What are the personal stories behind the current situation in Ukraine? How does everyday life look like for Ukrainians at a time like this?
To give you an inside look into the people whose lives have changed in an instant, we’ve spoken to 3 individuals with 3 different stories.
The first is journalist Ievgeniia Ivanova. Ievgeniia was traveling to Greece with her family when everything started to change. She speaks of her experience, her hopes, and how we can lend a hand.
Ievgeniia Ivanova was traveling to Greece when the war started and immediately felt a strong desire to go back to her country and help. “All my team, all my colleagues are now in Ukraine. Some of them are in Kherson,” says Ivanova. Painfully, she realized that traveling back with her family could put them in danger, and was torn with frustration.
So Ivanova found ways to help, right from her current location. “I try to connect people from different countries, to help them find homes, find jobs and some medicine”, she shares. “I work with some volunteering organizations in Greece and in Ukraine, and I try to do my best. But I always feel that it is not enough,” Ievgeniia tells us with sadness.
When we asked Ievgeniia how people can help, she shared a heartwarming message.
“I traveled to Portugal through Austria and I saw so many people wearing yellow and blue. People support us, they try to do something for us. People in Lugansk or Mariupol or Kherson, they just need maybe some money for bread. There are some organizations which collect money for medicine, for hospitals etc. I want to say thank you so much, people all over the world, that you support us.”
Inspired by our conversation with Ievgeniia, we spoke with 2 more individuals: Aleksandra Kalinina, Vee’s R&D Team Lead in Ukraine, and Idan Markovich, an Emergency Programs Officer at IsraAID, an Israeli humanitarian organization. We invite you to read their stories below.
We also encourage you to volunteer with nonprofits offering assistance to Ukrainian refugees. You can find remote and in-person volunteering opportunities on Vee.
Tell us about your personal experience over the past month.
My name is Aleksandra Kalina and I'm from Ukraine. Last month for me and my family was a month of troubles. The first day of the war, we escaped from Kharkiv. It was an exhausting trip for us which took more than 30 hours. And we were so lucky that it didn't take more time. I know families that were on the way for 60 hours and even more.
We didn't know what to expect on the road. On the way, we were monitoring news regarding the military actions. And it was really dangerous to be caught between two sides. It was risky. The roads were overloaded with desperate drivers. There were limits on the purchase of petroleum. There was no safe place to rest. Bridges were blown up. We saw too much.
What's something that most people outside of Ukraine don't really understand about this war?
A lot of people who I met along the way understand that war is bad. But once you get into it, you realize how bad it is and how much all people on planet Earth need to unite. And it is so important to understand that the unification shouldn't be against a specific enemy, but for world peace. Peace cannot be achieved through war. Peace is achieved through the efforts of every member of society. If our world is built in such a way that dictators or wars are the reality of our days, then our goal and our responsibility is to unite into a creative society and ensure that this never happens anywhere again. Otherwise, we simply will not survive. We're all people, right? We want to live.
Could you tell me about a specific moment during the war that really had an impact on you?
I've been in several regions of the Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic. More than 30 people helped me and my family safely complete this journey. And I always thanked each of them for their help and support. And in response, each time they said the same words: in our place, you would do the same. It pierces the soul, really.
What does your day-to-day life currently look like?
For the last two weeks, we've tried to organize our life here. I'm in the Czech Republic and I’ve found housing; received humanitarian assistance like food, clothing, and essentials; and registered with all necessary authorities. It's extremely important for me and for my family to stay legally in the country that's hosting us. We also brought a violin from Kharkiv with us and I enrolled my daughter in an excellent music school here, where she'll continue her education.
The most difficult thing is to read the news from Ukraine. It's difficult to not give in to the emotions because they are paralyzing and exhausting. But I continue to help everyone who asks for help. I support Ukraine with conversation, sending humanitarian aid, and helping with information.
How do you think people around the world can help the people of Ukraine?
They have already done more than they think for me, for my country. They gave us faith in people and in the best spiritual and moral qualities of mankind. And those volunteers that I met along the way offered us help even before we asked for it. They cared for and experienced difficulty with us. I'd like to send them all a big hello and convey my love and gratitude.
How can you stay hopeful for a peaceful future despite this war?
I think it all starts with people: what example they show, what their quest is. Then the government picks up. We are people above all. Sympathy, mercy, and mutual assistance are our natural human qualities. I know that it is in our power to change our society so that we are united on the basis of these qualities.
It's important to say that on May 7, 2022, there will be an international online forum called "Global crisis. We are people. We want to live." It's part of the Creative Society international project. This forum will be broadcast with simultaneous translation in more than 100 languages. This project is supported by United Nations government representatives from many countries around the world, celebrities, and even the Pope and heads of other religious denominations. I think it's our chance for survival. The last chance, I think.
Is there anything else you want to share with the world?
I think that love and humanity will save the world. And thank you to everyone who supports us. Thank you very much.
Could you start by introducing yourself and telling us who you are, where you're currently at, and what you're doing?
My name is Idan and I’m the Emergency Programs Officer at IsraAID, an Israel-based international humanitarian organization. We work to respond to disasters all around the world. I'm currently in Kishinev, Moldova and we've been here since day three of the war providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian refugees who are crossing the border into Moldova.
It's admirable that you've spent time on the ground directly helping Ukrainian refugees. Tell us about what you've personally seen and experienced over the last month.
Things are shifting really fast here. In the beginning, the situation was very, very chaotic. And the reason that IsraAID chose to come to Moldova and not to Romania or Poland is because Moldova is the smallest country around Ukraine and the poorest country in Europe. And right now, it has the most Ukrainian refugees per capita. One in 8 Moldovan children is a Ukrainian refugee right now.
