Read an interview with the new UNHCR Representative, Karolina Lindholm Billing two months after her arrival to Ukraine.
UNHCR’s Associate Public Information Officer, Victoria Andrievska (VA), interviews the new UNHCR Representative, Karolina Lindholm Billing (KLB), two months after her arrival to Ukraine.
VA: It’s 2 months since you landed in Kyiv, straight from Lebanon where you had worked for the last 4,5 years. How have you spent your first months in Ukraine?
KLB: I have spent them meeting with people, listening and learning. I have already been twice to the eastern conflict area of Ukraine, for a total of 2,5 weeks, to meet with internally displaced and conflict-affected people living along the contact line, in both Government Controlled Areas (GCA) and Non-Government Controlled Areas (NGCA).
UNHCR is a non-political, impartial operational humanitarian organization that bases our advocacy and programs on evidence gathered from consulting the people affected by conflict or persecution, and other stakeholders in the community. It’s therefore a priority for me to meet with as many people as possible, see their living conditions, and understand their capacities and needs to assure myself that UNHCR is focusing its programs on the greatest needs and vulnerabilities, and designing and implementing our activities in a way that build communities’ capacities and individual’s resilience.
VA: So who are the people you have met with, and what is their situation?
KLB: Most of the people I have met with are pensioners, many living alone since family members have died or moved to other parts of Ukraine due to the conflict. They have shown me their homes, damaged by shelling, and explained how they lived for years without a roof, windows and/or walls, in just one small room of the house, during hot summers and freezing winters, until they could be assisted with shelter repairs. They have expressed immense gratitude for the repairs enabled through our shelter programs and vividly described how a roof or windows offer not only protection against the elements, but also protection against mental distress, and how having a home again help their recovery from the conflict.
In villages like Adviika, Berdyanske, Chermalyk, Mariinka, Mariupol, and Slovyansk, I have met with representatives from the local authorities and from civil society who have described how they work to develop social, legal, cultural, and community support services in order to help the population access their rights, regain connections and recover from the impact of the conflict. They have shown me how UNHCR’s support has served as an injection into a program, which is now running and sustainable through local capacities. I have found this very reassuring and motivating since UNHCR always strives to direct our support in a way that builds resilience and local ownership.
During my first two months, I have also met with asylum-seekers and refugees, to hear their experiences from seeking asylum in Ukraine. They all stress that how they would like to receive a decision on their asylum application quickly, so they can regain some stability and the certainty required to focus one’s energy on building a life in this new country and contributing to the community, as fully included members.
VA: Based on your conversations with people, what are their greatest needs at the moment?
KLB: One of the top priorities mentioned by people is being able to meet with their loved ones living on either side of the contact line. Since most of the Exit-Entry Checkpoints (EECPs) were closed due to COVID-19, many pensioners have not been able to see their children and grandchildren for over a year, or withdraw their pensions. UNHCR greatly appreciates the steps taken by the Government of Ukraine to facilitate movement, for example by removing the requirement to self-isolate on arrival to GCA, and advocates with relevant actors for reopening of the EECPs for all civilians.
Another key priority expressed by people living in Donetsk and Luhansk NGCA is shelter repairs and individual in-kind assistance that helps address specific protection need, eg due to a disability caused by the conflict. One woman I met in Donetsk NGCA expressed “UNHCR has provided me the possibility to see again”, as she showed me her new windows.
Even though the support we’re able to provide is modest compared to the overall needs, I feel very proud to be part of a humanitarian mission and dedicated team that is in the field every day, supporting people.
Photos: UNHCR/Vitaliy.Stetsenko and Karolina Lindholm Billing.