Content warning: this story contains descriptions of personal trauma experienced during the war in Ukraine.
On March 14, GFC spoke with the director of a partner organization that supports families with children with disabilities all over Ukraine. (For their safety, GFC is not naming its partner organizations in Ukraine.) This organization was originally based in the Donbas region until 2014 when its city was taken over by the Russian occupation. The staff lived and worked in exile in Kyiv until February 2022. The director spoke to GFC from a center for people with disabilities in Riga, Latvia, where the group is staying. She told us about her team’s harrowing escape from Kyiv driving 19 women and children with disabilities in a specially modified minibus. Their journey took them from Kyiv to Poland, through Lithuania, and finally to Latvia.
“My entire Ukraine is covered in wounds.”
It is difficult. My work is the only thing that saves me; if I weren’t doing what I am doing, I wouldn’t be able to bare it. Physically, I am in Riga, but my entire being is back there, in my Ukraine.
This is the second war for me and my family. In 2014, when we were working with GFC and the war began, my son was 8 years old. We helped evacuate people from the east. Back then, we had somewhere to take people, and now there is nowhere to take them [within Ukraine]. My entire Ukraine is covered in wounds.
Personally, I had had enough in 2014. It took us over a year to bring our son out of severe trauma. My husband and I are both in wheelchairs, and [at the time] we had to leave our apartment, which was specially outfitted for people with disabilities. Do you know how hard it is for people like us to have appropriate, comfortable housing? I can’t even convey the stress that came with having to flee a second time.
“More than anything I want to return home.”
Until 2014, we only worked in the east. But since then, our people have resettled all over Ukraine, and now we work all over the country, and the number of people we support has really increased. It’s hard to count everyone up, but in the Luhansk region alone we easily reach up to 5,000 children and young people per year through our services, camps, and activities. If we had to count everyone in the country, it would be many, many more!
At 5:00AM on February 24, when the bombing and the explosions began, the windows in our apartment were shaking, there were sirens warning people to go into bomb shelters. We live on a high floor of an apartment building and going to the basement is not an option for us because it is not wheelchair accessible. None of the basements are. Our 16-year-old son refused to go into the basement without us, and he couldn’t help us – both in wheelchairs – get down there. So, we just stayed in the apartment, and I felt overwhelmed with fear for my son’s life. If something were to happen to him, it would be because I couldn’t protect him.
Then we started receiving a ton of phone calls from different people. One woman was hiding in a basement with three children, her husband went to fight, and she had a small baby with her. Other people in similar situations called, many with children with disabilities, asking for help. That’s when we decided that we needed to leave and take as many people as we could with us. My husband has a special van with hand controls.
“My child stopped smiling. He completely stopped smiling.”
It took us a week to get from Kyiv to Riga. My husband drove the special van, and someone else drove another car. We had 19 people with us, mostly mothers and children, many with disabilities. Our van broke down near Vinnytsia [in Ukraine], and we had to be pulled by a towline. It’s very difficult for a hand-controlled vehicle to do this for a long time, my husband was exhausted. We ended up spending a whole day near Vinnystia. We were all freezing. By some miracle we got some help and managed to fix the van.
Then we got to Lviv [in western Ukraine] and stayed there one night. We met with different parents of children with disabilities. You know, we wanted to help everyone. Then we traveled to the border with Poland, the line was 18km, but we got help from the authorities in Lviv to cross the border and there were no issues.
The rest of the trip through Poland and Lithuania was smoother, and there were kind people we could stay with in both countries. I don’t think we would have made it if we were alone. The immense responsibility for other people’s children kept us going.
Our trip west and into the Baltic States also had another purpose. I am in close contact with a member of the European Disability Forum and I was planning a meeting with her to discuss supporting us in setting up a center to receive refugees with disabilities in Lviv. That is one of the hardest things for people with disabilities fleeing war – it is difficult to find a place that can accommodate them. Depending on the disability, each person may require a special approach – the right medications, physical and spatial accommodations, special medical care, mental health services, etc.
