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Ukraine: The journey of a single mother fleeing the frontline Kherson city

DRC offers psychological support to single mothers who relocated to western Ukraine for safety. Sessions aim to relieve stress and enhance coping mechanisms and emotional awareness. Kateryna left Kherson in 2022 and was among those whom DRC supported — read her story.

©DRC Ukraine, Lviv Oblast, Novyi Rozdil, 2023, Volodymyr Malynka.

Posted on 21 Nov 2023

War always leaves scars, whether they are physical or mental. For those who experienced the heavy battles in the city, where they grew up and lived all their lives it is hard to feel safe again even far away from the frontline in Ukraine.

Kateryna*, 35, now lives in Novyi Rozdil town located in western Ukraine where she fled from Kherson city in Ukraine’s south. She has just passed the psychological support training consisting of 6 sessions. The last session was focused on storytelling where participants were encouraged to tell their life experiences—and Kateryna had lots of things to tell.

For instance, her hometown was under bombardment, and she saw the explosions from the windows of her apartment which faced the local Chornobaivka airport, heavily bombed during the first months of the Russian Federation military offensive. She can tell you about the helicopters that come and shoot the city.

Or that she took her boys, 5 and 9 years old, to a shelter, which was cluttered, dirty, and dusty. They hid there because Kateryna did not know what to do when your city underwent shelling, she was panic-stricken. “I had no clue from which side the rockets came and where we could be safe.

Everyone who had a car fled but we did not have one and could not leave the city,” she says.

After two weeks in the shelter, her younger son Ivan* started biting his cheeks. Kateryna thought it was a stomatitis but in a hospital near the shelter, a doctor told her it was Ivan’s way to react to the stress.

“I decided to stay with kids in a hospital. I thought it would be better to be near doctors—they could provide first aid in case of injury. But in the hospital, the children saw many seriously wounded people being brought in and carried along the corridors,” adds Kateryna with a trembling voice.

 

My cousin was leaving by car and saw the cars next to her being shot at. So, it was scary when we were travelling.

/  Kateryna

She says that in a week she started to adapt to the situation, understanding where they could walk and when. At this point, Kherson was beyond the control of the Ukrainian government, but Kateryna thought they could hide and wait out the fighting. Nevertheless, everything changed when the Russian soldiers knocked on her door.

“They searched people named in some of their lists and could take the whole family when they found the persons they needed. It was then that I realised I was in danger even not from the rockets. I started searching for the way to get out of the city,” says Kateryna. However, she did not have the cash to pay for evacuation—the cash in ATMs ran out. She was lucky her friend sold her car right before the military offensive outbreak and could borrow her the sum needed.

“My cousin was leaving by car and saw the cars next to her being shot at. So, it was scary when we were travelling. But we travelled without incidents, if not count the checkpoints. We left on the 6th of April. First, we went to Mykolaiv and passed more than 40 checkpoints. Then we took a taxi to Odesa because Mykolaiv was heavily shelled. From there, we travelled by train to Lviv (western Ukraine) and met our friend there. Although the journey took a few days, it seemed like a month,” says Kateryna and her hands started shaking.

She was afraid to stay in a big Lviv city because it could be the target for the rockets as well, so she decided to go to Novyi Rozdil town.

“It was impulsive and not thought out, we were just running away. Even when we arrived in Novyi Rozdil, for another 2-3 months I felt like I had to run away,” she adds.

Psychosocial support session for single mothers who are internally displaced persons. After the sessions, they can also receive legal assistance.©DRC Ukraine, Lviv Oblast, Novyi Rozdil, 2023, Volodymyr Malynka.

Psychosocial support session for single mothers who are internally displaced persons. After the sessions, they can also receive legal assistance. ©DRC Ukraine, Lviv Oblast, Novyi Rozdil, 2023, Volodymyr Malynka.

Time to let go of stress

In this town, DRC provided Kateryna and 11 other single mothers who became internally displaced persons (IDPs) with psychological support sessions. The sessions are aimed at increasing resources, stress resistance, conflict resolution, and understanding emotional states. 6 sessions are the minimum to provide people with psychological support and increase their coping mechanisms and emotional awareness. In total, thanks to funding from the Ole Kirk’s Fond, DRC will hold 100 such sessions for single mothers in western Ukraine.

