Through the conflict, life goes on in Ukraine

Photo Essay: MCC Canada staff member reflects on six-day visit to Ukraine

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A child who lives in a large room in the shelter run by Blaho Charitable Foundation in Uzhhorod, Ukraine. This room used to be a restaurant in a hotel, but the building is now being rented by Blaho to provide temporary shelter to people who have been displaced. Photo: MCC

Darkness fell in an instant. One minute, kids sang along with a music video projected on the wall of the small church. The next, the room plunged into darkness.

Seconds later, the kids pulled out cellphones and flashlights. One older child quickly connected a string of Christmas lights to a battery. The music kept playing on a battery-operated speaker, and the singing resumed. The group, participants in a children’s program in Ukraine run by MCC partner Fire of Prometey, continued to sing in the semi-darkness until one of the organizers got the generator running a few minutes later.

Life is disrupted. But life carries on.

Children play at one of the events that Fire of Prometey hosts for children in a village near Uzhhorod. Photo: Emily Loewen

In December, I had the honor of visiting some of MCC’s local partners in western Ukraine to see first-hand the work they’re doing. What struck me repeatedly was how, despite their lives being upended in many ways, big and small, people found ways to adapt to the difficult situation and carry on.

Damaged infrastructure around the country leaves people without power for hours every day. School programs for kids were put on hold for months, their classrooms turned into shelters. Families were forced to pick up their lives in an instant, leaving everything behind.

Despite it all, life carries on.

Handmade comforters fight winter’s chill

On our first day, we went with one of MCC’s partners, Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Ukraine (AMBCU), to visit a shelter they support with regular food packages as well as some of the emergency supplies MCC ships to Ukraine. I walked down the grey, industrial-feeling hallway and through a large black door into Olga’s* room, noticing the signature bright squares of MCC comforters on her bed that provided a stark contrast to the grey blankets and walls.

Olga told me she and her family had fled their home in Kryvyi Rih, closer to the front lines.

“In the first week of the war, we slept in the basement,” she said. “And in the winter, it’s very cold, so we understood that we would not be able to stay there for a long time.”

Olga* with her daughters Taisya and Arina, in their room at a shelter where they live near Uzhhorod.
*The full names of the people pictured are not provided for security reasons. Photo: Emily Loewen

One day, they were given an hour’s notice to evacuate. As air alarms rang, they packed everything into their car and started a nine-day journey across the country in search of safety.

Though Olga says the shelter where they live now feels safe, it can also be cold, especially when the power is off. Electricity is cut often as the government has instituted rolling blackouts across the country to manage the lack of electricity due to damaged infrastructure. Olga told me they use the bright MCC comforters to cuddle with the kids to keep them warm.

I usually only see the comforters at the start of their journey at the warehouse in Canada. I watch dedicated volunteers sew the blocks together, knot the layers, then pack them into bales. So, it felt special to see the comforters on the other end, laid out on beds where they can keep kids warm during a difficult time.

The handmade blankets were special to Olga, too.

“In my childhood, my grandma was doing this patchworking,” she said. “And it’s so special for me because when I saw that [this blanket] is handmade, it was so dear to my heart.”

Despite the cold and uncertainty, life carries on.

Children in the classroom of the school run by Blaho Charitable Foundation in Uzhhorod. The power was out, so there were no lights or heat in the classroom, but the children were still there and engaged in their lessons. Photo: Emily Loewen

School continues during the conflict

On a cold and wet day, we visited a small, two-room school run by MCC’s partner Blaho Charitable Foundation. Under grey skies, we walked through the grass field around the school, dodging puddles. The power had been shut off, meaning the heat was, too. I had assumed that with the weather and the lack of heat, fewer kids would have shown up. As I walked through the door, I was surprised to see a room full of students bundled in stocking caps and winter coats, looking at the board with only the light coming through the windows. But they were still engaged. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the students answering the teacher’s questions and coming up to the board to show their work.

This school specifically provides education support to Roma children in Uzhhorod, a city in the far west of Ukraine. Roma people are an ethnic group who live in countries throughout Europe but face significant discrimination. They often also have lower levels of education, something founder Eleanora, a Roma woman herself, wants to change. The preschool provides teachers to help prepare the students for formal education.

“This education is very important for Roma children because if they can read and write, and if a person is educated, he or she is perceived differently,” Eleanora told me. “Humanitarian aid is needed, 100 percent. But it’s not the main thing. The most important is to teach them.”

