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DRC's support for victims of shelling in Ukraine: a glimpse into the lives of Chernihiv families

The consequences of constant shelling of Ukrainian territories as well as active battles continue to reinforce the humanitarian crisis in the country.

DRC Ukraine, Chernihiv, 2023, Volodymyr Cheppel.

Posted on 19 Jul 2023

Written by Volodymyr Malynka

The last year's large-scale military offensive echoes in many families’ stories who lost their breadwinners or were under shelling that caused severe harm to their health.

To mitigate the consequences of the war for those who were affected by Explosive Ordnance or shelling, DRC implements a Victim Assistance programme aimed at medical assistance, assistive devices and rehabilitation, inclusive homes, schools, and work environments, as well as psycho-social support.

The funding of USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance is one of the projects that enable impactful aid for vulnerable families affected by shelling and Explosive Ordnance (EO) accidents. The primary focus of this project is on child victims and survivors as well as their families, ensuring that they receive priority assistance.

In March, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) issued an open call for individuals in need of such support. The response was overwhelming, with over 3,000 applications received within just a few days. This remarkable level of engagement highlights the urgent and significant need for assistance to victims of EO in Ukraine.

“Having that list, we gradually contact the applicants to assess what exactly they need. Under the project, we have three main areas of assistance: we can cover transport costs if a person needs medical treatment out of hometown; there is a possibility to make reconstructions at home to make it inclusive for people with disabilities, and we may also cover educational needs. Currently, the last area is the most common where we provide support under this specific project”, explains Yurii, Victim Assistance Facilitator.

The educational needs that the DRC team helps to cover are various. Someone may need to change their occupation due to accidents or a debilitated economy while others need new IT devices to be included in the educational environment.

©DRC Ukraine, Chernihiv, 2023, Volodymyr Cheppel.

©DRC Ukraine, Chernihiv, 2023, Volodymyr Cheppel.

New Hope with New Opportunities

Sofia*, 44, is one of those who received assistance under this project. She underlined that receiving humanitarian aid was uncomfortable for her, as she held a job and believed there might be others who required the support more urgently.

Sofia, who is currently in remission while undergoing cancer treatment, experienced a harrowing incident just a year ago. Her family found themselves caught in direct shelling as they attempted to flee Chernihiv in March 2022.

We sat down with her on a hill overlooking the bridge where that accident happened. Sofia recalled that they were asked to wait and when the missiles started to fall nearby, they left their car.

“I went with my son under the bridge pylon and then heard a huge bang. Then I saw that my son was hit by shrapnel. I remember that he did not cry, but he was shocked. I covered him with my body and laid like this for a while. We tried to move but the shelling restarted so my husband and I just covered the son again with our bodies and laid like that until the shelling ended. I was covered in blood, had shrapnel in my leg, and my ear was injured. Even though my husband was injured as well, he somehow managed to drive us to Kyiv. We had to transport our son to a hospital to save his legs”, Sofia describes the day they were caught under fire.

After months of treatment and rehabilitation, they decided to return home. The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation retreated, and the city of Chernihiv became accessible again.

“Our apartment building is located right in front of a destroyed shopping mall. We fled the apartment on the first day of the war and first lived in the school basement and then at our friends’ apartment located closer to the city centre. After months spent in Kyiv’s hospitals, we discovered our apartment was damaged by shrapnel — windows were broken and the radiators fell off the walls”, says Sofia.

They managed to repair the flat and Sofia stayed at home looking after the seven-year-old Oleh* — the shelling caused significant mental distress and anxiety. “Every time he hears the air raid sirens, he cries”.

Even when he starts his first year at school this autumn, he will be at home at noon already, so Sofia cannot work full-time yet. She finishes teaching at a local college soon and plans to work from home. Sofia taught accounting and, fortunately, a college proposed a job to her in public purchases that does not require the presence in the office.

At first, Sofia addressed DRC to receive support with school stationery for Oleh. With a grant, she could buy everything needed for school. “When we started exploring the items we needed for Oleh, I was surprised by the high prices. A grant was a relief for our budget”, she says.

When Yurii dived into the family’s story, he understood that there are other options to support them. As Sofia wanted to change the job, she planned to take a course on public purchases, the fee of which DRC could also cover. Moreover, she had told Yurii, the family only possessed an 18-year-old computer with a broken web camera. With a total family income of about 300 euros per month and the costs of receiving different treatments, they could not afford the additional spending. Sofia applied for extra support and DRC covered all expenses for their education and a new laptop.

“The grant gave me hope and helped me to see new opportunities. With the certificate in public purchases and a new laptop, I can start working in a new role remotely, while also caring for Oleh. I want to find additional income. A new device allows me to expand my job search beyond Chernihiv and explore opportunities throughout Ukraine”, adds Sofia.

©DRC Ukraine, Chernihiv, 2023, Volodymyr Cheppel.

©DRC Ukraine, Chernihiv, 2023, Volodymyr Cheppel.

Covering Basic Needs of Remote Education

Another family that DRC supported in Chernihiv resides in a cramped room within a dormitory, which is a common housing solution in Ukraine for families unable to afford their own apartments. Within the dormitory, they have access to a shared bathroom and a communal kitchen located on their floor. Svitlana*, 43, lives here with two sons — Ihor*, 17, and Ostap*, six.

“We moved to Chernihiv in 2016. We hoped to collect money and buy a new flat”, Svitlana says. “But after my husband Oleksandr passed away, I cannot afford it”.

Oleksandr was working in a field in March 2023 when the shelling unexpectedly started. Being in a tractor, he did not hear the air raid alarm.

In a room of 18 square meters, there are boxes under the walls and a tiny wardrobe that somehow contains all family clothes. There is a bunk bed under one wall, a coach in front of it, and a small table in a corner where children complete their homework. A new laptop lays on the table — one of those that the DRC helped to buy. With the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent wartime conditions, Ukrainian schools have majorly shifted to remote learning. Consequently, it is crucial for children to have reliable equipment that enables them to successfully learn.

“I had only my phone and a 20-year-old computer that recently broke. I tried to deal with everything using my phone but some of the files and apps did not work there”, Ihor explains. He just passed his first year in a college studying law and already has an internship in a local administration lined up for the summer.

Svitlana works as an accountant in a state-run eldercare centre. Alongside other necessary expenditures for her family, she needs to allocate a portion of her income to cover a 500-euro college fee every year. Throughout our interview, Svitlana emphasised that her primary concern lies in the well-being and safety of her children, putting their needs above her own.

Last year, amidst the intense shelling of Chernihiv, they sought refuge in the basement of a dormitory. It was there that they received the devastating news of Oleksandr's death, prompting Svitlana to make a hasty decision to leave the city. Seeking safety, they fled to the residence of her parents in Chernihiv oblast. They remained there until the cessation of hostilities in and around the city.

These days, she says, they got used to the sirens as shelling became rarer. “Sometimes, when I am tired of news and work, I may even oversleep the sirens. I simply do not hear them anymore”, Svitlana says.

I asked Ostap what his favourite school subject was. “Math”, he said without hesitation.

“He studies passionately, and a new laptop is of big support. However, remote education is hard for children. They need communication. We sometimes spend hours coping with an exercise that would otherwise take 15 minutes. He just wants to talk”, Svitlana adds with a smile.

Since February 2022, the DRC has provided support for almost 200 EO and shelling victims or their families. The programme will continue to support conflict-affected people in the coming months. These activities are possible thanks to the support of the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, and the USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance.

*Names were changed for confidentiality purposes. 

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