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The displaced in Ukraine: “My home is only a photo now”

Nearly 3.67 million people are still internally displaced across Ukraine. Photo: Alberto Lores / People in Need

Nearly 3.67 million people are still internally displaced across Ukraine. Photo: Alberto Lores / People in Need

"Friends sent me snaps of where my house used to be,” Svitlana, 75, an internally displaced person (IDP) in Ukraine, says. “Now, it’s just a mere pile of rubble."

Svitlana’s story echoes the ordeal of nearly 3.67 million Ukrainians, still internally displaced, because of the war that broke out in February 2022. The United Nations estimates the war’s damage has cost the country over $100 billion, leaving over 7 million people homeless. Over the months, many have managed to return home.

But sadly, Svitlana is still one of the millions still in limbo.

“I still have nowhere to go,” Svitlana says, her eyes welling up. She says she prefers not to be photographed.

‘Your Support’

Soon after the start of the war, Svitlana had to flee from her hometown Mariupol in southeast Ukraine. Since then, she has wandered from one place to another, looking for a safe place — and possibly some peace.

She is not alone. Without relatives, friends, or community-members to take them in, roughly 350,000 of the total internally displaced people have had to seek refuge in different shelters across Ukraine since the war began.

The ‘Your Support’ shelter in Lviv is one such facility, supported by CARE. Like the other shelters in Ukraine, some stay here for a few days and some attempt to return to homes that are often close to the frontlines, where the daily soundtrack is the sound of rockets, explosions, and cries of the affected. Those who fail to reach home, come back to “Your Support” and wait for another opportunity.

The ‘Your Support’ shelter is Svitlana’s new home that she shares with 200 other displaced individuals who will stay here until they find a better alternative or manage to secure a small apartment. Here, the once strangers from different cities of eastern Ukraine have become a close-knit family.

Like Svitlana, every resident of the shelter has a unique story to tell.

Natalia in "Your Support" with a bag that holds all her belongings. Photo: Halyna Bilak/CARE

Winter returns, and so does Natalia

Natalia, 65, returned to ‘Your Support’ shelter for the second time.  In the interim, she did go back and stay in her home in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine. However, because of constant shelling and unbearable stress, she had to come back to the shelter. This time, she plans to spend the difficult winter months here.

“My elder son Yuriy is captive in Russia. He fought for our country. The last time we spoke was back in March 2022. Since then, no news of him.”, she says.

Natalia says that other mothers get more frequent updates from their sons, who are also held captive in Russia, and so she’s constantly worrying.

Thankfully, her younger son Mykola is with her. He was injured nine years ago in a skirmish with Russians while trying to defend Donetsk airport. The injury caused some neurological disorders later and now he needs constant treatment and care.

Oleksandr had to undergo 17 surgeries so far. Photo: Halyna Bilak/CARE

Oleksandr: The “one-handed” man

A fellow resident Oleksandr, 43, has undergone 17 surgeries from the injuries sustained in a rocket attack in Donetsk region. “I can now use only one hand since the other is nearly immobile with external fixation devices for fractures and muscle tears. But life goes on, and I’m trying to adjust,” he says. Oleksandr is currently looking for a home outside the shelter.

Psychosocial support and long-term therapy, a dire need

The war in Ukraine continues to severely impact people’s lives, taking a heavy toll on particularly people’s mental well-being. ‘Your Shelter’ residents are no exception either.

“Nearly every resident needs psychosocial support and some need long-term therapy,” says Inna, the deputy director of “Your Support.” People who work here strive to cultivate a sense of home and a familial atmosphere for the residents.

Your Support shelter houses people from different war-torn areas in Ukraine. Photo: Halyna Bilak/CARE

“All I want is a home”

At ‘Your Support shelter, the residents celebrate special days together, join cooking and handicrafts workshops, and learn about Ukrainian history and languages. Perhaps their common plight, loss, and misery brought them closer and connect better.

Every day they share meals and reminisce about their lives before the war. Some often weep, holding each other’s hands.

Every night they eagerly anticipate a new dawn, not knowing what the next day may unfold.

Yet, there’s one thing all know for certain. They yearn to go back to where they belong. A home of one’s own to find solace again.

As Svitlana says, “All I want is a home… even a small one will do, as long as it’s mine.”

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