Hire Ukrainian Designers: Helping War-Torn Architects Find Meaningful Work
The battlefield of the future. This is the dystopian, clickbait phrase that’s repeated in articles by tech journalists describing the war in Ukraine since last February. The Economist, FT, Brookings, Fast Company, and Bloomberg have each published stories describing how digital technology has been at the forefront of Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine. In stark contrast to these developments, some architects are leveraging tech in new ways towards much more humane ends for the Ukrainian cause, offering a glimmer of hope in a devastating situation.
Hire Ukranian Designers is a platform run by Alina Nazmeeva, Angelina Stelmakh, Alina Plyusnina, Andrii Vorobiov, and John David Wagner, and its mission is exactly what the name states: get work for Ukrainian designers who lost their jobs after Russia’s full-scale invasion commenced. Since February, the team has been successful in their mission, but things are only getting started. They’ve since helped over 50 Ukrainian designers find remote employment with competitive salaries at firms in the U.S., from Boston to Los Angeles.
“We saw a real need,” said Wagner, an architect based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “We’d heard about Ukrainian architects who lost their jobs after the war started. At the same time, architecture offices in the U.S. were scrambling to hire back designers following the huge wave of layoffs wrought by COVID starting in 2020. Our goal was to meet both demands: Help Ukrainian architects, and others, by howling at U.S.-based firms to fill roles.” (An in-depth information session hosted by The Architectural League with more information about the initiative can be found here.)
How does the platform work? An average week day for the team of dedicated volunteers (working pro-bono) usually goes something like this. The first step is checking the email inbox for any potential new applicants. All inquiries are then logged into a spreadsheet with the names of each applicant, their particular skill set, and potential offices where they can work. Both Vorobiov’s and Stelmakh’s particular roles have been vetting candidates who may not be fluent in English, interviewing with them in Ukrainian, and then determining which offices may be a good match. “I really understand the value of this volunteer initiative because I went through it from the very beginning as a candidate, and now I can finally help as a volunteer,” Vorobiov said.
When the full scale invasion started, Vorobiov had been forced to leave Kyiv with his family to the city’s outskirts. Shortly after, he needed to find a new means of income, and stumbled upon Hire Ukranian Designers. Speaking from personal experience, for Vorobiov, the initiative is not only helping one person, “it’s helping their family and loved ones. It’s helpful for the country because it boosts taxes. It’s helpful for defenders because it increases donations to them. And last but not least, it helps candidates leverage their professional skills.” So far, Vorobiov’s role has also been sharing the project in his professional circles to help architects find work. He’s also been pivotal in helping the initiative navigate Ukraine’s own tax laws.
“We basically had to learn about how to run a recruiting service on the fly,” Wagner said.
And then there’s public outreach in the U.S. Much of Wagner’s job has been the monotonous task of finding architecture firms to reach out to, pitching the idea, and then waiting to hear back. “We basically had to learn about how to run a recruiting service on the fly,” Wagner said. Indeed, this massive undertaking is done on the side of each of their full-time jobs. Stelmakh is a psychology student pursuing a masters degree in Romania, Wagner practices architecture full time remotely for a firm in Boston, and Nazmeeva embarks on her teaching fellowship at University of Michigan. A grad student in Bucharest working alongside folks in Michigan to get architects in Ukraine jobs in Los Angeles used to be the stuff of science fiction. Now, it’s just your average Tuesday thanks to the communications tech that’s been popularized during the pandemic.
When the war broke out, Anastasia F. was forced to flee Kyiv with her husband. “We decided to move immediately,” she said. “According to the geographical situation of the invasion, we couldn’t get to our hometown of Odessa at first and we found ourselves abroad. We had no plan. When we found a temporary place and calmed down a little bit the first thing I thought about was a job—to help our parents, donate to Ukraine, rent a flat abroad. So when I first heard about HIRE UKRAINIAN DESIGNERS, I decided to try. I had experience with foreign customers but not with work for a foreign architectural firm.” Anastasiia continued: “Especially with a firm from the US because I knew that all standards and the measurement system are different. So I was afraid a little bit. But the interview with their team, it was so easygoing and friendly that I immediately felt better. Now I’ve been working for a US-firm [Partners for Architecture] for almost 3 months.”
And then there’s Eugene, an architect from Kharkiv who has since been hired by Rafi Segal A+U. “Before the war, I worked in an architectural bureau with the implementation of projects exclusively on the territory of Ukraine. But after the start of the war, the flow of projects in the bureau dropped sharply, and for me and many of my colleagues, the only option was to find a freelance job. It turned out to be a rather unstable and [un]competitive type of income,” he said. “I currently work for an architecture firm in Boston, and this is a great opportunity to share my creative ideas internationally.”
“Daria [a Ukrainian architect hired by Amy] and I now work together on a part-time basis and I feel incredibly grateful to have such a responsible, enthusiastic, and superb employee working with me.”
What’s it been like for U.S.-based firm owners and staffers? “I often hire consultants as a sole proprietor,” says Amy Munsat, the principal owner of Amy Munsat Design, a firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The process of receiving a curated list of candidates from Hire Ukranian Designers was as straightforward as it could be .Daria [a Ukrainian architect hired by Amy] and I now work together on a part-time basis and I feel incredibly grateful to have such a responsible, enthusiastic, and superb employee working with me.”
What’s next? While the phrase “remote work” will likely make many shudder at the thought of having to labor in the same room where they sleep, and doomsday planners argue that it may spell out the end of the central business district, remote work also has potential for new ways of working that simply were not possible just three years ago. It could even become a lifeline for workers in Ukraine and countries around the world facing war, environmental migration, and any other external factors that force people from their homes.
“One of the paths our project could take is to support the Ukrainian architects, designers, and planners from our database to become primary decision makers in future and ongoing reconstruction efforts,” said Nazmeeva. “Many of our colleagues actively work in volunteer organizations to repair, clean-up and restore the built environment. Yet the larger-scale, organized, international NGO-led and state-supported efforts are already in the works. It’s critical that architects from Ukraine take a central role in this process.”
Today, Hire Ukranian Designers is in the process of partnering with CO-HATY, another group of architects designing houses for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in western Ukraine. The team is also set on launching a donation platform so that firms who aren’t in a position to hire can help sponsor reconstruction initiatives. Looking toward the long term, future initiatives like Hire Syrian Designers may be in the mix. For now, if you own a firm, work for one, or just want to spread the word: Hire Ukrainian Designers!