Helping in Times of War: How Ukrainian NGOs Built a Support Network
In 2016, Alla Feshchenko spoke with an American researcher who studies conflicts in various countries. She asked him then when he predicted the war in Ukraine would end. The answer was upsetting.
“I have traveled almost all over Ukraine. I couldn’t tell that there was a war in the country. People live their daily lives, most of them know next to nothing about the war or don’t want to know. I was particularly impressed by the fireworks and the lavish mass celebrations,” the researcher had said. “Those people don’t have war. Do you live with them in different countries? Your war will end when every Ukrainian is in pain."
Those words from 2016 seem even more haunting since Russian troops invaded Ukraine almost two months ago. “Now it hurts us, every Ukrainian,” Feshchenko says.
Feshchenko is chairwoman of the board of NGO Station Kharkiv, a volunteer initiative founded in 2014 in response to Russian aggression in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.
Its primary mission is to help internally displaced people reintegrate into their new communities, provide them with necessities such as housing, food, clothing, and psychological support, and help them find jobs.
Its primary mission is to help internally displaced people reintegrate into their new communities, provide them with necessities such as housing, food, clothing, and psychological support, and help them find jobs. In just seven and a half years, they have helped more than 100,000 people.
Just last fall, they established an NGO cluster, representing the most active public organizations in the Kharkiv region, with the aim of establishing a platform to strengthen and support NGOs. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine crushed most of these efforts.
“The Main Problem We Face Is the Constant Shelling and Bombing”
Since the beginning of the war, Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, has been under constant fire from the Russian army. And now, Kharkiv is scarred by the war. According to the city’s mayor, of the 1.5 million inhabitants who lived there before the war, fewer than 500,000 remain—many of them old or sick, who have difficulty fleeing and whose relatives do not want to leave them.
The supply situation is difficult. Station Kharkiv has been buying food, collecting donations, and distributing humanitarian aid provided by private individuals and international organizations.
Moreover, they coordinate humanitarian aid for 19 self-established volunteer initiatives that deliver goods to all parts of the city and surrounding suburbs. The NGO cluster they created is now a platform for sharing information and resources, as well as facilitating coordination between organizations for more efficient work.
“Now the main goal of all NGOs in the region is to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, support the Ukrainian army, and help the victims of shelling and bombing,” Feshchenko says.
Now the main goal of all NGOs in the region is to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, support the Ukrainian army, and help the victims of shelling and bombing.
“We provide daily food, hygiene, and medicine to 800–1000 residents of Kharkiv and the region, provide medicine and medical supplies for hospitals. Our focus is also on helping vulnerable groups, most of whom remain in Kharkiv.”
The situation is becoming increasingly dire, Feshchenko adds, “the demand for aid is constantly growing and the resources of aid from individuals are decreasing.”
The civilian population in cities such as Kharkiv, Izyum, and Mariupol live in a state of siege. People in these cities often have little to no access to water, food, or medical care. Much of the civilian infrastructure is in ruins, and people are often cut off from the outside world.
At the same time, they face indiscriminate attacks through Russian airstrikes on densely populated areas, resulting in the repeated deaths of civilians. According to the UN, as of April 18, more than 2,000 civilian deaths have been confirmed in the Russian-Ukrainian war, although estimates are much higher.
“The main problem we face is the constant shelling and bombing,” Feshchenko says.
Volunteers often hand out food parcels near bomb shelters or apartment windows and leave quickly, she says. “Working in such conditions endangers all members of the Station Kharkiv team, as well as representatives of the entire NGO cluster.”
In the past weeks, the organization has already suffered losses. One of their volunteers, Yulia Zdanovska, the daughter of the organization’s financial manager, died. “She was only 21 years old, she had dreams and plans, but a Russian shell stopped her life,” Feshchenko says.
Many members of the organization evacuated with their families to safer regions. From there they began to seek and supply assistance to Kharkiv, as well as support migrants in the regions where they now temporarily live.
