Stories

Ukraine Crisis: The search for safety

In the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil, life is anything but normal

Ihor Hirchak smiles easily, but that doesn’t erase the sadness in his eyes. As the Deputy Mayor of Ternopil, Ukraine, his days are filled with solving problems and finding ways for his city to help the thousands of people who are fleeing their homes.

‘Life has changed completely,’ he says. ‘It is upside down. We are expecting that in a few weeks we will have food shortages because the supplies cannot come through.’

Ihor has met Medair’s team at the border with Poland, to assist with transportation to Ternopil. His city of just over 225,200 has welcomed more than 20,000 people over the past three weeks. Most have continued on to Lviv and to European countries, but about 4,000 have stayed. Volunteers have been operating 12 reception centres in schools, but he knows this isn’t a permanent solution.

‘For now it’s all volunteers, but they can’t do this long term. The schools need to be for children, and the volunteers need to do their jobs. People who live in Ternopil don’t have much money, but they are doing everything they can to help.’

Oksana is the principal of one of the schools. Even at 9:30 pm she is smiling and energetic. She and her team are now operating a 100-bed shelter; even taking the sheets home at night for washing.

An elderly woman in the middle of a crowd holds a blanket around her shoulders.

Many families arriving at border crossings like this one with Poland have made long journeys to safety. ©Medair / Dale MacMillan

Anatoli is the head of one of the families staying in Oksana’s school. His wife, two children, and elderly parents have been here for four nights. In the morning they’ll leave for Germany; planning to travel through Romania and Slovakia. They arrived by taxi.

Medair’s team ask Anatoli whether there’s anything we can provide to improve things at the shelter. He looks back as if we’ve asked a crazy question.

‘Here it is perfect,’ he says. ‘There is peace and calm, we have a roof over our heads, and we have a new family,’ he gestures towards Oksana.

Anatoli’s home in Eastern Ukraine has been in disputed territory since 2014, but he describes the 10-days before leaving as a ‘living hell’.

‘I want to tell the story. This is not only happening now, but lately it is even worse.’ He tells us of days in the basement, sleeping on chairs, with no light, gas, or cellular access. They could hear the bombings and shootings happening outside. When they did decide to flee, it wasn’t safe. They were on foot, traveling across fields at night until they could find a ride with a humanitarian transport convoy. Later, catching a bus, they had to sit in the aisle because the seats were full. They are taking some time to rest in Ternopil.

Ihor has also seen the difficulties faced by people arriving in Ternopil. ‘People are arriving by train and telling of having to stand on one foot the whole time. One woman was holding her baby for many hours. When I took the child from her, she couldn’t feel her hands. Sometimes people are begging for water.’

‘We can’t believe this is happening in this century,’ says Oksana. ‘We are all in shock.’

Ihor shares his own experiences of the conflict. His wife and three children have gone to Poland; one week ago he brought them to the border.

‘Of course, I can’t leave,’ he says. ‘I brought them there and said goodbye. I went to our home and was just looking at the toys; crying. Now, everyday I go out into this city, solving problems. My mind can be clear because I am not worried about my family.’

A young boy with a bright red backpack holds an adult's hand in a crowd.

A child and his mother hold hands as they cross into Poland from the Ukraine. ©Medair / Dale MacMillan

Jeff Mills, Medair’s Project Coordinator, says that hearing Anatoli’s story made him feel grateful and sad at the same time.

‘I could see that it was difficult for him to talk about where they came from. I felt very thankful for everyone who helped the family along the way, but I was also sad that this is happening.’

Medair’s Global Emergency Response Team is working in Poland and Ukraine to assist people affected by the conflict which began at the end of February. Our projects will address gaps in primary health care, support relief efforts by supporting and sustaining volunteer organisations, and providing mental health and psychosocial support to refugees, volunteers, and mental health professionals in Poland and Ukraine. We also hope to provide repairs to critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, water systems, and collective shelters.

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This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.