Europe Bureau – resolved to believe in the impossible
Zoya Shabarova – who would go on to lead the European bureau of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest global AIDS organization – was born in a small village in the former Soviet Union. Her home country would, one day, be known as Ukraine.
Named for the Greek word meaning “life,” Shabarova studied as a child at the local English school, where she learned a quote from Abraham Lincoln that would shape her adult life: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” For young Zoya, the phrase was a beam of sunlight breaking through the clouds that continually hung low over the people of her country under Soviet rule. Lincoln’s words gave her hope that people would not be fooled by Soviet propaganda forever.
“[Abraham Lincoln’s quote] is what really gave me optimism and reassured me that impossible things are possible, and they are possible within your lifetime,” Shabarova said. “It really changed my life.”
By 1985, Shabarova had decided to pursue a degree in clinical psychology, a choice fueled by her curiosity for the human psyche. She chose to go into clinical work to avoid the Soviet brainwashing that permeated the field of psychology. The only work she could find that was free of Soviet rhetoric was in a psychiatric hospital.
“Psychology was sometimes used for political purposes, but during that time I was working as a psychologist trying to help people adjust to their lives with a disease,” Shabarova said of her work with people suffering from schizophrenia and borderline personality disorders.
Shabarova had to work around the propaganda because the Iron Curtain, the ideological and physical boundary that separated the Soviet Union from Western Europe, was still in place – though it was growing less and less impassible as the 1980s drew to a close. Finally, the day came when throngs of people flowed unobstructed from East Berlin into West Berlin, greeted by cheers where previously there had been bullets. At the time it fell in 1989, the Berlin Wall had come to symbolize the divide between the democracy in the West and communism in the East of Germany.
“The biggest event that influenced my life both personally and professionally was the fall of the Berlin Wall, because when
I was a child I never expected it. To be raised in a totalitarian
regime, I could never expect this Iron Curtain would be removed,” Shabarova recalled. “It was so unshakeable, and then it changed
almost overnight. This event gave me an internal belief that is
always with me: that everything is possible.”
Zoya found her entryway into the global fight against AIDS in the newly independent Ukraine in 1990, when she was approached by the Ukrainian National AIDS Center about providing psychological support to clients at the esteemed Lavra Clinic in Kiev, which handled some of the earliest cases of HIV to appear in Eastern Europe, in Odessa.
As joyous as Shabarova and other citizens of the former Soviet Union were to be progressing away from the oppressive regime, “many things became chaotic,” she said. For Shabarova, who had earned her PhD in a territory that no longer existed, the chaos hit hard when she finished her time at the Lavra Clinic in 1994 and found that she needed new skills. So, in 1994, she enrolled in the postgraduate public administration program at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota thanks to the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship.
“This experience shaped my first professional interests and I became very interested in international health and how to bring an evidence-based approach to medical justice and universal access to medications and lifesaving technologies as a human right,” Shabarova said.
Shabarova (center) visits the site of a new clinic as it neared completion in Navra, Estonia in
Also in 1995, Shabarova got involved with a U.S. Agency for International Development program about healthcare reform in former Soviet countries, while also attending international conferences on HIV/AIDS and managing programs about preventing mother-to-child transmission of the virus. Then she learned about AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the work being done in Russia and Ukraine. By 2008, Shabarova started to be involved in developing AHF’s services in Eastern Europe. When the Foundation created its Eastern European Bureau in 2010, Shabarova was named its chief.
“I was told before this event that people in Estonia will never wait in line for something like this, but this was not true. This myth was dispelled.”
One of the most important days in Shabarova’s career with AHF came on a rainy World AIDS Day in Tallin, Estonia, where Shabarova’s life motto of believing in the impossible once again came to life.
“I will never forget the first of December, 2009 in Tallin, at our first public testing event where people were standing in line in the rain and freezing cold for their HIV results. It impressed me because we saw the need [for universal access to testing] which was not addressed and not even recognized, and because people were given this access and learned their HIV status we prevented new cases and helped newly identified positive people to take care of their health,” Shabarova said. “I was told before this event that people in Estonia will never wait in line for something like this, but this was not true. This myth was dispelled.”
Today, Shabarova lives near Rotterdam in the Netherlands with her husband and their 12-year-old son. When she’s not supporting her devoted team to get better treatment and care of over 26,000 people in Ukraine and Russia – along with programs and partnerships in Estonia, Lithuania, and the Netherlands, and additional developing partnerships in Portugal and Greece – Shabarova likes to drive boats with her family in the Dutch canals near her home.