Volunteers at Caritas Donetsk share their stories of escaping war and how their own experiences can help provide support and hope to refugees in Ukraine.

By Svitlana Dukhovych

"It breaks my heart to see people crying after eating bread or taking a hot shower for the first time after thirty days spent in shelters. It is hard to believe that all this is happening in the 21st century."

This is the testimony of Mila Leonova, the communications manager of 'Caritas Donetsk'.

The headquarters of Caritas Donetsk moved to Dnipro, the capital of the Dnipropetrovsk region in Ukraine, after the outbreak of war in Donbas eight years ago.

After the 24 February invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, volunteers began working tirelessly to meet the needs of thousands of people fleeing the occupied regions, especially those of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk.


Thousands of displaced refugees

"Dnipro has become a kind of hub for receiving displaced people," Mila recounts. “Since the beginning of the war, about 300,000 refugees have arrived in the region with more than 100,000 in the city alone. And these are official numbers; I think the real numbers are twice as high."

The young woman says leaving home is not easy for anyone and that there are several factors that help someone to make the difficult decision.

"The first to arrive," she says, "were the people with greater financial resources. The second wave of refugees were those who had hesitated at first, retreating to basements under the bombing for about a month before arriving in Dnipro. They came to us in terrible condition. We have a shelter here where we house refugees for one to five days, during which we offer them first aid and a chance to rest before deciding what they want to do. We also help them regain some of their spiritual strength to move forward."


Latest wave of arrivals: elderly forced to leave

Several waves of refugees have been displaced as the war has continued, and the current wave appears different than earlier ones.

Mila says it consists of mostly older people (over 70 years old).

"It's those with fairly low income," she explains, "with their whole life revolving around their house or neighborhood. They had no desire to leave and were taken away by volunteers. They were forced to come here, and they feel fragile and disoriented; they find it difficult to socialize. We try to help them as well."

Dnipro is also not an entirely safe city: air raid sirens sound almost every day as Russian missiles periodically strike both industrial companies and civilian buildings.

"In the first days of the invasion, when so many people were leaving for the western part of the country or abroad, it was difficult for me to decide whether to leave or stay," the communications manager of 'Caritas Donetsk' tells us. "Part of me was worried about the safety of my five-year-old son. We heard the explosions up close: you never forget that unmistakable sound. However, when I saw the amount of people coming to Dnipro who needed our help, I decided to stay. Our team includes a lot of people who escaped Donbas in 2014, so they are very aware of the evacuees’ needs. In Dnipro, they also had to evacuate Caritas offices in other cities, such as Severodonetsk and Rubizhne (the Luhansk region)."


60 thousand people helped by Caritas

In the almost six months, more than 60,000 people have received help from Caritas Donetsk.

In addition to providing basic aid, members of the organization try to create an environment where everyone feels that their dignity respected.

"For example, in the beginning, so many people came to us every day, even at four o'clock in the morning to stand in a line that was very long. And we were not able to give help to everyone," Mila Leonova recalls. "Therefore, we immediately invited crisis specialists to help us resolve issues that arose in the long lines and decrease the tension so that everyone felt not as 'displaced' but simply as a person who came for help and received it. For us, this is very important: not only to materially give something, but also to help them regain faith and hope."


Dignity and hope is the goal

Mila explains that the word "dignity" was not used very frequently before; however, people now use it often because of how little the refugees have experienced it.

Now they know immediately when dignity is restored to them. Many projects of 'Caritas Donetsk' aim precisely for this.

One of the programs involves psychologists, entertainers and social pedagogues who help refugees – both children and adults - assimilate into their new environment.

"Here it's important to help people regain confidence in their own abilities, not to remain in the role of the victim for long, which prevents them from being proactive and moving forward," Mila explains.


The Human Dignity Project

Oksana Akchebash knows well what it means to be deprived of one's home and dignity.

She comes from the town of Rubizhne, in the Luhansk region, where she worked at the local Caritas and helped people who had been left living in buffer zones since 2014.

After the large-scale invasion, she too fled her town, which was occupied last May by the Russian military.

She now lives in Dnipro and is the coordinator of the 'Human Dignity' project at 'Caritas Donetsk'.

"I didn't think I would have to leave my home," she said. "Before 24 February, dangerous situations were not new to me: we had to wear bulletproof vests and helmets to go to buffer zones, and they had even fired close to me a few times. Even when we heard tanks passing under our building between 22 and 23 February, I still did not want to believe that the scale of the war would be so vast. And so at first we had decided to stay. By mid-March there was no more gas, no more electricity, no more water. We were sleeping in our clothes. What prompted us to leave was my youngest son: at some point after hearing the gunfire he turned white as snow and would not stop crying. We took a few things and left the house. Since the roads leading into town were destroyed, I took a small road on foot along with my son and father; my husband even had to drive through a cemetery with a car. I don't even really remember how everything happened, but thank God we made it out of there."

Oksana is very homesick. If people from her region come to Caritas, she feels as though they are already family.

"We hope," she concludes, "that everything will end soon, that peace will come, and we will go home and rebuild our cities.”