Human reindeer bring Christmas to front-line kids in Ukraine

Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor
From left to right, Yevheniia Levinstein, Maksym Slodzek, Dariia Achkasova, and her mother Inna Achkasova – all with St. Nicholas' Reindeer – pose on Dec. 2, 2022, in their Svitlovodsk workshop with the Christmas gifts they will distribute to Ukrainian children in war zones.
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Dariia Achkasova sits in a room brimming with presents and reaches behind a pile of cardboard boxes to pull out a stack of Christmas letters. Most are typical letters to Santa, but one stands out: “Dear St. Nicholas, I really want peace to come,” it reads.

This is Ukraine, the child who dreams of peace lives near a front line in the war with Russia, and Ms. Achkasova works for St. Nicholas’ Reindeer, a charity group that matches children in conflict zones, and their Christmas hopes, with donors who send them their presents.

Why We Wrote This

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Even in the darkest times, an unexpected present from Santa Claus can light up a child’s life. For Ukrainian children near the front lines, St. Nicholas’ Reindeer is there to help.

The atmosphere in the Reindeer workspace is one of cheerful chaos, with toys piled high, as four volunteers read through children’s letters, sort presents, and prepare them for Christmas delivery.

Since the charity launched in 2015, it has sent out nearly 5,000 gifts, provided by donors who have read the letters on the Reindeer’s website and been moved to buy something that one of the children asked for.

The war has disrupted the work; many members of the volunteer network have moved, and so have many children. But parents have stepped up to fill the gaps. Says one Reindeer stalwart, “That’s what we see as the real miracle.”

In a room heaped with presents, Dariia Achkasova reaches behind a pile of cardboard boxes and pulls out a stack of Christmas letters. They’re mostly just A4 sheets of paper decorated with drawings – a St. Nicholas here, a cat there. She flips through them, choosing some at random to read aloud.

“I’m three years old. I come from Bakhmut. Please give me a radio-controlled car as a present.”

“I’m already 12. I’m kind of a grown-up boy, but I want a stuffed toy because when I was a child they used to protect me.”

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Even in the darkest times, an unexpected present from Santa Claus can light up a child’s life. For Ukrainian children near the front lines, St. Nicholas’ Reindeer is there to help.

“Dear St. Nicholas, I really want peace to come finally,” reads Ms. Achkasova. “We want to go back home.”

Ms. Achkasova sets the letters down on cardboard boxes stacked waist-high. Filling the room are toys – Lego sets, stuffed animals, soccer balls, beanbags, Harry Potter books, and goodness knows what else – scattered as though every parent in Svitlovodsk, a small city in central Ukraine, were running late for the holidays and had chosen this same small room in an office building to get organized.

The cheerfully chaotic scene is the work of St. Nicholas’ Reindeer, a volunteer group that for the last seven years has distributed Christmas gifts to children near Ukraine’s front lines. The letters come in the thousands from children living in war-torn areas. The Reindeer’s job (there are four of them working today) is to process letters, match the requests with donors, sort presents, and prepare them for Christmas delivery.

Over the past seven years the group has sent gifts to almost 5,000 children. It has gotten 1,630 letters and counting this year alone. Many come from previously peaceful areas that have become war zones since the Russian invasion.

“We are working with kids who are very often traumatized by war,” says Inna Achkasova, Dariia’s mother and one of the group’s founding members. “We want children to enter another frame of mind, to think about what they actually want and to start dreaming. That takes their attention off the war.”

Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor
The Reindeer keep a collection of letters sent by children in the Donbas region to St. Nicholas, Dec. 2, 2022. Since the war began, some children have started asking for the gift of peace.

You can tell them by their antlers

The idea was born in the fall of 2014, after Russian-supported separatists seized parts of eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region. The elder Ms. Achkasova and a friend, Yevheniia Levinstein, heard from colleagues filming a documentary about fighting in the Donbas.

They told the women that while adults in the conflict zone could get by with what they had, children’s needs were more often neglected.

“We had the idea of inviting letters from children with their Christmas wishes,” says Ms. Achkasova. “It was a group idea,” she jokes, “from the North Pole.” (St. Nicholas is the Ukrainian Santa Claus, whose name derives from the saint.)

Drawing on volunteers in the Donbas, and visiting the area themselves, the Reindeer started collecting letters. They expected to receive 200 to 300. They got 1,200.

From there, the program snowballed. The network grew to 40 villages and the number of letters received tripled as the years went by. There have never been more than 10 Reindeer, and “we were overwhelmed,” says Ms. Levinstein, wearing Crocs and furry reindeer antlers.

They start accepting letters in November, from children under age 12, and begin deliveries in mid-December, around St. Nicholas Day. Many families in Ukraine celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6, following the Ukrainian Orthodox Church calendar. Most exchange gifts, though, on New Year’s Day itself, in a holdover from Soviet times.

The Reindeer collect all the letters and post photos of them on their social media channels. Donors – whom the Reindeer call “wizards” because they make magic happen – then choose the letter (or letters) they want to respond to and send the appropriate presents to the Reindeer clearinghouse in Svitlovodsk.

The local post office has designated a special place for Reindeer deliveries. All the volunteers need to do is show up in their reindeer antlers, says Maksym Slodzek, a member of the team, and the post office workers hand over the parcels.

After the presents are sorted and wrapped, which can be difficult because they sometimes arrive without any identifying information, the Reindeer arrange them in stacks grouped by destination along a wall.

They are then posted to their intended recipients, though the Reindeer make occasional drop-offs themselves. They keep an album containing photos of children opening their gifts, often astonished that St. Nicholas has answered their letter.

“It’s really inspiring when you realize that the child received the present that they actually wanted,” says Ms. Levinstein. “Many children don’t expect that.”

War makes “everything different”

The Reindeer were still making their final deliveries of the season when full-scale war broke out last February. One day, while they were distributing beanbags in the Donbas, shells began exploding around them. “We felt like the war was following us everywhere,” says Ms. Achkasova.

The war has disrupted their work. The database with contact details for volunteers is out of date, since more than half of them have left their homes or are now living beyond reach, under Russian occupation. A lot of children are also on the move, making them hard to reach.

“Literally everything is different,” says Ms. Levinstein.

But they are undeterred. One day earlier this month, the Reindeer’s office was nearly full – with only a quarter of the presents they expect to gather this year, the younger Ms. Achkasova explains. The building is letting them use another room for overflow. “It’s kind of anarchy,” says Mr. Slodzek.

Over the years, other groups have started programs similar to theirs, which they welcome. Part of their mission, they say, is to engage Ukraine’s civil society. So the more the merrier.

After the invasion, the Reindeer didn’t know whether their program would survive. There were higher priorities for aid, they thought, and people would rather donate to the military. At a certain point, they were ready to move on. It turned out their donors weren’t.

“At the moment when we were hesitating, we started receiving letters and messages” from donors, says Ms. Levinstein. “They really wanted to help.”

Without their normal volunteer lists, the Reindeer needed parents to step up, soliciting letters and organizing parcel deliveries themselves. They have met the need.

“That,” says Ms. Levinstein, “is what we see as the real miracle.”

Oleksandr Naselenko supported reporting for this article.

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