for the treatment of serious illnesses, including tuberculosis and cancer, and cottages that used to be state-owned townhouses but were later privatized, are surrounded by pine forests – Ed.). We all know very well what a tasty morsel this is for any construction company.”

Tamara says that doctors are always surprised to see volunteers. “They ask who pays us, who is in charge and whom we work for… People are sure that it is a promotion for someone or something. Ukrainians are not used to genuine volunteering.”

IGNITING OTHERS

Before her work in hospitals, Tamara fixed playgrounds. “I often deal with kids from troubled families,” she says. “Sometimes, they sleep at my house when they have problems with their parents. I find them on the street.”

Tamara found 12-year old Arianna, drunk and unconscious on a street in Troyeshchyna, an off-beat outskirt of Kyiv, at 1 a.m. “I didn’t call the ambulance because the doctors would report this to social services, which could cause the girl problems. So I sobered her up and talked to her. I tried to find out what made her break down,” Tamara explains. “It emerged that Arianna had nowhere to play. Without play, children easily end up in bad company.”

This incident reminded Tamara of the three playgrounds around the building where she lives. “The only things there were broken swings where junkies or drunks hung out. Then, on the internet, I saw people making various figures – lions, bears and the like – from old car tyres. A friend of mine works at a service station. He helped me bring old tyres to the playground and I could start making something out of them.”

Tamara started with figures from Masha and the Bear, a popular cartoon. Towards evening, I saw a crowd with plastic bags at the playground – they had come to have a drink. “There they stand, staring at me, the fool “sculpting” car tyres late at night,” she laughs. “Confused, they asked me:

Does your kid play here?

No, I don’t have kids.

Why are you doing this then?

I care about other kids.

Wow!

This was all they could say before moving on, puzzled.

READ ALSO: Our Сhildren

Next day, I was making a boat-like sandbox on the same playground. My friends cut some trees, polished the boards and brought them to me. Suddenly, I saw the same guys from the previous night. They brought a bunch of old tyres in their old Zhyguli. “We want to help you,” they said. Five days later, Tamara was joined by people from the neighbourhood. “Yulia, the mother of a 3-year old, who used to take her child to a playground two blocks away, did the most. Then the locals collected some money to fix the swings. Three weeks later, the whole playground was fixed… So far, we have sorted out four playgrounds, and are working on two more”.

Tamara also paints graffiti – her images are mostly of UPA fighters, black and red flags and tridents. “I’m an artist, I decorate Kyiv,” she says when the police question her. “Well, keep on decorating then,” is all the perplexed officers can say.

Tamara says she has time for everything because she sleeps two-three hours a day. She does not talk about her own health, but her friends do. “She works to buy insulin. She has diabetes caused by a medical mistake,” blogger Dmytro Reznichenko wrote when he found out about her diagnosis and the verdict of doctors. “She hardly sleeps at all, and when she does, she sleeps in a semi-reclined position. Several years ago, she fell out of a window and injured her back really badly. She has undergone several difficult surgeries for vertebra implants in her spine.” He launched a fundraising campaign for Tamara; if not for another surgery which costs an unrealistic EUR 200,000 but offers no guarantees, then at least to give the 18-year old the chance to live a normal life for what little time she has left.

UAH 26,000 was collected within several days. Tamara did not accept the money and made her friends stop raising funds. She decided to donate this money to a three-year old boy with cancer whom she met at Okhmatdyt, the central children hospital in Kyiv. “His parents abandoned him as a baby when they found out that he was born with cancer. A nurse adopted the boy… Of course, she cannot afford the treatment. And I’m doing fine. I found a great man who uses herbs to suppress pain. I couldn’t believe it was possible; I thought it was nonsense. But he helped”. Tamara says.

She does not want any more surgery. “I’ve had enough! Conventional medicine has done everything possible,” she insists. “It makes no sense to spend more money on this. It can be used for better causes”.

READ ALSO: Help Thy Neighbour


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