Landscape photographer builds refugee shelter in ex-corner shop
The start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine back in late February prompted an outpouring of support from the Czech population, with many donating money, goods, or even opening up their homes to refugees. But few went to the lengths of Pavel Oskin, a landscape photographer originally from Belarus, who has been based in Prague since 2008. He took an empty building slated for demolition and, with the help of a group of volunteers, transformed it into fully-furnished accommodation for 65 refugees from some of the most war-damaged areas of Ukraine. But the stream of donations and funds that was pouring in at the beginning has dried up as the novelty of the war has worn off.
The squat Communist-era building in the Prague district of Bohnice, wedged between a supermarket and rows of apartment blocks, isn’t much to look at from the outside. But inside it has been transformed into hostel-like accommodation which is currently housing 65 Ukrainian women and children, mostly from Mariupol and Kharkiv, who have fled the war in Ukraine.
This is mostly thanks to the initiative of Pavel Oskin, a photographer born in 1974 in Belarus who lived in Russia between 1991 and 2008 and then left for Prague, where he has been ever since. Oskin had no experience doing charity or humanitarian work, but says there was no question in his mind when the war started that he should do something:
“I am a photographer. I teach people to take pictures of landscapes – this is my work. But no one expected the war, and you should do whatever you can to help people.”
I meet Oskin at the shelter on a Wednesday evening, and he explains to me how it came to be:
“The whole building is owned by a Russian friend of mine and when the war started he called me and said, “I have this building, it’s 500m2, you can do what you want with it.” So I called another friend who works with the charity Dům Dobra and said, let’s do this together, let’s construct something for the refugees.”
Oskin says it didn’t take him long to decide.
“Immediately – I just said yes. Give me this space and I will do something. And that’s it.”
The building used to be a so-called ‘Vietnamské potraviny’ – a corner shop selling basic goods which, in the Czech Republic, are often owned by members of the Vietnamese community – but had lain empty for two months before the outbreak of the war. The work to make it habitable and suitable for the refugees to live in was hard – 14 or 15-hour days were par for the course – because there was nothing there when they started.
“There was nothing – not one wall. It was just empty space – 500 square metres.”
When the team started, there were no toilets, no showers, no kitchen – little more than some bare walls and a roof. But they designed floor plans figuring out how to make the best use of the space, re-wired the electricity, and installed a ventilation system. And with the help of people far and wide, they collected donations for everything that was needed to make the space habitable.
“We put advertisements on Facebook and people helped us with everything. Some people from IKEA brought the wardrobes, some other people brought beds, some people from Italy that I didn’t know brought all the mattresses, all the sheets, the washing machines, the microwaves.”
Oskin says he couldn’t have done it without the help of friends and the international team of volunteers that he amassed.
“Russians, Ukrainians, Montenegrins, Polish, Belarussian – it was a really international team and most of them worked for free. I also called one Czech friend of mine, Martin, and asked him to come for the weekend to help me with the electricity. He ended up spending two and a half months here, working every day.”
The first refugees were accommodated at the beginning of May. Although basic, as Oskin shows me around the shelter I am surprised by how much they managed to do in such a short amount of time.
“We call it a luxury hostel because they have everything they need, it is comfortable enough,” says Oskin.
There is a common relaxation area with couches, a TV with Ukrainian channels, and free 5G WiFi; a common breakfast and dining area with tables, chairs, counter space and five microwaves; a kitchen with an oven, several workstations with hobs for cooking, two sinks, food storage cupboards, and two fridges; a laundry room with washing machines and dryers designated for each room; a bathroom with ten showers and ten toilets; twelve bedrooms, each with room for six people sleeping in three sets of bunkbeds; and a large storage room for strollers, children’s toys, and other bulky items and large donations.
Oskin sees the shelter as his personal contribution to the fight against Putin:
“I feel I am a part of the war against Putin, against Russia, against my country. I feel like this. Because my country became crazy – not everyone, but at least 50% of people. Propaganda works unfortunately. If you don’t support the education of your people, the normal living standards of your people, and every second from your television, someone tells you about the Ukrainian fascists, you become crazy. It works. They don’t have Internet, they can’t check the information, they can’t get normal information, and they really became crazy.”
His anger at Putin is on behalf of the many people whose lives Putin's war is affecting, and at the same time deeply personal - he says that Putin is the reason he left Russia in the first place:
“I hate Putin. I’ve hated him since the beginning. I hate him now, I hated him before. My daughter was young and I wanted a good future for her. I didn’t think that was possible in Russia.”
However, Oskin has very positive things to say about his decision to move to the Czech Republic:
“I met a friend of mine in the street and he told me he had moved to the Czech Republic. I asked, ‘Why the Czech Republic?’ He said it is really cool, everything is cheap, really European, really good people, very empathic people, good culture, Prague is an unbelievably beautiful city. And it’s not a joke – immediately after this conversation I sent money for a deposit on a flat. I’d never been to the Czech Republic before.”
As Oskin shows me around, it is clear that the people staying there know him – they nod and smile, he addresses them in a friendly and natural way. The children watch us as we walk past, some of them smile shyly, one little girl waves at me and I wave back.
But the shelter is only temporary – after two years the building will be demolished and a luxury apartment complex will be built in its place. However, Oskin has plans to build 24 permanent apartments in Nymburk with his associate, Martin, who did the technical and construction work for the shelter, and to offer them to refugees for free for 5-6 years. But they need 3.500 000 euros. In Prague, that would only be enough money for one apartment, but in Nymburk the money will go a lot further, hence the decision to build the apartments outside of the capital.
“For this shelter we spent something like a million crowns, maybe a bit more. But it was easy, it’s temporary, it’s not quality. I dream of building a normal apartment with normal conditions for living.”
Although less directly involved with the day-to-day running of the shelter nowadays, Oskin has certainly not stopped striving to help the refugees. Finding work for the women in the shelter is another of his goals. He has started working on a mobile app that he says will be like “uber for cleaning services”.
“It will be very fast and very good. All Ukrainian refugee women can be a part of it. This application will offer to Czech people a cleaning service by the refugees. It’s almost done for iPhone and then we will do it for Android as fast as possible.”
At the moment, the service is running ‘manually’ – there is an advert in the window and people call up to order cleaning services – but Oskin desperately wants the app to start running so it can be done automatically and instantly.
“If you have an application and you need a taxi, you just go to uber and do it. If you need cleaning, you just go to my application and choose the nearest woman to your flat, and the system will find the closest one, and you will know that you are helping the Ukrainian refugees. For the women it’s really important.”
But Oskin needs a few thousand euros to get the app up and running - and funds have been increasingly hard to come by.
“Now I need money and I really can’t collect money now because people are tired of the war. Everyone has gotten used to it, they don’t feel like they need to help anymore.”
He says that collecting for the shelter when the war first broke out was easy – people were generous with their financial donations. But things have changed since then.
“For this shelter, it was easy and fast, because the war had just started, and people really sent a lot of money, so we had everything we needed. But now, I’m collecting for this application and I’m trying to collect for some other things, and it’s become really difficult unfortunately.”
With no end to the war in sight, Oskin says the need to help the refugees is still there.
“Now the number of refugees is going down, which is good news, but I don’t think the war will finish soon. People are tired. They need money, they need work, they need schools. They have nothing.”
To donate to the shelter and support Pavel Oskin's work, visit dumdobra.cz.