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There's nowhere in Ukraine to hide from the war. This café tries to help people cope

Igor the clown puts on a show for the children at café Lito, or Summer cafe, in Chernivitsi's Taras Chevchenko Park.
Eleanor Beardsley
/
NPR
Igor the clown puts on a show for the children at café Lito, or Summer cafe, in Chernivitsi's Taras Chevchenko Park.

Updated July 9, 2022 at 7:24 PM ET

CHERNIVTSI, Ukraine — For the last 20 years, Ruslana Mygalyuk has run a café every summer. But this year, there's a war in her country.

Western Ukraine — where her city of Chernivtsi is located — is far from the front lines, yet she's working to help people deal with the conflict.

She doesn't have to go far because some 7 million Ukrainians have been displaced inside their own country and fleeing to other cities and towns like Chernivtsi.

Ruslana Mikhaluk owns the Lito café in Chernivitsi, a city in western Ukraine. While her community is far from the front lines of the war with Russia, millions of Ukrainians have been displaced within their country and fleeing to places like Chernivitsi.
/ Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
/
Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
Ruslana Mygalyuk owns the Lito café in Chernivtsi, a city in western Ukraine. While her community is far from the front lines of the war with Russia, millions of Ukrainians have been displaced within their country and fleeing to places like Chernivtsi.

One of the ways Mygalyuk tries to help is hiring a clown to help the children who have fled their homes have some moments of fun.

"Because the children have had so much stress," she says. "They have listened to bombs they've had very bad emotions. Now we want to help give them some nice emotions. Because of the clown they feel like life is continuing as usual here."

Igor the clown comes to vine-covered Lito café — Summer — in Taras Chevchenko Park to put on a show.

He bounces around in a red, three-piece suit with a frizzy wig and straw top hat, surrounded by a gaggle of laughing and yelling kids. When he asks them where they're from hands shoot up – Donetsk! Mikolaiv! Those are many of the wars current war hotspots.

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Mygalyuk also has employed some of the children's parents in her café. She won't make a profit, she says, but that's OK.

Igor, whose real name is Igor Goncharov, leads the kids through drawing pictures and singing patriotic folks songs. At one point, he asks them about their dreams.

"I dreamed we beat the Russians," says one tiny girl.

Igor the clown also left his town after the war started

Goncharov says it hurts to hear such things from children.

He himself is from Lyssychansk, the last hold-out town in the Luhansk region that fell to the Russians last week.

He says his town is completely destroyed, "nothing but fire now." Goncharov fled three months ago when there was no more water, electricity or gas.

Before 2014, he worked every summer as a clown in Crimea, he says. Russian President Vladimir Putin took the region that year. It's also when the Russians stirred up the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Igor and the children draw pictures, and they belt out patriotic folk songs. At one point, the clown asks them about their dreams. "I dreamed we beat the Russians," one girl says.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
/
NPR
Igor and the children draw pictures, and they belt out patriotic folk songs. At one point, the clown asks them about their dreams. "I dreamed we beat the Russians," one girl says.

Oksana Mykhailenko, one of the parents attending the show, says the event makes her feel like she's home again. She fled Berdiansk, a town down the coast from Mariupol that was occupied by the Russians in the beginning days of the war.

A doctor by profession, she's in touch with people in Berdiansk and says they refuse to cooperate with the occupiers. But she says the Russians are threatening to take children to Russia if their parents don't put them in school with the new Russian teachers.

"My youngest son is 6, and this year he starts school," she says. "So I decided that he needs to have a happy, safe and normal childhood. That's why I left."

There's hope for what's next

For Mygalyuk, the café owner, she says all of Ukraine wants "to be free."

"People want to continue to live in a good and beautiful country."

And she's optimistic that will happen.

"We believe in victory," she says. "People have hope for the future. We can't give up."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.