The country had a hard time responding to the crisis, unlike Poland and Romania. So we had a very chaotic first few days. I think the most striking thing was to stand at the border. We're working in Kishinev and at the border itself and to see families, usually mothers and children, at the moment that they realize that they're refugees is very hard. You see people that were so concentrated on leaving Ukraine safely and crossing the border realizing that they're safe now, but also realizing that they're now refugees. So being there at the moment is very, very hard. But I'm glad that we were there to offer psychological support to those people.
One of the most impactful sights is to see families with pets, with cats and dogs. That's something that we don't usually see in refugee crises. But it's something that shows that they had their normal life like us until two days ago. And they just picked up their dog and their kids and fled to the border. And that's something that is quite unique in this refugee crisis.
Could you tell me more about that moment when people realize that they've become refugees? And in general, what are you seeing at the border?
First of all, there’s a saying in the humanitarian world that "refugee" is not who you are, it's something that happened to you. IsraAID was one of the first international organizations to reach the border on March 1st. The war started on February 24, so we were the first international people to be at the border.
We have a tent there and we offer psychological support to mothers and kids, and also a warm space with food to give them a minute to breathe. And in Kishinev we're working with community centers and shelters to provide medical assistance and psychological support and child-friendly spaces for kids.
During the first few days at the border, the weather was completely different. People were standing for hours in the snow and in the rain with their children. There was no official transportation like today, a month in. So people just had to trust volunteers with signs that said "Kishinev."
First we built our tent there, but people refused to go in because they were afraid that if they would go in the tent, they would miss their ride. They were traumatized. We heard stories about lines on the Ukrainian side and volunteers going and giving food to people, but people refusing to open their car windows because they were afraid. People are very traumatized.
We heard tons of stories of families coming with one suitcase and children had to choose the one toy that they would take with them. One kid took a box with his hamster. You can really relate to the things that connect between this situation and their normal lives.
We also see a big mobilization of civil society in Moldova, and the government is doing the best they can. So we see that the situation brings the best and the worst out of people.
Could you tell me about something that most people who are far removed from Ukraine and from the borders might not understand about this war?
One of the most striking things for me was to talk to refugees who in week one somehow realized that they are not going back. We also worked with the Afghan refugee crisis, and in Afghanistan, people realized that once the Taliban took over, the door was slammed behind them. But here, the situation is still evolving, and yet from day one, people are saying, I need to find a new house. I need to find a new country to live in.
People were prepared. Maybe we were surprised. But people in Ukraine. Maybe some didn't think that the war was really going to happen. But some of them had suitcases ready. These tensions have been boiling for a long time.
Is there any particular moment in meeting these people who are crossing over the border that has stuck with you?
We operate a child-friendly space. It's a place that mothers can let their children go and play a bit. And we try to make them trust us. You can see that when they're with their children, they need to be strong. They need to show confidence. And in the moment that they feel confident enough to send their children to our tent, you can see them break down. Women and mothers need to be strong for their own communities and for their children. And we give them an opportunity to express what they're really feeling.
Now, for people who don't know what humanitarian aid work looks like, could you tell us about your day-to-day over the last several weeks?
One of the unique features of IsraAID is that, unlike other humanitarian organizations, we are here to stay. We have already committed to stay here for over a year. We realize that this refugee crisis is not going to go away, even if a ceasefire is declared tomorrow. At least 100,000 refugees are going to remain in Moldova.
We're offering an immediate emergency response, providing hygiene kits to people in shelters - the shelters are big stadiums with hundreds of people sleeping on the floor - providing child friendly spaces to allow mothers to psychologically regroup and also work on their papers and find a place to live while their children are in our safe space. Also medical care and stuff like that.
But at the same time, because we've committed to stay here in the long run, we're starting to develop long-term programs like cooperation with the Ministry of Education to support the integration of Ukrainian children into the school system. There are great civil organizations and government ministries here, but none of them have ever faced such a crisis. So our day is divided between forming partnerships with people and meeting organizations and government authorities that we can cooperate with, and on the other hand, being at the border early in the morning, setting up our tent, and briefing our local volunteers.
We also offer training and support groups for refugees. Each day is different than the last. The main thing is to be there and to listen to people. We would never give someone a hygiene kit without talking to them, without taking the opportunity to ask how they're doing. Our social workers are engaged as well.
Humanitarian work is on one hand very methodological, and we have a clear vision of what we want to do. On the other hand, we cannot really prepare for what's going to happen next week.
Being present and adapting to the circumstances as they change is crucial. For those people who can't be physically present at the border, how can we help the Ukrainian people and humanitarian organizations like IsraAID?
The world's attention is focused very much on Ukraine right now, but we need to make sure that it stays like that. Donations of money and essential items are always needed around here. It's important for us to continue providing that level of support as we move forward.
Despite everything you see, how do you stay motivated and keep up your hopes for a peaceful future?
As I said, this conflict brings the best and the worst out of people. We're working in a small village called Tudora. It's a very rural, very small village on the border of Moldova and Ukraine. They have nothing. They work their own lands as subsistence farmers. But they welcomed 200 refugees into their homes and the local priest gave us the key to his church and said, "Use it for whatever you want." So we set up a clinic there.
The church is the heart of the community and we have a key to it because he was willing to let us help the refugees. I'm hopeful when I see people who themselves don't have much, but they open their homes and their hearts and their communities to their neighbors across the border. If this can happen in the most extreme circumstances, surely we can learn from it.
Editor's notes: these interviews were recorded on March 30, 2022 and have been lightly edited for clarity. The banner photo was taken by Mickey Noam-Alon for IsraAID.