“Our goal is to stabilise people a little bit so that they feel comfortable. When IDPs arrive here, often they do not communicate with each other as a group. Thanks to these sessions, they get to know each other and become a circle of support for each other. They begin to share tips, for example, where is a good kindergarten, where is a good teacher, and where to find some additional classes for children,” explains Stepan Pasichnyk, a Psychosocial Support Officer at DRC.

Kateryna underlines the need for such support and says it helps her to adapt. Her children also undergo adaptation—thanks to psychological support, Ivan stopped biting his cheeks.

“Such psychological assistance programmes are very much needed. During such training, I relax and unwind. Each session included some time for relaxation when we let go of stress. During the activities, for instance, when we were weaving a tree or drawing something, positive associations came up. You gradually realise that there are other things besides war and fear. I could switch my mind as children do. Anxiety goes away at such moments and an inner resource appears,” Kateryna described the positive effect of the sessions.

She also liked that the training was in a group of other IDP mothers. They laughed together and it helped to relieve the tension.

“We discovered more about each other, and I realised that I was not alone and that there were people like me around and we had the same problems. We shared our vision of the way out of the situation,” she says.

I want to go home, even if there is nothing left there. It's my land, I grew up there, and my children always talk about Kherson. We had a summer house with many fruit trees: apple trees, pears, cherries, nuts.

/  Kateryna

The unbeatable desire to be back home

In Novyi Rozdil, it is relatively calm now. The last time it was hit by a rocket was in October 2022, when it damaged the church on the town's outskirts. However, Kateryna feels anxious because there are no guarantees that a rocket will not hit a town again today or tomorrow—the media reports everyday shelling of the Ukrainian territory.

“I realise that I’m not safe. Even if I think about opportunities to work in Lviv... I'm afraid that the children are alone here. I don’t want to leave them for a day— it’s so scary to think that something can happen to me or them when we’re apart,” says Kateryna.

In Kherson, she earned her living by doing sociological surveys. Having two children, she could not spend a lot of time on a job, so she moonlighted for several working hours a day. It is worth mentioning, that Kateryna has a grade of metrology engineer and worked at Kherson Water Utility before maternity leave.

“I'm not working now, because I need to look after my children, take them from school or kindergarten. So, I live on IDP benefits. But I plan to find a job as a tailor—I passed the special course and plan to earn money by repairing clothes. I must adapt somehow,” she says.

The latest Protection Monitoring Report conducted by DRC in July-September 2023  shows the limited availability of livelihood opportunities as a prevalent concern raised by household respondents. A considerable percentage of individuals surveyed find themselves out of work and actively searching for employment, a figure that remains notably high at 18%, climbing to 28% in Lviv Oblast and 26% for IDP respondents. In Lviv Oblast, 5,000 IDPs have registered with the regional employment centre according to OCHA.

The primary contributing factors to unemployment were identified as the scarcity of job opportunities (60%), followed by responsibilities related to housework and caring for children (21%), and physical impairments or limitations (12%). Among single female caregivers, a significant proportion of 39% reported housework and childcare responsibilities as the key factor influencing their employment status, directly linked with the lack of kindergartens.

Even though Kateryna tries to adapt to the new town, she dreams about coming back home.  She has a flat there and a summer house near Kherson city. Nevertheless, while the city is shelled every week with registered deaths among civilians, she stays in western Ukraine.

“I want to go home, even if there is nothing left there. It's my land, I grew up there, and my children always talk about Kherson. We had a summer house with many fruit trees: apple trees, pears, cherries, nuts. We had vineyards there, and I grew strawberries. In the autumn of 2021, I just planted strawberry seedlings. I had a well-established life,” she says.

However, she misses the most not even the flat, house, or garden but the relatives, friends, and neighbours. She misses the warms they shared when they all gathered at the entrance of the house and talked all evening. They were all "her people" and she said she hoped one day she would meet them all again in peaceful Kherson. 

*Names were changed for confidentiality purposes.

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