The conflict in Ukraine has displaced over a million people, according to the UN. Image credit: Sasha Maksymenko. The conflict in Ukraine has displaced over a million people, according to the UN. Image credit: Sasha Maksymenko.

The war on the eastern border of Ukraine had almost reached her doorstep by the time Olga Dolinina knew that it was time to leave Donetsk.

On the evening of May 26, 2014, only a few hours after Dolinina had returned home, the Druzhba Arena, home of HC Donbass, where she was the head of marketing and public relations, was badly burned and ransacked by members of the Donetsk People’s Republic. She was getting dressed for work the next morning as she saw the headline scroll across the television screen. Two months later, the club’s office building in downtown Donetsk was captured by intruders in masks, who stole players’ cars and forced employees into the streets.

“Luckily, no one was hurt,” Dolinina says. “After the arena was burned, I knew the city was no longer a safe place for me and I left for my home-town in Dnipropetrovsk. I found out about the intruders from my colleagues. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe this was happening.”

The situation

'Children need a childhood. They need to have hope'
Labelled a war between Russia and Ukraine by some, and a civil war between pro-Russian and nationalist forces by others, the fighting in Donbass has left almost 1.5 million Ukrainians internally displaced and at least 6,500 dead. By the end of 2014, the conflict had forced the closure of 187 schools in the region and displaced 137,000 children, according to UNICEF.

Today, the news grows more daunting. Aside from chaos along the border and the obliteration of homes and properties, psychologists within the country are dealing with thousands of children and soldiers struggling with severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from the crisis, and cultural stigma that is keeping those most affected from reaching out for help.

Dolinina, a participant in the US State Department and espnW Global Sports Mentoring program (GSMP), spent a month from September to October 2014 planning how she would use sport as a vehicle for peace upon her return to Ukraine. A former journalist and life-long hockey fan, Dolinina had previously launched education and community service initiatives between players and students in her role with HC Donbass. She was committed to doing much more after witnessing the physical and psychological damage the military conflict caused first-hand.

“I knew I wanted to work with the boys and girls coming as refugees,” Dolinina says. “Despite the situation, they needed to have a childhood. They needed to have hope.”

Breaking the ice

With HC Donbass suspending operations for the 2014-15 season following the destruction of its facilities, Dolinina took a job as a project officer with Save the Children. The position provided her with just the platform she needed to reach the conflict’s most vulnerable victims.

After establishing further networks with the United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Table Hockey Federation, Dolinina launched Kids Break the Ice, a project that organises table hockey tournaments for child refugees. So far she has held two successful tournaments for 200 boys and girls in Dnipropetrovsk and Mariupol, with plans for several more before the end of 2015.

Dolinina funded her table hockey tournaments with two grants worth $9,000 USD, that she received from the US State Department and Embassy in Kiev. She also earned a $20,000 USD grant for hockey equipment from the American National Hockey League's Player’s Association.

Susan Cohig, head of marketing for the NHL, was Dolinina’s mentor while on the GSMP, and the two formed a relationship that remains strong almost one year later. Dolinina calls Cohig her “NHL mother” and credits the support she’s received from her and the NHL for giving her “inspiration to keep going, even when it is hard.”

Many of those fleeing the conflict in the east have gone to the capital, Kiev. Image credit: Steve Evans. Many of those fleeing the conflict in the east have gone to the capital, Kiev. Image credit: Steve Evans.

Olga hopes to partner with a local ice hockey club in Kiev to host events for displaced children
For her part, Cohig is also very impressed with the drive and initiative her former mentee - and now friend - has shown.

"I am so proud of what Olga has accomplished with her Kids Break the Ice program,” Cohig says. “It is a project she developed during her time with us at the NHL, and it has truly come to life. We couldn't be more thrilled to see the progress she has achieved under such difficult circumstances She has made us so proud."

Dolinina plans to use the money to launch street hockey tournaments in her home town and throughout eastern Ukraine. She also hopes to partner with a local ice hockey club in Kiev to host clinics and events for displaced children who have relocated to the capital. If all goes well, Dolinina will have reached hundreds with her message of peace through sports.

“These children left behind everything. They had to start from the very beginning,” Dolinina says. “They never know when they’re going to return home. It’s hard for me not to cry because I feel so much compassion for them. I see those big, sad eyes, and they are not children’s eyes; they have suffered what is already a lifetime.”

The future

Dolinina’s work using sport as a vehicle for social change has gained media attention in Ukraine, and secured future presentations before the Palace of Sports in Kiev and Ministry of Youth and Sports. Save the Children, where she has been promoted twice in the last year, has committed to provide volunteers and safe spaces for future table hockey projects.

Recently, Dolinina also did something that she had never expected after returning to Ukraine from the GSMP - she registered Kids Break the Ice as an NGO. She is awaiting final approval and expects to officially launch this month. Birthed as a simple way to serve traumatised children through sport when she held her first tournament in Dnipropetrovsk, Dolinina is now moving one step closer to providing long-lasting healing and hope for Ukraine’s child refugees. It is her mission, and her conviction to make a difference will not be shaken.

“The conflict will end some time, and these kids will be our future,” Dolinina says. “I am Ukrainian and I feel this overwhelming responsibility to serve the boys and girls that will guide our country in the future. Even if I only help one girl become rehabilitated, it will make all of this work meaningful to my life.”