The Human Toll: A Harsh Look at the Reality of Ukrainian Refugees

The invasion of Ukraine has displaced over 5.9 million people; however, many Ukrainians lost their home but were unable or willing to leave their homeland, so they are refugees within their own country.

Kee'nan Haggen
April 4, 2023

Refugees from Ukraine on the border with Slovakia (checkpoint "Uzhgorod-Vyshne Nemeckoe") in the Zakarpatya regions. — Photo by Fotoreserg

The invasion of Ukraine has displaced over 5.9 million people, and nearly 8 million people have crossed into neighboring countries, including Poland, Hungary, Germany, and others across Western Europe. However, many Ukrainians lost their home but were unable or willing to leave their homeland, so they are refugees within their own country. These people are among the most vulnerable groups since more NGOs focus on supporting refugees outside Ukrainian borders. 

Vulnerable groups, including older people, people with disabilities, and children, cannot flee from risky and unsafe areas that would force them to act fast. One of our SUPPORT UKRAINE WITH US founders, Maksym Zubkov, shares his on-the-ground experience working directly with refugees in Ukraine.

KH: Where were you located in Ukraine?

MZ: I was in Dnipro, Kyiv, Lviv, and Uzhhorod. I was in between these four cities and will travel back and forth.

KH: When were the dates of your visits? Was this at the start of the invasion or later on?

MZ: I went seven months in since the invasion began. I was during the start of the Kharkiv counteroffensive in September 2022. 

KH: Where did you visit refugees?

MZ: I visited refugees gathered in the region near Dnipro. Dnipro is a region close to the front lines, so there were many refugees, and this region provided a lot of support to displaced individuals.

KH: Who were the refugees you met?

MZ: I met a mother, around 40 years old, with six children, and she was from a small town in the Donetsk region. I also met a single mother in her 50s with children around seven to eight years and young teenagers, around 13-14, who spoke about struggling with mental health since the war began.

KH: How did some of these people become refugees?

MZ: Many people became refugees because the small cities they're from were next to the frontlines, so these locations were bombed continuously, forcing them to evacuate.

KH: What were the conditions some of the refugees were living under?

MZ: The conditions were horrible and very unsafe. Imagine if you moved into an abandoned house, the paint chipping and the space uninhabitable. The building wasn’t used for more than 15 years but was being repaired for occupants to take cover.

KH: What were your first reactions being on the ground? How was your experience?

MZ: You’re instantly filled with fear and are emotionally triggered and overwhelmed when you arrive as you hear sirens blaring in the distance. But surprisingly, you adjust to it quickly within a couple of days. One morning lying in bed, I woke up to the sound of a rocket going overhead, and the building I was in started shaking. I wasn’t scared. I just knew there was a bombing, and that was it. I thought I needed to go to a bomb shelter, but I scratched that idea. You start to reach a moment where you are no longer frightened and accept it as reality. And that’s the scary part: people take this as their reality and that it will never return to normal.

KH: What was it like working with refugees? How was the experience structured for you to help?

MZ: I went and visited refugees in shelters. With SUWU, we focused on helping children and providing presents. We had the kids write letters to Santa. Some of the letters expressed their hopes for things we consider necessities in the US.

Lviv, Ukraine: 12 March 2022 - Children in the coordination center in Lviv — Photo by Fotoreserg

KH: What was the connection between you and the refugees? How did you feel speaking with them?

MZ:  After three days of talking to them, hearing everyone’s stories was one of the most challenging moments because I had become emotionally exhausted. They don’t have any hope. One woman lost all her documents in a fire, so she could not be officially registered as a refugee to receive support from the government. She would need the money she did not have to restore these documents. She could not get by anywhere without documentation, so she was essentially stuck. At some point, she was going to visit her grandmother, and the next thing she knew, the rockets came down and exploded the building in which her grandmother was living. Her grandmother was gone right before her eyes. She was in complete despair. I asked if she needed psychological help and maybe to speak with a therapist, but she declined. There were many stories where people lost everything and had nowhere to go. They’re somewhat silenced because no one knew about them, and media sources were not covering their stories for them to reach out for help.

KH: What is your advice for people volunteering to work with refugees on the ground for the first time?

MZ: There were so many people with health problems, and medicine is costly in Ukraine. For example, we met a single mother with kidney disease and spent 100 USD on one month's medicine supply for her. Suppose you’d like to help but don’t know where to start. In that case, you can donate to our organization, and we will reach out to people individually and buy them medicine, pay for someone’s doctor visit, or provide the help and assistance of a health professional. While millions of Ukrainian refugees have crossed to nearby countries, people are displaced inside the country, leaving many without aid and supplies. The humanitarian crisis remains alarming as people face death and injury due to attacks and multiple needs brought on by the destruction of housing, displacement, as mentioned, and reduced employment opportunities.

SUPPORT UKRAINE WITH US is dedicated to supporting the needs of Ukraine's most vulnerable individuals and organizations. To optimize operations, reduce costs and support the local economy, we procure all the supplies in Ukraine and distribute them directly to recipients using local services and volunteers.

For more information, please donate to help those in dire need.

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