I want electricity, water and a toy car

Around the time of Orthodox Christmas, a group of people travel across Ukraine like reindeer to fulfill gift wishes from Ukrainian children. Children only have one childhood. We do not postpone it until after the war.

Michael Dreibergen

I’m Kostja, I’m 6 years old. I used to live in Kharkiv, but because of the war I now live in Ivano-Frankivsk. I want electricity, water and a toy car. Thank you.’

“I’m Andrij, 10 years old. I’m from Mariupol. I’m good and doing my best at school. Please bring back my brother: he’s a prisoner of war and I miss him so much. And give me chocolate and candy, or a surprise egg.”

Thanks to the buzz generator, there is still a little light in the Kryvy Rih Theater. Earlier in the day, a missile attack on the power supply plunged the area into darkness, shutting down the city’s heating system. However, Christmas is also celebrated in the war country Ukraine. The holiday period runs from Saint Nicholas, on December 19, to Orthodox Christmas, the last weekend. It is a time of lights, togetherness, and gift wishes.

Reindeer of Saint Nicholas

Children only have one childhood. “We’re not going to put that off until after the war,” says Evgenia Levinstein, a woman with stately horns on her head. She is one of the “Reindeer of St. Nicholas,” as a group of residents of the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov call themselves. They came to Kryvyi Rih with a bus full of gifts to fulfill the Christmas wishes of the children, who had previously expressed their wishes in a letter.

“We want the children to experience something good, to show that the world is not just full of bad experiences,” fellow reindeer Katerina Shutalova explains the group’s mission statement.

Not only does De Reindeer hand out gifts such as skateboards, dolls, cuddly toys, or toy cars, but it offers an imaginative animation program that lasts over an hour. It begins with the announcement that, after arriving, they have lost the sleigh with the Good Saint and gifts along the way. They invite children to join the search. During the imaginary journey they do a round dance with a colorful umbrella, crawl through a tunnel screaming with delight and can dream whatever they want under a shower of soap bubbles.

The most interesting part is the part where the children say their name and place of original residence. “I am Anna and I am from Kharkiv.” “I am Igor and I am from Kherson.” “I’m Katya and I’m from Severodonetsk.” They each place a glowing LED in a bowl in which a large bulb shines.

“We give children the right to miss their home,” Shutalova says of the ritual. “And now they’re in a new place, where they can make magic together.”

Parents thank the “reindeer”: “You give our children something that we cannot give them at the moment.”Photo by Michelle Dribergen

Refugee children from cities

Reindeer has been doing the program for years. Until last year, their area of ​​operation was limited to the eastern region of Donbass. There, in those forward villages, it was true that there was war, but at least the children were at home. “There was a war, with its associated risks and stresses, but at least they had a home,” says Evgenia Levinstein. Reindeer now works with refugee children, often from big cities, with middle-class parents. “These kids have everything, and they’ve lost everything — even their home.”

So the letters evoke emotions in the reindeer. My name is Lisa, I am 10 years old. I lived in Tuchkovka, but the war brought me to Mukachevo. This sad. But as soon as Ukraine wins, I will return to Tuchkovka. She brought me a snowboard last year, but I had to leave it behind when we got away. So please get me another skateboard.” Next to the letter, the girl drew a playground between the intact flats and a giant Ukrainian flag.

“This girl believes that her village will rise like a phoenix from the ashes,” says Levinstein, who knows the Donbass town of Tuchkovka well. “I know this will not happen, because her village no longer exists.”

Defeat the goblins

The reindeer notice that the new class of children are writing much longer letters. They have gone through severe war experiences, but they don’t want to upset their parents. “They share their pain,” Shutaleva says. Children adopt the language of adults. For example, Stanislav, a young teenager, writes: “ I had a conversation with my brother. We’ve decided we don’t want any toys or candy this year. We just ask that you help our army. Please bring them jackets, helmets and drones.”

Several children ask for weapons to defeat the “goblins”, using the derogatory word for the Russians. “It says something about the information environment that Ukrainian children live in. Children inherit this language from their parents,” Levinstein explains.

This year, the reindeer are giving around 2,500 gifts to refugee children across the country. It’s not about honoring all desires, Shutalova says. With the gift, the reindeer want to make them feel like someone is taking care of them. “You give our children something that we cannot give them at the moment,” the Mariupol refugee parents wrote in their letter of thanks.

Katerina Shotalova:

Katerina Shutalova: “We want the children to experience something good, to show that the world is not filled only with bad experiences.”Photo by Michelle Dribergen

Evgenia Levinstein:

Evgenia Levinstein: “These kids have everything, and they’ve lost everything – even their home.”Photo by Michelle Dribergen

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