In the near future, Station Kharkiv plans to improve cooperation with international organizations to increase the amount of assistance. So far, Feshchenko explains, “we still have difficulties in obtaining assistance from international organizations due to the inability to meet the standard reporting requirements of large donors, as the collection of photocopies of documents and signatures is impossible due to the risk of falling under fire.”
Setting Up Shelters
The ongoing war in Ukraine is forcing people to leave their homes and seek refuge. In the first five weeks, more than four million refugees from Ukraine crossed the borders to neighboring countries, and more than seven million people were forced to move within the country.
For many internally displaced people, Kropyvnytskyi in central Ukraine has become a place of refuge, or at least a stopover on the run. According to reports, the number of inhabitants in the city has at least doubled. In the last weeks, multiple volunteer initiatives have emerged in the region to support those fleeing from war.
One of them is the Institute of Socio-Cultural Management. Before the war, the organization worked for over 20 years on promoting a democratic transformation of Ukrainian society through supporting community development.
Now they are coordinating various initiatives in setting up shelters for internally displaced people and providing them with necessities.
“We have decided to focus our efforts on exploring the needs and challenges faced by initiatives, and to focus our resources on overcoming the shortcomings so that our joint activities can have the greatest impact on society,” says Lev Abramov, director of the institute.
“We ask them about their problems and what is missing when working with refugees. They inform us of these needs, and we are trying to meet them,” Abramov explains.
Thus, they cooperate with numerous initiatives, such as the humanitarian headquarters in Kropyvnytskyi, but also with new helpers, such as the sports club Borets, or people like Mykola Tsukanov, the head of a local art gallery.
Sometimes they also work directly with the individuals who are in a difficult situation. In one of the images of chats that Abramov sent, a mother asks for hygiene products for her two children.
We try to be as flexible as possible and consider real needs, acting on the principle: do not think you know what they need, but rather always ask the person about it.
“We try to be as flexible as possible and consider real needs, acting on the principle: do not think you know what they need, but rather always ask the person about it,” Abramov says.
The previous years of their work have helped them adjust to this new situation, he says. “For the staff of our organization, the beginning of the war was a great challenge, but given our organizational capabilities, we were able to adapt relatively quickly and direct our energy to help each other.”
Making the World Know
Dnipro, located on the Dnieper River in central Ukraine, is one of the main transfer cities for the people coming from Kharkiv, Berdyansk, Mariupol, and Donbas. There, the NGO Development and Initiative is activating their international network to communicate to the world about the atrocities happening in their home country.
“All board and active members of the NGOs joined the volunteering movements in different regions of Ukraine,” Kateryna Priazhnikova, president of the organization, explains.
With this, they have launched a campaign to inform as many people as possible about the war crimes happening in Ukraine.
“Thousands of volunteers in all Ukraine are working to communicate with international media in different languages, raising awareness of the crimes of Russia and Belarus in our territory, gathering humanitarian help and military equipment for the local army, and supporting people coming from war regions,” she explains.
For Priazhnikova, the greatest strength of her NGO is its international network of NGOs and volunteers in the EU and Eastern Partnership countries, which have been a huge support in helping on the ground in the current crisis.
Since the invasion, the NGOs and volunteers have united their activities by supporting each other, sharing perspectives, and providing possible assistance with migration logistics or project coordination.
Together with some of their Polish partners, they have set up coordination centers to support Ukrainian refugees in Zamosc and Gliwice.
“All active society of Ukraine and neighboring countries are working now on one goal—to win and save people. This goal unites and motivates and shows the real faces of partners and people … We are deeply proud of the nation we are and the partners we have.”
Still, she fears that the next weeks will be very hard for the region in which they are based: “Each day brings us new challenges and problems to overcome, so tomorrow is never predictable.”
“Since the 24th of February, we don’t make any more plans,” she continues. “All the plans we have left in our previous life full of projects, initiatives, local activities, and youth work, the life which was broken in one day.”
“We all live today and hope for having our homes, relatives, and friends to be safe tomorrow, doing everything possible and impossible to help Ukraine become an independent and peaceful state back. And dreaming to wake up tomorrow realizing that it was just a nightmare.”
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