On World Humanitarian Day, we talked to three colleagues whose own experience of being forced to flee their homes inspires and informs their work.
Oleksandra Lytvynenko, an assistant protection officer in UNHCR’s field office in Dnipro, Ukraine, has been forced to flee her home twice. The first time she fled fighting between government and pro-Russian forces in her hometown of Luhansk in 2014, she packed only a few summer clothes, thinking she would be gone a few weeks at most. She never returned.
Living as an internally displaced person in the city of Sievierodonetsk, she initially struggled to find work, but her background working with children and families for local authorities in Luhansk led her to a job with UNHCR. By the time Russia invaded Ukraine in February, she was the head of the field unit in Sievierodonetsk. After several weeks organizing distributions of food, shelter materials and other essentials by day, and sleeping in a bunker at night, she and her team evacuated to Dnipro.
“The second time [I fled], I knew what to bring, what clothes. I brought a bit of summer, a bit of autumn, a bit of winter – not like the first time,” said Oleksandra. “The second time, I understood that I will not come back.”
Oleksandra draws on her own experience to help the displaced people she works with. Explaining to them that they may never be able to return home is the toughest part of her job, she said, but one for which her own life has prepared her.
“I understand people and that they’ve left behind everything – houses, relatives, everything. But I explain to them that life continues,” she said, adding that she tries to relieve the stress from the job through exercise and spending time with friends.
“I’m a displaced person and it means I have a huge number of displaced people and doubly displaced people among my relatives and friends, and that’s maybe why I feel better if I’m helping people.”
“A Humanitarian worker must be kind and open minded, understanding towards people’s needs and ready to provide assistance and support, anytime and anywhere.”
Oleksandra Lukianenko, a Protection Associate at UNHCR Ukraine had to flee her home in Kyiv when the war started. “Our children, 6 and 9 years-old, were extremely scared of the sounds of the explosions. We rushed to take them to a safer part of Ukraine,” tells Oleksandra.
In Lviv, Oleksandra didn’t have much time to reflect on what had happened. She immediately joined the UNHCR team and started to work at the border with Poland.
“In February and March, there was a huge number of people fleeing Ukraine, long lines at the border. We had to ensure that people had access to information, legal and social assistance,” recalls Oleksandra.
Her seven years of experience working with asylum-seekers in Ukraine, were extremely helpful while the organization was establishing its assistance network which now covers 30 border crossing points in Western and southern Ukraine with five neighboring countries.
Listening to the stories of people fleeing the war, Oleksandra sometimes cannot hold back her emotions.
“There was a lone man in one of the collective centres who lost his wife during one of the air raids. He cried and we all cried when listening to him,” said Oleksandra. “As humanitarians, it is always about how to help and support, even when the pain is unbearable.”
“I think personal experience of displacement forms the best humanitarians. Once displaced, you are in the same situation as millions of people, you have the same difficulties with finding shelter for the family or school for your children, you deeply understand the needs.”
“Back in 2009, when studying in Damascus university I had many friends there. Most of my them had to flee and seek asylum abroad then the war started in 2011. They became refugees. I felt very compassionate, and this was why I decided to become a humanitarian. With this experience and knowledge, I feel that I can really help people in Ukraine and contribute through humanitarian work.”
“Ukraine is my family; I need to be here to help,” says Abbas, a former refugee and now a social worker
Abbas Ahmedi was born in Iran but has been living in Ukraine for the last 26 years. Once a refugee, he now works as a social worker in Kyiv for UNHCR’s partner NGO Rokada. He helps displaced people and people affected by the brutal war raging in Ukraine.
“Many homes in Kyiv oblast were damaged or destroyed since the beginning of the war. People are devastated. Many tell us they invested all their money to build their houses, somewhere they thought they could raise their children and grandchildren and enjoy a happy family life,” Abbas tells UNHCR.
Rokada NGO operates in the Kyiv region. Every week, Abbas visits the outskirts of Kyiv city, where residential buildings and civilian infrastructure sustained extensive damage. Together with his colleagues, he assesses needs and distributes essential items and emergency shelter kits to people whose houses were damaged or destroyed.
When the war started on 24 February, Abbas was working abroad. His daughters called him that morning crying “Dad, the war has started, we are so scared!” He didn’t think twice. First a flight to Warsaw, then a train to Lviv. In no time, he was back home in Kyiv. After living in a bomb shelter for a few days, the family decided that Abbas’s wife and his children would flee to Poland.
After taking them to the train station, he came back to Kyiv. “I did not want to join the army, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with arms, so I decided to go to church and help people there.”
When NGO Rokada was hiring, Abbas joined their team.
“I made a conscious choice to stay and live in Ukraine because I really love this country. It is my family, and I don’t want to leave when the situation is difficult here. I just want to stay and do what I can to help,” said Abbas.