Ukrainian Refugee Women Answering the Call for their Compatriots in Crisis

The staff at the League for Mental Health (Liga za duševné zdravie), Slovakia sit down together at the beginning of every shift. They are a group of crisis psychologists who work with the Nezábudka hotline for Ukrainian refugees. People call with anxieties, suicidal thoughts, for legal advice, and more. Ukrainians can call with any issue; some of the callers are women in distress. The hotline is named after the Forget-Me-Not flower – Nezábudka in Ukrainian.

Some women who call the hotline are survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), most often intimate partner violence. The calls are completely confidential.

Aside from her training and qualifications, Svitlana, one of the hotline staff, is well-suited to assist the women who call the hotline.

As Olga Pietruchova, the Associate Gender-Based Violence officer in the UNHCR office in Bratislava, explains, “Ukrainian psychologists, women with refugee experience, are the ones GBV survivors from Ukraine want to hear from when disclosing a deeply intimate situation.

We started with GBV training in December when the phone line had already received the first calls. It was a rare experience for me, not only on a professional level but also on a personal one. I met women that I deeply respect. I truly admire how they were able to cope with that dramatic situation and those life challenges that most of us can’t even imagine.”

Being forced to flee puts people at greater risk of harm, including gender-based violence, both during flight and in displacement. The League of Mental health is one of several organizations UNHCR works with in Slovakia to provide a more holistic response: from helping survivors, to providing information, and working to minimize risks. Together they make sure that the assistance and response is aligned with the particular risks and experiences of Ukrainian refugees, the majority of them women and children, living in Slovakia. Currently, there are nearly 100,000 refugees from Ukraine in Slovakia with Temporary Protection.

Svitlana fled Kharkiv with a female friend and colleague, also a psychologist. The two sought safety by getting on a train – any train – going westwards. After three failed attempts to board trains that were too full, she finally found herself on the way to Lviv, with 20 people in a compartment for six. “The goal was just to get on board, not to get a seat,” she says.

The train ride was terrifying. As she described it, “All doors and windows were closed. It was hot and difficult to breathe. The train made frequent stops because of bombing, air raids, and power outages. But the scariest part was the silence of the children. They were unnaturally quiet. There was no food or water, and everyone was incredibly thirsty, but the kids weren’t asking for anything.” Svitlana eventually made it to Slovakia.

Svitlana’s colleague Maryna, 37, is another of the 13 female psychologists, of which ten are refugees from Ukraine, working with the Nezábudka hotline. Like Svitlana, she also decided to leave Ukraine altogether, arriving by car to the Slovak border together with her young daughter.

The job that Svitlana and Maryna do is vital. As Svitlana explains, the reward is not direct, but having a person who listens at the other end of the line is meaningful for the caller. “The person stops crying, stops shouting, starts talking slower, their breathing slows, so after a while we can hear people begin to feel better.”

The emotional toll is high, and this is why a shift can only be two hours long, with a limit of one per day for the psychologist. The psychologists do not only need to help the callers – they need to help themselves. And each other.

“It is very difficult to hear people in crisis every day. For this we have norms, rules, and ‘psycho-hygiene,” Svitlana explains, which means being sure to eat before the shift, and “coming down” afterwards, through exercises, mental and physical, or going for a relaxing walk.

Svitlana and Maryna both wish to return to Ukraine when the war ends, resume their lives back home and reunite with loved ones. But until they do, they will continue to stand ready to receive calls from women who need the support.

UNHCR works with NGOs and associations such as the League for Mental Health, Coordinating-Methodological Centre for GBV, Equita, and Human Rights League, among others, to ensure that the overall humanitarian response addresses gender inequality and discrimination as root causes of GBV, and that GBV prevention, risk mitigation, and response continue to be mainstreamed in all services and sectors, with pathways for referral to GBV services available for survivors.

The League for Mental Health is a non-political, charitable, humanitarian, non-professional, independent interest association of citizens and legal entities and aims to actively promote mental health. It is financed mainly through approved projects from grant schemes of ministries of the Slovak Republic, grant calls of companies and foundations, public collection on the streets and donations through the donor portal. The association employs more than 200 Ukrainian refugees – including ten psychologists operating the Nezábudka hotline – all of whom are women. UNHCR began its cooperation with the League in 2022, after its search for a Ukrainian-speaking hotline which would have the capacity and expertise to serve as an entry point of gender-based violence survivors among refugees.