'I know what it is like. I tell them: Please don't give up'
UNHCR has more than 11,500 staff. Meet Oleksandra Lytvynenko, who uses her own experience of displacement to help those uprooted by conflict in Ukraine.
UNHCR assistant protection officer Oleksandra Litvinenko at a World Refugee Day event in Luhansk.
© UNHCR/Yevgeny Gusev
Name: Oleksandra Lytvynenko, 41, from Luhansk, Ukraine
Job title: Assistant protection officer. Four years with UNHCR, working in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine from the city of Sievierodonetsk.
Why did you become an aid worker?
When armed conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, I had to run for my life. That experience led me to want to help others uprooted by war.
Luhansk, the city where I lived, started being shelled that summer and it was not safe. In August, I spent ten nights in my basement. We had no electricity or water, and it was cold so I dressed in warm clothes so I could sleep there. There was no mobile connection so I didn’t know what was happening outside. It was frightening. That was why I decided to leave.
When I left Luhansk I took one suitcase filled with summer clothes. Many people thought that we would only be leaving for a few weeks. Like a vacation. I cried as I crossed the checkpoint into government-controlled territory.
In Svatove [a three-hour drive from the city of Luhansk], I needed a new job so I could earn money and support my parents. I applied for different positions all over Ukraine, but as an internally displaced person (IDP) it was not easy to find a job.
Sometimes I visited other displaced people and met UNHCR staff who were helping them. I told them how IDPs lived and what they needed, because I knew what it was like to be displaced. Eventually UNHCR offered me a job.
Now I try to tell everyone about my personal experience. I tell them: Please don’t give up, try to fight.
What are the most rewarding/challenging things about your job?
At the end of last year a record 68.5 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced by wars and persecution. This included 40 million IDPs, who remain displaced within the borders of their countries of origin.
I am able to use my own experiences as an IDP to help others. For example, I didn’t know that when I left my home I would need things like bed linen. After I joined UNHCR, I was able to advise exactly what displaced people needed most.
My previous work experience has also been very useful because for UNHCR protection is everything, and I worked for ten years with different social organizations. All of this knowledge I can now apply in my work in UNHCR.
What was your worst day at work?
Every day I hear people have died is the worst. Especially if we have supported them. For example, I recently visited an elderly couple who received winter clothes and cash assistance from UNHCR through our partner Proliska. A few weeks later, Proliska told me the man had died. I felt empty. I visited his wife to show her that she’s not alone.
It is so hard to speak with people about their loss. The couple were living in a place called Schastiya (‘happiness’) on the contact line. They met as children and hadn’t seen each other for 20 years. Then the woman became displaced when the conflict started. It was like Romeo and Juliet.
What was your best day at work?
I remember one time during my early days of working for UNHCR when our office distributed warm clothes for IDPs. It was the end of October 2014. A young lady with three children approached us towards the end of the distribution. Her children were dressed in light oversized jackets, which did not protect them from the cold weather. It was lucky that we still had some warm jackets to provide for her children. All of us had tears in our eyes at that moment. And I felt happy and satisfied with the job that I was doing, because it was a big help for vulnerable people affected by the conflict.
Soon after, the lady became a local volunteer and started helping UNHCR to make distributions like these. It makes me even happier to know that four years after our first meeting, she has a job and is integrating in her new village, while at the beginning of her displacement she had only three jackets for her children.
I want to believe things will get better. We will keep trying. At UNHCR, we are optimists! And maybe one day I will go back to my home.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, works in 128 countries helping men, women and children driven from their homes by wars and persecution. Our headquarters are in Geneva, but most of our staff are based in the field, helping refugees. This profile is part of a series highlighting our staff and their work.