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Volunteers Ease the Pain for Ukraine’s Forgotten Displaced

Three years into the war in Ukraine, international attention and aid to displaced people has waned. In an area near the war zone, Natasha Bluth reports on volunteer groups trying to fill gaps in support for one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations.

Written by Natasha Bluth Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Galina and her daughter Svetlana in front of their modular home. Natasha Bluth

ZAPORIZHIA, Ukraine – Over cups of tea, Galina, who is in her 60s, says she and her family have adjusted well to their new life, where home is a 40 square-ft (3.7 square-meter) container. But her heart is still elsewhere.

“It doesn’t matter where I go, because my soul stretches back to Donetsk,” she said of her hometown in eastern Ukraine – part of the Donbass region now largely controlled by pro-Russian separatists. “I have an apartment there. My two sons are buried there. How can I stay in Zaporizhia?”

Galina and her family used to live next to Donetsk airport, which became the epicenter of the conflict between Russian-backed militants and Ukrainian forces in September 2014. When fighting intensified, her daughter’s family left home for the sake of Galina’s young grandchildren. In February 2015, Galina followed them on the 150-mile (240km) journey to Zaporizhia.

They are among the 300 displaced Ukrainians in this city camp, built with support from the German government in 2015. On a visit last August, row after row of white container homes glistened, hit by the hot summer sun. Outside each home was a bench, painted in green, blue, red and yellow, like a rainbow.

But the bright colors and geometric perfection could not conceal the loss felt by the residents, displaced by fighting in Ukraine. The war has now dragged on for more than three years and the country has one of the highest numbers of internally displaced people in the world.

Following the protests that ended in the resignation of the president, Viktor Yanukovych, Russia annexed Crimea and backed rebels in Donbass in a conflict that has left at least 10,000 dead.

Zaporizhia, the sixth-largest city in Ukraine, has a factory landscape similar to that of Donbass, the biggest center of industry in the country. Now Zaporizhia is home to almost 90,000 displaced Ukrainians and is one of five eastern regions housing three-quarters of the 1.6 million internally displaced people.

The displaced Ukrainians’ most basic needs – food, shelter and relative safety – were largely met by the initial flood of international aid when the conflict began.

But today, as foreign aid wanes and reforms promised following the 2013–14 Euromaidan protests fail to materialize, displaced families depend on few sources of relief. According to a recent survey by the International Organization for Migration, 45 percent of displaced households in Ukraine have just enough money to cover food for the family.

Seeing Ukraine as permanently marred by corruption, foreign donors have turned their attention to conflicts deemed more pressing than the stabil’nyy krizis (stable crisis) in Donbass. The United States, formerly a major donor, plans to cut aid by almost 70 percent under President Donald Trump’s current budget proposals.

But while international attention may have turned elsewhere, homegrown nonprofit groups are helping to fill the gaps in supporting displaced Ukrainians.

An expanding army of volunteers

Many Ukrainian community organizations, inspired by the Euromaidan protests that called for improved human rights and better ties with Europe, have expanded since the conflict began. In the Zaporizhia region, they now number 49.

After encountering the first wave of displaced Ukrainians arriving in Zaporizhia in 2014, 30-year-old Valentina Trukhan and her friends decided to collect clothes and shoes for the new arrivals through local NGO Ulybka rebenka, or Smile of a Child, which was founded a year earlier to aid disadvantaged children.

As the year wore on, the trickle of displaced persons grew into a steady stream and the volunteers began to visit families in camps and rundown communal apartments and offer psychological services.

The organization now works on more than 40 projects, including Krug druzey, or Circle of Friends, an annual region-wide festival to facilitate the social integration and rehabilitation of displaced Ukrainians; last year, 12,000 people attended.

Such organizations are critical to providing a semblance of normality to displaced Ukrainians and overcoming communal tensions inflamed by war.

An English-language class at Smile of Child. (Natasha Bluth)

The region from which many displaced Ukrainians come – Donbass – is one of the most coal-rich territories in the country. Many Russians migrated there in the mid-1900s and it is now home to Ukraine’s biggest Russian minority – most residents speak only Russian and traditionally align politically with pro-Kremlin leaders. Thanks to Moscow’s role in the current conflict, prejudice against Russian-speaking Ukrainians is rife.

Trukhan cited a 2015 study by Smile of a Child, which found that 15.5 percent of Zaporizhians considered the arriving displaced population suspicious, if not downright dangerous.

Zaphorizians “think resettlers [displaced Ukrainians] somehow differ from us,” Trukhan, now acting director of Smile of a Child, told Refugees Deeply. “But basically decent people came here, the same as us.”

Other Zaphorizians blame the displaced population for contributing to local unemployment, she said, while aid workers stress that most of displaced population work informally and for low wages.

Local volunteers often say displaced Ukrainians rarely complain about their circumstances, for fear of being ostracized by their host communities. Eto ne prinyato: To talk about politics or the war – it’s not acceptable.

Galina declined to provide her last name, for fear of tarnishing her reputation among former neighbors who chose to remain in the east. Her refusal to settle in the city of Zaporizhia means she cannot risk jeopardizing her possible return home.

Stigma and psychological care

One big gap being filled by volunteer groups is psychological care. In 2015 the Ukrainian budget for health care was only 3.2 percent of its GDP. The World Health Organization found that the majority of displaced Ukrainians with psychological needs lacked treatment altogether.

Volunteers are also up against a country that heavily stigmatizes psychological care. Galina’s 16-year-old granddaughter, for example, didn’t interact with anyone for almost six months after her family arrived in Zaporizhia, but her grandmother insists that no one in her family requires counseling.

“For most people, ‘psychologist’ means ‘psychiatrist’ or even a ‘neurologist,’ who will brainwash them into thinking they need help,” said Yuliya Doykova, a psychologist at another NGO in Zaporizhia called Schastlivyy rebenok, or Happy Child.

Established in 2007 to support Ukrainian orphans and children with cancer, Happy Child now also works with displaced children. It has been a struggle for Doykova to recruit participants to her mental health workshops.

Galina’s grandson pours her tea. (Natasha Bluth)

Displacement can hit children particularly severely. Doykova said that she has seen children from Donbass “hide a piece of bread under their pillows and sleep with it.” But with the right treatment, children can overcome this trauma, she said.

Organizations like Smile of a Child use art therapy and games to help the displaced children. “It’s very important to create a routine for the children – a normal, habitual state of things,” said Trukhan. “A kid who comes here feels safe – that’s the first thing we talk about.”

Yet while a volunteer movement has grown in Ukraine, many community organizations are struggling with funding and fear that foreign aid could vanish as abruptly as it appeared in 2014.

“Our task is to find resources in ourselves,” Trukhan said. “At [Euromaidan], people realized that we can’t be silent any more, that we have to solve something and change something ourselves. If we don’t do it now, then no one else will do it for us.”

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