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"I've never experienced fear on any mission": A Ukraine humanitarian worker’s story

Irina Ozhehova (right) helps sort boxes of medicine and hygiene items. Photo: CARE

Irina Ozhehova (right) helps sort boxes of medicine and hygiene items. Photo: CARE

When the Ukraine conflict broke out in 2022, Irina Ozhehova and her family had already been actively volunteering and helping people for nearly a decade, since the control of Crimea and Donbas changed hands.

Passionate about social work almost since childhood, Irina understood firsthand the significance of risking one’s life to save others, and she possessed the ability to build robust teams and devise solutions during crises. Recently, she joined CARE Ukraine as a Rapid Response Officer, which enabled her to engage in large-scale projects and extend assistance to even more people.

“Comparing 2014 to the present,” says Irina, “despite similar challenges, the nature of the work was distinct. Back then, we had almost no international support and the war was something distant and alien even for Ukrainians.”

“We collaborated with a group of compassionate individuals who organized themselves, recognizing the impending challenges of war. War entails more than just death and destruction; it brings injuries, hunger, and refugees. And Dnipro was already a transit city for people evacuating from the war zone. We were coordinating these processes manually.”

“Now, fortunately, we have international support and the capacity to provide comprehensive assistance and support to the survivors. This is what drew me to an international organization.”

Woman typing on a laptop in an office.
Irina works in the CARE office in Dnipro, Ukraine. Photo: CARE

War and fear

When it came to the question of whether to leave Dnipro, in Eastern Ukraine, or stay and help others evacuate, Irina did not hesitate for a second.

“Assisting people isn’t an extraordinary feat,” Irina says, “it’s a way of life.”

Places like Bakhmut, Rubizhne, Lysychansk, and Severodonetsk became familiar destinations for her. This required more and more effort and resources, as journeys which once took 6.5 hours took almost two days. She had to make allowances for checkpoints, destroyed roads, and coordination issues, but her desire to help remained.

“We sometimes even spent nights on floors somewhere, but we persevered,” she says. “We delivered humanitarian aid: medicines, hygiene supplies, blankets. We returned with people and belongings hastily packed into evacuation bags.”

“I’ve never experienced fear on any mission,” she says. “Occasionally, we faced gunfire and bombardment. Yet, fear emerged later – when you return home and contemplate the potential outcomes, the consequences it might have carried. That’s when fear sets in. In such situations, reflexive actions take over.”

Irina believes that adaptation to a state of war has already happened, but there’s much left to learn. “Ukrainians still need to develop [a] social protection system, medical support for veterans, as well as mechanisms for their adaptation and employment. This is a path we’re yet to tread.”

A woman hands a box to a man in front of a car.
Irina helps distribute humanitarian aid during one of her evacuation missions. Photo: CARE

Faces of the rescued

Over the years of volunteering, Irina has helped hundreds of people. Now, she often regrets she did not start chronicling those events from the beginning. There were so many people’s stories that they have intertwined and mixed in her mind.

“At first, I memorized their names,” she says. “I kept in touch with them. Now there are so many of them that they have merged into a kaleidoscope of faces I remember only faces and stories. I remember a young woman we rescued from Sievierodonetsk. She was holding a child and a bag with children’s things in one hand, and a sewing machine in the other, which later helped her earn a small living.

“I remember a family that ran out of the basement of a completely destroyed house to meet us with only documents and a kitten in their arms.”

“I remember when we were transporting so many people that they were just sitting on the bags. But we still carried a chinchilla, a fish in a bag and a shepherd dog.”

After they arrived in Dnipro, Irina looked for shelter for some people, sent some to the hospital for rehabilitation, while others decided to move on and take an evacuation train to the West and abroad. Irina is proud that everyone she evacuated made it out alive and can continue to build their lives. 

“I let all these stories pass through me,” she says. “But I also had to write chronicles so that I could tell my children and grandchildren that war is about people. That you know them personally, that they are individuals, not just statistics and numbers.” 

War’s lessons

“This war has one small advantage, no matter how scary it may sound,” Irina says. “The war made it possible to see the true qualities of people, to understand who is filled with what.” She recalls that her keen sense of justice has always distinguished her from others. But now, more than ever, it has become a litmus test for her work.

Now, armed with support from her family, Irina feels that she is in her place. Together with CARE, she can plan large-scale projects aimed not only at evacuating people but also at providing long-term support to survivors: financial, psychological, and legal. This makes her happy even in this burning vortex of war. Individuals like Irina exemplify that volunteering and humanitarian aid are not just professions, but also states of mind.

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