Through the conflict, life carries on

Stories from visits with partners in western Ukraine

A building in western Ukraine

The darkness fell in an instant. One minute, a music video was projected on the wall of the small church, and kids were singing along. The next moment the power was off. The room plunged into darkness.

It was only a few seconds before the kids pulled out cellphones and flashlights. One older child quickly connected a string of Christmas lights to a battery. The music kept playing on a battery-operated speaker, and the singing resumed. The group, participants in a children’s program in Ukraine run by MCC partner Fire of Prometey, continued to sing in the semi-darkness, until one of the organizers got the generator running a few minutes later.

Life is disrupted. But life carries on.

A group of children playing with toys in a shelter
Children play at one of the events that Fire of Prometey hosts for children in a village near Uzhhorod.

In December I had the honour of visiting some of MCC’s local partners in western Ukraine to see first-hand the work they’re doing. Yes, people's lives have been upended in so many ways, big and small. But people will always find ways to adapt to difficult situations. Miraculously, they find ways to carry on.

Damaged infrastructure around the country leaves people without power for hours every day. School programs for kids were put on hold for months, their classrooms turned into shelters. Families were forced to pick up their lives in an instant, leaving everything behind.

And despite it all, life carries on.

Handmade comforters fight winter’s chill

On our first day, we went with one of MCC’s partners, Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Ukraine (AMBCU), to visit a shelter they support with regular food packages as well as some of the emergency supplies MCC ships to Ukraine. I walked down the grey, industrial-feeling hallway and through a large black door into Olga’s* room. One of the first things I noticed was the signature bright squares of MCC comforters on her bed. The colours a stark contrast to the grey blankets and walls.

Olga told me she and her family had fled their home in Kryvyi Rih, closer to frontlines. “In the first week of the war, we slept in the basement. And in the winter it’s very cold, so we understood that we would not be able to stay there for a long time,” she said. Then one day, they were given an hour’s notice to evacuate. As air alarms rang, they packed everything into their car and started a nine-day journey across the country in search of safety.

A woman holding two children
Olga with her daughters Taisya and Arina, in their room at a shelter where they live near Uzhhorod.

Though Olga says the shelter where they live now feels safe, it can also be cold, especially when the power is off. As I saw throughout the visit, electricity is cut often as the government has instituted rolling blackouts across the country to manage the lack of electricity due to damaged infrastructure. Olga told me they use the bright MCC comforters to cuddle up with the kids to keep them warm.

I usually only see the comforters at the start of their journey at the warehouse here in Canada. I watch dedicated volunteers sew the blocks together, knot the layers, then pack them into bales. So, it felt special to see the comforters on the other end, laid out on beds where they can keep kids warm during a difficult time.

The fact that the blankets were handmade was special to Olga, too. “In my childhood, my grandma was doing this patchworking. And it’s so special for me because when I saw that [this blanket] is handmade, it was so dear to my heart.”

Despite the cold and uncertainty, life carries on.


School continues during the conflict
Children sitting a dark classroom
Children in the classroom of the school run by Blaho Charitable Foundation in Uzhhorod.

The next day we walked into a small, two-room school run by MCC’s partner Blaho Charitable Foundation. It was a cold and wet day, under grey skies we walked through the grass field around the school, dodging puddles as we went. The power had been shut off, which means the heat was, too. I had assumed that with the weather and the lack of heat, fewer kids would have shown up. But when I walked through the door I was surprised to see a room full of students. They were bundled up in toques and winter coats, looking at the board with only the light that came through the windows. But they were still engaged. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the students answer the teacher’s questions, coming up to the board to show their work.

This school specifically provides education support to Roma children in Uzhhorod, a city in the far west of Ukraine. Roma people are an ethnic group that live in countries throughout Europe but face significant discrimination. They often also have lower levels of education, something founder Eleanora, a Roma woman herself, wants to change. The preschool provides teachers to help prepare the students for formal education. “This education is very important for Roma children because if they can read and write, and if a person is educated, he or she is perceived differently,” Eleanora told me. “Humanitarian aid is needed, 100 percent. But it’s not the main thing. The most important is to teach them.”

