Psychosocial support from UNHCR and partner NGOs helps displaced people manage the stress caused by their displacement and to turn towards the future
Over three decades ago, 62-year-old Liliia, her husband and their two young children moved to into their self-built family home in a small town in the southern oblast of Mykolyaiv.
The whole family was excited by their new home. ‘This was a house we were dreaming of for a long time, and we were immensely happy to move in. It was such a wonderful event at quite a turbulent time, as the USSR had just dissolved and the markets were unstable, but we were happy to have enough resources to complete the construction of the house,’ recalls Liliia.
Unfortunately, the family’s happiness in their new home was short-lived. A short time later, Liliia’s husband passed away and she was left to raise her two children alone.
Life was not easy for this single mother and finances were tight, but Liliia did not complain. She worked at the state post and telephone service, but the children were at the centre of her universe and as time passed, she was happy to see them grow up and start their own families.
However, the war changed all that. In March, soon after the war started, their town came under heavy shelling and Liliia, together with the family of her daughter – a husband and three children – twin boys aged 8 and a girl 17 years old – hid for several weeks in a dark and cold bomb shelter, together with 12 neighbours. “We made a basic stove in the bomb shelter and took turns to cook food, leaving our shelter only to fetch food or water. There were five children in the bomb shelter, extremely scared and crying,” says Liliia.
When the sounds of explosions grew near, they had to flee their home. Together with other families, they travelled by evacuation bus to Bashtanka village in Mykolaiv oblast and stayed there for a few weeks to find their feet. To stay active, Liliia volunteered to help new arrivals.
“I saw an enormous number of people evacuating from their homes, arriving with only a few belongings, shocked and traumatised, unsure about their future” recalls Liliia. ”It was so scary, to see this massive tragedy, to hear shelling almost every day and to hide in the bomb shelter.”
Still concerned for their safety, after a month in Bashtanka, the family decided to move further away from the active combat, to the west, where a collective centre run by her daughter’s employer – the Ukrainian railway company was hosting displaced people. But even after reaching safety in the collective centre – an old ski resort building – in Zakarpattia oblast in Western Ukraine, Liliia started to feel very sad and worried. But things began to change after she heard from the centre’s management that there would be a psychological group session conducted by the UNHCR’s partner NGO Nehemiia.
“I went to several group discussions, and they helped me a lot to relieve the stress and to find positive energy within myself”, said Liliia. “Before the groups, other IDPs were total strangers to me and I didn’t feel comfortable talking to them. Thanks to the group sessions, people learned about each other and spoke openly about their different circumstances, the pain of fleeing their homes or uncertainty regarding the future” explains Liliia, “We became acquainted, and eventually, we became friends. Being a part of this new community has helped me to live through the hardship of the first months after the relocation. A turning point for me was when the psychologist asked me a fundamental question about the time I enjoyed my life most.”
Liliia had always loved to cook for family and friends. It brought her great joy to prepare meals for others. She now wanted to experience this joy again, and so she began cooking in the centre’s kitchen. She has participated in the re-organising of the kitchen and giving other displaced people the opportunity to cook for themselves additionally to the basic meals which the centre provides for 80 people, who, like Liliia and her family, were forced to flee from their homes.
“Right after the war started, many people fled their homes. They were extremely shocked and refused to accept that they could not go back home. They were very vulnerable, and they cried when they heard the sound of sirens because, in places they were from, the sound of sirens meant a missile attack was imminent, crushing homes and killing people,” recalls psychology professor Nataliia Syunii, coordinator of the Psychosocial Unit at UNHCR’s partner NGO Nehemiia “Today, the situation has changed compared to the beginning of the war. People try to get on with their lives, find a place to live, find a job”.
“We help displaced people to integrate into their new communities. We are working with women, mothers and children as they prepare for the new school year,” continues Nataliia, who coordinates the work of eight psychologists. The majority of the psychologists are internally displaced people themselves. “Often, it is easier for my displaced colleagues to establish first contact with the affected people, as they want to talk to somebody who understands their experience,” says Nataliia.
Nataliia’s team has already supported more than 3,910 people in Zakarpattia oblast through consultations and referrals.
Overall, across Ukraine, UNHCR and its partner NGOs have already reached over 713,000 people with protection assistance, advice and referrals at border crossing points, transit and reception centres and through mobile teams and hotlines. This includes protection counselling and services, such as psychosocial support and legal aid.
As part of its efforts in Ukraine to deliver assistance to those who need it most, UNHCR works with 14 NGO partners, including 11 local NGOs, inside Ukraine.
Grateful for the support received through the psychosocial group sessions, Liliia says that for her family, it is now time to build their new future. “Luckily, my son and my daughter’s husband have jobs; it is critically important for us, as they are the only breadwinners now. We have a place to live and a school for the children so we will be fine this winter.”
But for Liliia, what is most important thing is that her family is safe. “This is my main source of energy and strength. For them, I can do anything, I can live through any difficulties, and I will find a solution.”