At the beginning of the war, the school temporarily closed to provide a shelter for Roma families fleeing the violence and needing a safe place to stay. The school’s two small rooms have no access to running water, and it’s hard to imagine the building serving as a home. But Eleanora told us it was better than the alternative. Discrimination faced by Roma people became even worse after the invasion.

“Roma people weren’t accepted; they weren’t given shelters to live,” she said. “They were just sleeping on the floor, just outside on the street with small children, it was just terrible.”

As the conflict continued with no end in sight, Eleanora knew they needed a better and larger space. They eventually rented a former restaurant and hotel and turned it into a larger shelter that can house about 150 people, both Roma and other Ukrainians

At the end of our day together, after we’d seen the shelter and the schools, I posed a question to Eleanora. As someone from the outside, I imagined that people would be focused more on getting by day-to-day, not prioritizing education. So why, I asked, did she think it was important to keep the school going?

Eleanora seemed almost surprised by the question. She told us that children and families in the community had been asking her when they could come back for lessons. And since the western part of the country was still relatively safe, why shouldn’t they reopen?

“I understood there would be no missiles coming here or rockets or bombs,” she said. “And if state-run schools should work, we also should work.”

So students come, learning in the dark. The violence, the closure of the school and the power cuts have all disrupted their lives. But life carries on.

Regular support in uprooted times

On another cool day, we arrived at another shelter also without power that is supported by Ukrainian Mennonite Brethren. A brightly colored mosaic on the building stood in contrast to the grey skies around us.

This shelter used to be a hospital. But the clotheslines full of drying laundry on the balcony and outside the back of the building indicate that this place is now home to many people. Light trickled through the stained-glass windows as I walked upstairs. A group of residents came to meet us, many wearing their coats and hats indoors to protect from the winter cold.

Residents* living in a shelter supported by MCC partner AMBCU on the second floor of a former hospital in Mukachevo.
*The names of the people pictured are not provided for security reasons. Photo: Emily Loewen

Many of the people told me how they had been displaced multiple times. They had left their homes in 2014 when the Russian military invaded the Crimean Peninsula. Then they were forced to uproot their lives again last February in search of safety. And they were relocated again when the first shelter they stayed in, a school, needed to open again for classes.

Their lives have been upended repeatedly, but one steady form of support is the regular food packages they receive from MCC’s local partner AMBCU.

Oksana is originally from the Donetsk area. We stepped inside the room she shares with her mother and another woman to hear her story. Her shiny black and white cat, brought with her from home, roamed the space, curious about its guests.

Oksana had worked in the summer picking blueberries. When she sought other work, she found few jobs available because of the amount of people arriving in the region. The food packages she receives help make ends meet while she and her mother wait out the war.

“If not for this support, it would be harder,” she said. “The money we receive from the government just covers very minimal things, and there is no regular work. So, it would be hard to live comfortably without this support.”

Maxime*, left, AMBCU staff, and Natalia, volunteer, holding papers, help coordinate the delivery of food packages to residents living in the shelter on the second floor of a former hospital in Mukachevo. MCC provides supports for food packages for residents of the shelter.n*The full names of the people pictured are not provided for security reasons. Photo: Emily Loewen

During our visit, staff and volunteers from AMBCU distributed bags of food packages. Suddenly, the power came back on, and people cheered. With palpable excitement, people rushed to turn on washing machines or cook food to pick up their lives where they had left off.

Life carries on

After our partner visits, we drove back across the border to Slovakia to begin the trip home. Although the temperature was still above freezing, with the car turned off during our long wait at the crossing, I started to get cold. When we arrived at the border, the power blinked off, and we waited half an hour or more before the generator came on. As we stood outside the car while it was searched by the border guards, I bounced back and forth trying to warm my numb toes.

That brief journey and short moment of cold was only the very smallest taste of what winter is like for the millions of displaced people in Ukraine. Living without regular access to heat and electricity makes for a long, hard winter. Living with the danger and uncertainty of conflict makes it even harder. But the people of Ukraine carry on. They continue to adapt and find new and creative ways to make it through. Even in the dark.

*Full names not used for security reasons.

Emily Loewen, marketing and communications manager for MCC Canada, visited MCC programs and recipients in western Ukraine in December.

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