We have already started setting up the center. Thankfully, the Lviv authorities are very supportive in this. They even provided a space to house this center! A friend of mine is in Lviv and is helping set everything up with the first funding we received. Her son actually evacuated with us. They already bought 70 beds, linens, hygiene products, etc. This center will make the arrival of people with disabilities in western Ukraine much more manageable.
“When you are helping a child with a disability, you need to understand their needs very well. Because each such child has unique needs.”
The most difficult part was the fear for the children we were evacuating, the fear for those we were responsible for. I also feared for my husband, who was driving us, because I knew that if something were to happen, he wouldn’t be able to jump out of the car and run. When we waited in long car lines, there were explosions and sirens everywhere, it was very frightening. But we did our best to distract the kids by playing games and constantly talking to them.
To be honest, it’s hard to say that anything gave us hope. It also really pained me to leave Kyiv. I guess the only hope came from knowing that they were waiting for us in Latvia, we have somewhere to stay, they know our unique situation, we won’t need to frantically look for food for 19 people, and we won’t be cold.
I am happy to say that all the people that came with us are safe and taken care of. They are receiving us with such kindness here.
We are five staff members here in Riga at the moment. COVID has taught us how to work remotely, so we are good at it, and we are supporting everyone who needs help back home. We’ve set up a hotline on all the phones and are constantly fielding phone calls from every part of Ukraine. We are preparing lists of people for evacuation and organizing evacuations. We are working with several countries – Austria, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Romania – to get people out, and have already completed several evacuations. There are so many kind people in the world – we are getting a lot of support!
We are connecting people who need help finding a doctor, medicine, or food with those who are willing to help and also conveying information about people who are in dangerous situations to emergency services in Ukraine, so they can help rescue them. We also recently helped get a boy undergoing chemotherapy to western Ukraine, where it is quieter right now, so he won’t have a break in treatment.
There are people we still can’t reach. In Mariupol, for example, there are young people that we haven’t been able to contact. I worry terribly about them, and the temperature is below freezing these days.
We need money. With the GFC grant I have been able to transfer small sums of money to different families with children with disabilities and to others who need support. Many of them are stuck in bomb shelters or at home, unable to leave. In some places, a mother may need to go to the pharmacy to buy some medicine but is unable to move around her city safely. With a small cash transfer, she can pay for a taxi to go to the pharmacy and get what she needs.
Another huge issue is medication. Many children with disabilities must have reliable access to specific medications. In some areas of Ukraine, it is very difficult to get medications at the moment, but if I am able to transfer a small amount to a family like that, they can then find ways to get the necessary medication where they are. The truth is our families are resourceful and they will do anything to help their children; we just need to make the resources available to them. Finally, as we continue organizing evacuations, one of the biggest expenses goes to organizing transport and paying for fuel. Currently, many people whom we are in touch with are very concerned about their lack of mobility.
The most important [thing] in this situation is providing quick support. The families we work with cannot afford to wait long for many of the things they need given the current situation. That is why the flexible emergency grant we received from GFC is so invaluable.
Amidst all this pain, I worry that Ukraine will lose many of its children. Both in fighting and through fleeing. I really hope that Ukrainians who fled will be able to come back and help rebuild the country. I don’t intend to stay abroad; I will return when it is possible to do so. But for people in wheelchairs [and with disabilities] it will be difficult to return in the near future.
This interview was conducted in Russian and translated into English. GFC and our partner in Ukraine have edited this interview together for clarity and to omit personally identifying details.
Global Fund for Children (GFC) UK Trust, created in 2006, is a UK registered charity (UK charity number 1119544). We work to generate vital income, create new fundraising opportunities, and raise awareness of the invaluable work of GFC’s grassroots grantees. Our aim is to extend the reach of GFC in the United Kingdom, Europe, and beyond.
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