At the beginning of the war, the school was temporarily closed and provided shelter for Roma families who were fleeing the violence and needed a safe place to stay. Looking around the two small rooms of the school, with no access to running water, it’s hard to imagine the building serving as a home. But Eleanora told us it was better than the alternative. Roma people faced discrimination before the war, but she said it became even worse after the invasion. “Roma people weren’t accepted, they weren’t given shelters to live in. They were just sleeping on the floor, just outside on the street with small children, it was just terrible,” she says.

As the conflict continued with no end in sight, Eleanora knew they needed a better and larger space. They were eventually able to rent a former restaurant and hotel and turn it into a larger shelter that can house about 150 people at one time, both Roma and other Ukrainians.

A young girl in a shelter
A child who lives in a large room in the shelter run by Blaho Charitable Foundation in Uzhhorod. This room used to be a restaurant in a hotel, but the building is now being rented by Blaho to provide temporary shelter to people who have been displaced.

At the end of our day together, after we’d seen the shelter and the schools, I had a question for Eleanora. As someone from the outside, I imagined that people would be focused more on getting by day-to-day, not prioritizing education. So why, I asked, did she think it was important to keep the school going? Eleanora seemed almost surprised by the question. She told us children and families in the community had been asking her when they could come back for lessons. And since the western part of the country was still relatively safe, why shouldn’t they reopen?  “I understood there would be no missiles coming here or rockets or bombs. And if state-run schools should work, we also should work,” she said.

So there the students were, learning in the dark. The violence, the closure of the school and the power cuts have all disrupted their lives. But life carries on.


Regular support in uprooted times

The next day, when we arrived at a different shelter, the power was out there too. It was another cool day. As I walked up to the building I couldn’t help but notice a brightly coloured mosaic on the building, standing in contrast to the grey skies around us. This shelter used to be a hospital. But now the clotheslines full of drying laundry on the balcony and outside the back of the building are an indication that this place is now home to many people. I walked up the stairs to the second floor, the only light was what trickled through the stained-glass windows. A group of residents came to meet us, many wearing their coats and hats indoors to protect themselves from the winter cold.

A group of people in a shelter
Residents living in a shelter supported by MCC partner AMBCU on the second floor of a former hospital in Mukachevo.

Many of the people told me how they had been displaced multiple times. They had left their home back in 2014 when the Russian military invaded the Crimean Peninsula. Then they were forced to uproot their lives again last February in search of safety. And they were relocated again when the first shelter they stayed in, a school, needed to open again for classes.

Their lives have been upended over and over, but one steady form of support is the regular food packages they receive from MCC’s local partner AMBCU. I met a woman named Oksana, originally from the Donetsk area. We went inside the room she shares with her mother and another woman so we could hear a little more about her story. As we talked, her shiny black and white cat (brought with her from home) roamed the space, curious about its guests. Oksana told me she had worked for a while in the summer picking blueberries. She had looked for other work, but there aren’t many jobs available because of how many people have arrived in the region. The food packages she receives help make ends meet while she and her mother wait out the war. “If not for this support, it would be harder. The money we receive from the government just covers very minimal things and there is no regular work. So, it would be hard to live comfortably without this support,” she said.

People in a shelter
Residents living in a shelter in Mukachevo receive food packages from MCC partner AMBCU.

During our visit, staff and volunteers from AMBCU hauled the bags of food packages up the stairs in the dark, before they were distributed to everyone gathered. As the packages were being handed out, the power suddenly came back on. People cheered and the excitement was palpable. People quickly went to turn on the washing machines, or to cook food. To pick up their life where it left off.


Life carries on

After our days of partner visits wrapped up, it was time to drive back across the border to Slovakia to begin the trip home. It was a long, long wait in the car at the crossing. While the temperatures were still above freezing, with the car turned off I started to get cold. And, not surprisingly, once we got up to the border itself, the power was cut once again. We waited probably half an hour or more before the generator came on. As we stood outside the car while it was searched by the border guards, I bounced back on forth on my feet, trying to warm up my toes that were numb from the cold.

I know that small journey and that short moment of cold was only the very smallest taste of what winter is like for the millions of displaced people in Ukraine. Living without regular access to heat and electricity makes for a long, hard winter. Living with the danger and uncertainty of conflict makes it even harder. But I also know the people of Ukraine will carry on. They will continue to adapt and find new and creative ways to make it through. Even in the dark.

*Full names not used for security reasons