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‘I have no words for the kindness of the hockey world'


by: Bas Kammenga | 10 March 2022

The war began on Thursday, 24 February, when neighbour Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours. Two weeks later meanwhile 1.2 million of the population of more than 44 million have fled. One of them is Iryna Kharchenko, vice-president of the Ukrainian hockey federation. Mid-February she already left Sumy, at some 50 km from the Russian border.  Kharchenko found shelter with the ‘hockey family’ in the Netherlands. From our country she tells her story and helps set up a large logistics aid organization.

Iryna-1Iryna Kharchenko had been living in the United States for eleven years, when some ten years ago she returned to her fatherland. ‘It was difficult at the time, because I felt a change in culture’, remembers Kharchenko, now 43 years old. ‘Many of my friends had left Sumy in the meantime, a provincial town in the northeast of Ukraine. In the United States I was working for a tech company in San Francisco, in the epicentre of everything, Silicon Valley. You have the feeling that you are the first to get all the world news. A huge contrast with Sumy, in the back of beyond.’

Jobs in marketing, administration, business development and operations, and sports management after returning to her fatherland, made her decide to start her own business. ‘With the chronic underfinancing of sports in mind, I opened up a hostel in Sumy where sports teams can stay at a sizeable discount. Before the war broke out I also worked as a personal coach, focusing on cognitive behavioural therapy. It is my dream to one day combine that second passion and my love for sports.’  

Love for hockey
In 2014 her sister’s hockey coach asked Iryna Kharchenko to become the manager of the renowned club MSC Sumchanka. That is where her adventure in the hockey world began. ‘It was supposed to be a temporary solution, but soon they offered me – rather unexpectedly – the job of director. Hockey became a part of me, and of my life and of my love for sports. The great thing are the values of hockey. A unique environment that focuses not only on results and medals, but also sees the importance of family and love, and connection, and shared experiences based on friendship and loyalty. It brings out the good in people. Being part of a community enriches your life. I want to spread that message and contribute.’

"I shared my fears in the hockey community and left for the Netherlands without a destination in mind"

Iryna traveled with MSC Sumchanka as team manager and observed how everything was organized. ‘During that period I became the vice-president of the national federation. All local experiences and challenges helped me to prepare for my role at a national level. With my international experiences I also took care of foreign contacts. After a stint as director in a more executive role, I returned in August 2021 to my role as the federation’s vice-president. From there I tried to find my way in the international playing field and tried to find out how those processes work.’  

Iryna-2 Day to day reality was rudely interrupted by the unrest at the Ukrainian-Russian border. ‘Already in early February foreign friends told me that something was about to happen. The number of troops at the border went up. Until the pressure became too much for me. Because of the stress I had constant headaches, and my sleep rhythm was disturbed. I was frozen and helpless. I shared my fears in the hockey community and left for the Netherlands without a destination in mind.’ After reaching out to Hien The, an old friend at AMHC in Amersfoort and KNHB employee Gabrielle van Doorn, she could stay with former KNHB director Johan Wakkie in Amsterdam. "I have no words for the kindness of the hockey world’.

Not long after Kharchenko arrived in the Netherlands, Sumy was bombarded. ‘That messes up your rational thinking. My parents wanted to stay in Sumy and after three days my sister and her two kids, with the help of my father, could get to safety across the Turkish border. People my sister knows, who have regular jobs, have taken up arms to fight. People who never held a gun before. It is all too much information for me. Again I have problems sleeping. Every time when you think you are somewhat safe, it gets worse. No place is safe anymore. And to think that I am physically safe, here in the Netherlands.’ 

"Every decision taken in war is a choice between life or death’

In the area where she was born, information, heat, electricity and water can be disconnected any time. Via her contacts at a hockey school Kharchenko has an idea of what is going on. ‘At this point they still have enough grain, bread, milk and eggs.  Some people still have some food in their freezers. And they hand out chicken. But in a town of 270,000 people the question is how long that can last if this war will go on for weeks on end. Every decision taken in a war is a choice between life and death. There is no black and white. Everything is a grey area and no one has been in this situation before’.

Iryna-3At her own hockey federation Kharchenko introduced a head count that since ‘day three’ shows that everyone is alive and has food. Kharchenko also told her colleagues in Europe her personal story in her capacity as vice-president of the Ukrainian federation. ‘I did that last Thursday via a conference call. On Friday I attended a meeting in Brussels with the European hockey federation’s Development Committee, and on Saturday I had a meeting with officials. Both days I told my personal story. Like everyone in Ukraine has a story.’ Kharchenko appeals to everyone to share their personal stories whenever possible. ‘Everyone experiences the emotional rollercoaster differently.’

There are many questions to process and choices to make. ‘Should we withdraw Ukrainian players from Belarus, should we take part in the under-21 world championship in South Africa? My personal opinion is not the same as the choices I have to make in my capacity as board member. I should like tob ring as many people as possible in safety. But as federation you need the courage to make a statement, and in doing so you always affect people’s personal situation. No one is prepared for war, and it does something with personal relations. You have to think ten times before making choices. But under time pressure you can often evaluate only in retrospect. It feels like quicksand and the choice you make today can be superseded tomorrow.’

"This is the moment in history where we as mankind should change the rules of the game. Let’s hope we will succeed together’

Closing speech
With the support of the European hockey federation a logistics line is set up to get the necessary goods to the right place. The entire project is still in the start-up phase. ‘We have to feel our way. At regional level the needs of civilians should go through governors or mayors. If they make lists of what is needed, we can work on that. Buying goods in a cost-effective way is one way, and another is raising money for the same goal. It should be a logistic chain. From buying, making lists, signing off at checkpoints and doublechecks to make sure everything gets to the right place. We are now organising the process and the European hockey federation is the reliable organisation that will act as the pivot for cash flows.’   


After her difficult and emotional account, the vice-president of the Ukrainian hockey federation makes a forceful closing speech. ‘This is the moment in history where we as mankind should change the rules of the game. Let’s hope we will succeed together. With my story I want to make everyone feel that it is all about human values. We sometimes forget that we are al the same, even though we have different nationalities, passports, goals, wishes or ambitions. If you are not safe, you have no life, and no future. This war crossed my threshold but it can happen to others in Europe. We hope the war can be stopped in Ukraine, and that we can protect the freedom of the rest of Europe.’

"Future generations deserve a world without war and peaceful skies. And second comes hockey"

“Human basic conditions are violated now. That can’t leave anyone indifferent. Facing those facts is a choice, too. You cannot look away. As mankind we should remain united. There is no place for people who hold power founded on threats. Safety, food and a roof over your head are basic needs. Since two weeks I look differently at all wars. There is a point before and after this war. No longer can I look away. Even though it is terrible and painful and sad, for me personally it is a huge wakeup call. No one should be in that situation. Future generations deserve a world without war and peaceful skies. And second comes hockey’, Iryna Kharchenko ends with a hopeful smile.


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