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Fleeing War in Ukraine's East and Finding Sanctuary in Kiev

Displaced persons now number more than 1 million in Ukraine and volunteer organizations are popping up to help.
Photo by Flip Stewart

On an old Kiev street dotted with niche art galleries and tiny cafes, young families and older people wait to collect toys and clothes at a refugee help center called Kozhen Mozhe, or "Everybody Can." Among them is Yelena Kolalyova, who is from Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine.

"In Luhansk it is awful,"  Kolalyova tells Vice. "Everything is horrible. People cannot live there. The only people who can afford to live there are the separatists. Everyone else has had to flee. We didn't even have any water."


"I have come for the psychological help, I need to see a doctor and to speak about the things I have seen. It has been so difficult," the 48-year-old told VICE News.

Counseling is one of the medical services offered by the center. Last month it also had a specialist women's doctor on site to help pregnant refugees.

Kozhen Mozhe, at 9/11 Frolivska Street, and other centers like it help newcomers by providing basics like food, household supplies, and medical help. This particular center was started by Arseniy Finberg, who began organizing his friends through social media in February of last year, after protests in Kiev turned deadly. Since then it has grown from a small collection of stalls in the street to an array of permanent and semi-permanent structures that house masses of donated clothes, toys, and supplies.

Despite various ceasefires, including one that is currently supposed to be in effect, Ukraine's East is still the scene of fighting between the country's armed forces and pro-Russian separatists. Luhansk, one of the areas held by separatists that voted to form its own republic last year, has been the scene of some of the worst fighting during the conflict.

In February, Ukraine's Ministry of Social Policy put the number of registered IDPs countrywide at 980,000, and by early April the number had reached 1,230,000, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).


Kiev, the capital, is currently playing host to 76,800 registered IDPs, adding to the city's approximately 2.7 million residents.

Kozhen Mozhe is one of the largest and most well-known collection centers in the city, but still it blends into the street and if you did not know, you would be hard pressed to say what lay behind its gates. Around Kiev, in small corners and factory lots, volunteer organizations have been springing up to fill a gap left by the government.

Since it opened in February 2014, Kozhe More has helped more than 30,000 people—with between 100 and 150 IDPs visiting most days for anything from finding work to seeking medical advice.

Kolalyova and her family were among those who managed to escape Luhansk together; they've been in Kiev a few months.

"I had hoped to get a job straight away, but I can't find work," she said. "Places like this are good for people coming from the East. We have a flat we are renting but it is very expensive—it is very hard."

The city's employment service, which has a stand in the courtyard of Kozhen Mozhe, has had some success matching IDPs with lower-skilled jobs such as night watchmen positions and cleaning roles.

Yelena Kolalyova. Photo by Philippa Stewart. 

Kozhen Mozhe is staffed by volunteers and relies on donations so it can provide the clothes, toys, food, and household goods Kiev's newest residents need to re-start their lives. The humanitarian center provides art therapy for children, who make up about 4.3 percent of IDPs, and gives them a space to play while their parents collect what they need from the various train compartments and collapsible stalls that make up the charity's headquarters.
While she speaks, Kolalyova stands in a queue waiting to sign up to the organization's electronic register. Once registered, people are given a ticket for each section they need to collect from.


Volunteer Anna Dzema told VICE News that often people who came for help when they first arrived in Kiev came back to volunteer once they were settled. "They make sure to come back and give their time to help other people," she said. "We have kept a careful track of the people we help—they all have documents proving they are refugees."

Limited resources means the center has to place some controls on what people take.

For the first 45 days, IDPs arriving in Kiev can go to the center for help with food and household cleaning supplies. After that they can come each week for clothes and toys and other things they may need, although food is not an option at that point because quantities are limited. "People are very generous in donating toys and things for children," Dzema said. "Linens and things like that for the house are more difficult, but people are helping in any way they can."

Places like Kozhen Mozhe are helping people integrate into the city in a bid to stop the influx of people from the East changing the shape of the capital and causing resentment among its citizens.

Ukraine's economy has been struggling under the weight of war, and jobs were already scarce without the additional burden of refugees from the eastern regions.

Dzema told VICE news that, so far, reports of trouble between residents and refugees were limited. "There are some stories of trouble—it is mostly local gossip. I think it is logical that people will be a bit angry, but we must all do what we can."


Doing "what we can" includes not only helping IDPs in Kiev, but also sending supplies to the East.

Despite the continued fighting, the latest figures show Donetsk still has 429,500 living in the region, and Luhansk's number stands at 151,200.

In March, UNHCR said it was "extremely concerned" about the situation in these eastern regions, and that the government response was falling short. "The scarcity of basic supplies, including food, fuel and medicines, has driven up prices of available supplies," noted the group. "Assistance to evacuees continues to fall far short of demand, particularly in the provision of accommodation, transport, information and maintaining family unity."

Some groups, like Kozhen Mozhe, focus on IDPs, while others raise money and nonlethal supplies for soldiers in the East.

Phoenix Wings sends goods, medical equipment, and food to the East for soldiers each week, using its own army of volunteers. Coordinator Antonina Buzilio said she felt the government needed help because the conflict started so rapidly. "It is difficult to create change in times of peace," she said. "But with the war starting so quickly, I do not think the government was able to do everything, so the people had to step in."

Nina Sorokopud, regional public information officer for the UNHCR in Ukraine, told VICE News that only 5 percent of IDPs who came to Kiev ended up in assisted living, with the rest managing to find rented accommodation or living with friends and family.


For the most vulnerable—the old, the young, and the disabled—charities have set up assisted living areas where they can find rooms.

One such collective living area takes up five small rooms in a tower block in the Pechers'kyi district of the city, about 10 minutes' drive from Independence Square, the scene of last year's deadly protests. About 20 people, including six children and a newborn baby, share the four bedrooms and one bathroom. When VICE News visited the block, the rooms had been without electricity for two days.

"We look after people who are the most vulnerable," said Lyudmila Titarenko, head of Honeycombs, a charity organization for the disabled. "Families who come to us have at least one disabled person, or have a lot of kids. More people come to us than we have room for. But we always try to find them something, even if it is just a corner.

"If we can't help them, we send them to other volunteers who can," she added. "It is very difficult, financially we don't get help from the government." The charity relies on fundraising and donations.

People arriving in the city are entitled to financial help if they cannot find work, but Titarenko said the refugees are often left for two months without any money.

"Even pensioners do not get their money," she said. "It is very, very difficult for them to cope. People arrive here with a baby under one arm and their documents under the other - often that is all they managed to escape with."

Latest figures estimate that 60.4 percent of all the IDPs in Ukraine are entitled to receive some type of pension, but relocations caused by war mean they are often left without anything.

"We have to show them that people here really care and will look after them," said Titarenko, "no matter where they have come from, that we will help them because they are Ukrainians."