Thanks to the generous funding by the government of Estonia, Vira Opanasiva and other vulnerable and elderly people in conflict affected areas in eastern Ukraine are able to receive support in times which are especially hard due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vira is an internally displaced person who had to leave her home in Miusynsk six years ago because of the armed conflict in the east of Ukraine. She now lives with her son’s family in Svitlodarsk, Donetsk Oblast. Her son and his wife are also elderly, both over 70, but they do their best to take good care of Vira. The family has very low income and mainly relies on modest pensions, which amount to around 350 US dollars per month for the whole family to live on.
In March 2020, Vira’s bank card used for pension payments expired just before the start of the COVID-19 quarantine and suspension of public transport. The family has also found out that one of the important documents which was necessary for the renewal of the card was lost.
Due to restrictions imposed by the national quarantine there was no possibility for the family to go to the closest town and have the document re-issued, which could have left the family without a part of their already meager income, adding hardship to their lives.
Meanwhile, Vira’s health condition had started to deteriorate quite significantly, adding to the misfortune. She suffers with high blood pressure and mobility issues.
Vira and her family turned to the UNHCR and its partner NGO Proliska for help. The organisations provided social support to the family, liaising with state and bank offices in order to renew the lost document and to re-establish the pension payments. Following the medical assessment, Vira also needed an electric tonometer to ensure that the family can monitor her blood pressure and treat her respective medicines. For this purpose, Vira received from UNHCR ‘cash for protection’ assistance. With the cash received and the orientation from UNHCR’s NGO partner, Proliska, Vira was able to redo her civil documents, which allowed her access to a pension provided by the Government of Ukraine. The ‘cash for protection’ also allowed her to purchase the much needed electric tonometer.
Despite her senior age, Vira says she dreams of returning to her own apartment in the city of Miusynsk, which is temporarily out of Ukraine’s government control. She recalls vivid memories of her life there, which weren’t always happy.
“I am 19 years old in this photo. Can you see the date? This is when I was taken to Germany to the labour camps during World War II,” Vira explains. “I lived through a century of wars and disasters. In 1933 there was a Famine that killed millions of people. During those times we would eat anything we could find – flowers from the acacia trees were eaten in such a way that not a single yellow flower was left on the tree. We survived. In 1943, when the fascists came, they took all our food again… After the labour camps in Germany, the Soviet system sent me to take part in the construction of the power plant in Donbas… more recently, I had to leave my home again because of shelling in east Ukraine… I think all I tried to do in my life was to survive”.
Vira was born in a small village in the Sumy region of Ukraine. She lost her mother young and was raised by her father and stepmother, together with another seven children. When World War II broke out, she worked in a collective farm. “When they bombed, we hid in the cellar. Houses were on fire, children were screaming. It was so scary. I remember that they hanged 24 people. They did it publicly to threaten us all. Then the Soviets came and took all men and boys to the army, including my 15-year-old brother Mykhaylo”.
But then, there were also happy memories. When she returned to Ukraine, Vira met her husband Pavlo and built a loving family. They raised two sons. “We were all so poor during those times. We lived in one room in a dormitory in the building of a vocational school, and our windows were made of cardboard and plywood. And yet, these were very happy times”.
Tears start to well up in Vira’s eyes when she tells us that her husband had cancer. He died 19 years ago. Her son comforts her.
As part of its wider protection response, UNHCR provides ‘cash for protection’ assistance to the most vulnerable among the displaced and other conflict-affected persons in eastern Ukraine. This individual protection assistance is a one-time cash or non-cash assistance to persons with specific protection needs in order to prevent their exposure to further risks. Potential beneficiaries are identified, either by UNHCR or NGO partners, during case management or protection monitoring missions to the field. This protection activity has been possible thanks to the continuous support of Estonia to UNHCR in Ukraine since the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
This article was edited thanks to the support of an online volunteer Giulia Ferrara. Find volunteering opportunities at https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en