Youngsters team up to restore forest in eastern Ukraine after fire

Thanks to a skills-building project from UNICEF, teenagers in eastern Ukraine are restoring their local forest after it was devastated by wildfires last year.

Yulia Silina, Kate Bond
20 April 2021

Sixteen-year-old Sofia Ionina from Sievierodonetsk, in eastern Ukraine, still remembers the thick smog and wall of fire that raged for three days last summer.

“It was very disturbing," she says. “Many people suffered, many were left homeless. And most of our coniferous forests simply burned to ashes.”

The wildfire destroyed several thousand hectares of forest and left Sofia unable to leave her home.

She had never thought about her local environment before. But, every day, she watched her older brother leave to help extinguish fires near the contact line, where conflict has dragged on for over seven years and detonating explosives only added to the danger.


“My brother’s work inspired me,” Sofia recalls. “I wanted to take part in some project to help the city.”

Soon after, Sofia would receive the perfect opportunity, thanks to the UPSHIFT programme from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and ING Bank, which helps young people build 21st century skills for the benefit of local communities.

Taking charge

Later that autumn, fires once more engulfed the forests around Sievierodonetsk. But, this time, Sofia could not just stay at home. The girl, like many of her friends, began to help victims of the fires by collecting in-kind aid and daily necessities for them.

“A woman who works as a cook at our school had her house burned down," Sofia remembers. “She has three children. And we tried to mobilize everyone in the school to help her.”

Dozens of families were left homeless, with some forced to sleep at Sofia's school.

In winter, a biology teacher invited Sofia and two of her classmates to participate in the UPSHIFT programme. Their goal was clear – to restore the burned-out forests.

Through UPSHIFT, Sofia, Alena Ivantsova and Daryna Pozdniakova set up a project called ‘Tree of Life’. They hope to help make their city green and sustainable by planting seeds and trees.


Seeds of hope

The July 2020 wildfires in the Luhansk region claimed the lives of five people. Another 25 people were admitted to hospital with burns, of which 16 were children. In the October fires, 11 people died and 19 were injured, including three rescuers.

“Unfortunately, there is such damage from fires that cannot be restored in any way," explains Sofia. "All we can do is start planting trees again, both in the forest and within the city."


The girls plan to organize ‘tolokas’ (volunteer community work days) in order to reforest damaged areas with coniferous trees, as well as days in the city park for planting seedlings.

“We have already agreed with the local forestry to provide us with thousands of coniferous seedlings,” the young student adds. “And also, we used money provided by UNICEF to buy seedlings of a decorative apple tree. They bloom with red flowers, and in spring, it will be very beautiful in the city.”

According to forestry experts, it will take five years to restore the forests of Luhansk. But Sofia and her friends are optimistic.

“If every family in the city buys a seedling and plants a tree, then our city will turn green,” says Sofia, with a smile. “And each family will have its own symbol, its own tree.”


Help us support youth initiatives