Someone I know has been on the ground helping displaced Ukrainians almost since the war started. Here is their take on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. I know many people have donor fatigue at this point, but there is no such “need fatigue” among the displaced. If anything, they will need even more help soon. Please read this first-hand account to understand why.
“We all know the story: on February 24th, Ukrainians woke up to the ultimate nightmare. Russia, the powerful neighbor to the east, the country populated by people Ukrainians have been brought up to consider their Slavic brothers, began a bloody and senseless attack on Ukraine’s freedom. The government declared martial law, and Ukrainian women, children and elderly began to pour west.
Unable to watch the horror, I went to Hungary to volunteer with the refugee effort. What I found there surprised me to my core. I saw a well-organized response, coordinated by the government and carried out by multiple aid organizations with the help of volunteers. Refugees cross the border and are then taken by train to Budapest and dropped off at the large Refugee Help Center, where aid organizations arrange housing, give out free sim cards and arrange further travel (within Budapest, Hungary or Europe). There is a dining room, a medical clinic, a kids’ play area, and even a place to take care of animal needs. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it works and works well.
So I kept going east and found myself in Uzhgorod. Here I saw a very different picture. This small city in Zakarpattia region of Ukraine, once a relatively quiet place on the border with Slovakia, has seen a flood of internally displaced people from the east. From Mariupol, Kherson, Bucha, Donetsk. The population of the city doubled almost overnight, and the situation is dire. Authorities are overwhelmed, the aid agencies are disorganized, and nothing works like it’s supposed to.
The cost of housing in the city has tripled, and most people don’t have the means to rent a place to live. Early arrivals were housed in university dormitories 4-6 people to a room. But soon space in the dorms ran out, so city officials began to convert sports centers and schools into shelters. Large open areas with bunk beds now house families, elderly, cancer patients, and the mentally ill under one roof. Nights in these places are a horrific experience, I am told.
Money is a struggle for most people. Jobs are scarce and the few that exist are for locals only. Most employers are unwilling to hire internally displaced people because they want a guarantee that their employees will not leave in a few months. The government and international aid organizations are supposed to provide some support, but the registration system is breaking under the volume of requests, and many have to wait several months to start receiving payments. Even the aid workers are confused about what aid is available and how to access it.
Kids’ education is all but forgotten. In theory, all kids are supposed to be attending classes with their regular teachers via the Internet. But imagine an 8-year-old, surrounded by dozens of people in a converted sports center, trying to listen to a lesson on his mother’s tiny phone. And if the mother has to leave to try to find a job? Or if the teacher can’t connect to the internet because he or she is hiding in a bomb shelter? Or if the child drops the phone and the screen shatters? A few committed parents are insisting that their kids do their schoolwork, but it’s obvious to the most casual of observers that schooling has mostly been abandoned.
The part that scares me most is that everyone around me, authorities and local residents alike, are treating this as a short-term crisis. Everyone wants to believe that soon the war will end, and the displaced will return to their regular lives. No one seems to acknowledge that many people here have no home to return to. Even if their homes are intact, retreating Russian troops often leave landmines in and around people’s homes, and it will take years to de-mine some of the rural areas.
The hundreds of thousands of people that have been displaced to Zakarpattia will be here for a long time. They will need housing, clothing, food, money, education. At some point, Uzhgorod residents will need to reclaim their dormitories, schools, and sports facilities for their intended purpose (Uzhgorod school children need a place to attend school too, after all). How this will happen is a mystery. No one seems to have a long-term plan.”