MCC and its partners are providing comforters, canned meat, rent and other assistance to people who have fled conflict in eastern Ukraine.
When the shooting escalates — usually between late afternoon and the early hours of the next morning — the people flee. They leave behind homes, jobs and often family members.
For much of the world, the conflict in eastern Ukraine seems to be forgotten, says Vadym Proshak, the project manager at MCC partner Zaporizhzhia Baptist Union. But although ceasefires and a peace accord have been announced in the past few years, armed groups are still firing back and forth.
“It’s a war and it’s still going on. No one cares about the civilians,” Proshak says. “After another round of shooting, more families come here.”
The conflict began in early 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine. Unrest spread, intensifying from May through November 2014 as waves of people fled fighting in the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts (provinces), which share a border with Russia.
And people continue to flee.
“The artillery broke our roof and windows and luckily I was in the basement. If I had been upstairs I would not be alive,” says Maryana Lagoda, who left Donetsk in January 2016 and now lives in Zaporizhzhia with her eighth-month-old son Sasha.
The city of Zaporizhzhia is about 200 kilometres from the conflict zone. To reach safety, people pass through multiple checkpoints and territory with landmines.
Once there, many rely on MCC partners for assistance.
MCC relief kits offer hygiene supplies. Canned meat, which Lagoda receives through MCC partner Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Ukraine, provides valuable protein and nutrition. MCC comforters offer warmth in an area where heating is always an issue. And MCC helps people to pay for rent and heat and to buy things they need urgently like medication.
Sixty-seven-year-old Alla Lisitsina (above) was forced from her home in Donetsk on July 29, 2014, when civic officials announced an evacuation. With only her personal documents and summer clothes, she joined the flood of people at the train station headed for Zaporizhzhia. When she arrived, Lisitsina found housing in a dormitory, which during the Soviet era was housing for workers.
She is still there. She shares a room with two other women; there are two bathrooms and two stoves for about 30 displaced people.
“I talk to my relatives and they tell me they still hear the shooting,” she says. “They are used to it now, but I cannot do that. At least here it is safe and I have a roof over my head.”
Through its partnership with Zaporizhzhia Baptist Union, MCC has helped Lisitsina pay for rent and medication and provided her with comforters and canned meat. “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you for your help and support.”
Lena Skachkova remembers the air raid sirens in the summer of 2014 and warnings to take food, water and documents into the basement of her home in Lugansk. Just 12 kilometres away, bombs were falling.
“The aircraft were so close overhead and we could hear the bombs,” she says. “I was scared for my children. I didn’t want them to see that.”
Skachkova and her two sons took a train to the safety of Nikopol, as her husband remained in Lugansk to care for his elderly parents. She left behind her job and a newly renovated home. Now, her monthly income, which comes from government support for her sons and a few dollars a day working in a store, totals about C$135. In the winter, that’s barely enough to cover heating costs in the apartment she rents.
“We have our ups and downs, and it all piles up inside of you,” says Skachkova, pictured above with her sons, 8-year-old Kirill and 14-year-old Slavik. “But I understand why I cannot go home. I cannot risk the lives of my children.”
MCC’s partner organization in Nikopol, New Life Charitable Fund, assists the family with canned meat, comforters and money for utilities and medication. “We make porridge with the canned meat and we use the blankets,” she says. “We have one blanket over the window to keep out the cold.”
The United Nations estimates at least 1.8 million people are displaced within Ukraine by the conflict. They join thousands of other vulnerable people who, in the midst of economic downturn, found their meager pensions and income couldn’t cover the rising cost of living.
Before the conflict, most of MCC’s resources in Ukraine were dedicated to helping those who cannot support themselves or find enough assistance from the government — people who are disabled and elderly, former prisoners, single-parent families, people with addictions, those living with HIV and AIDS.
Needs remain strong among those who are not displaced but simply trying to make ends meet in places like Zaporizhzhia or Zhytomyr.
For the past 25 years, Yana Gonchar, 79, has cared for her son Viktor Gonchar, a 55-year-old who is confined to bed after injuring his spine when he fell off a roof while repairing a balcony. The Gonchars, who live in Zhytomyr, have a combined monthly pension income of about $120, not nearly enough to pay for food, rent and Viktor’s medical supplies. “I don’t even want to think about what will happen to me when my mother passes away,” Viktor says.
In response to situations like this, MCC for years has shipped supplies to Ukraine, helping Care and Mercy Regional Charity Fund and other partner organizations provide canned meat, comforters and hygiene items to people like the Gonchars.
Now, as MCC partners expand their efforts to help displaced people as well, MCC has increased its support.
MCC shipments of supplies to Ukraine have nearly doubled since the conflict began in 2014. That includes items such as these comforters being prepared by Viktor Radzyuk, a volunteer for MCC partner Care and Mercy Regional Charity Fund, at a distribution centre in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.
In addition, MCC has provided US$1.7 million, including $1 million from the Canadian government, in emergency funds. This assistance helps subsidize the costs of heat and rent and funds psychological support, trauma healing and locally purchased food and other items. A peace project provides training for Ukrainian partners, including opportunities to learn from other MCC partners building peace in East Europe.
As MCC meets urgent needs, though, people continue to live in the midst of uncertainty — all facing their own decisions about resettling or waiting to return home.
“I would go back to Donetsk to see my friends but won’t return to live there,” says Maryana Lagoda, pictured above with her 8-month-old son Sasha. “I can get work here. I have friends here.”
The area of Lugansk where Lena Skachkova lived with her two sons and husband is now a self-declared independent republic. Her husband cares for his parents in a building without running water as she waits in Nikopol, not knowing if she and the children will ever live in Lugansk again.
“I try to not think about the shells destroying our house and starting all over,” she says. “Half of my soul is there and the other half is here in Nikopol.”
As she sits on her bed in the dormitory in Zaporizhzhia, Alla Lisitsina also is preoccupied with thoughts of her old life in Donetsk.
“I want to go home, so much,” she says. “These years that I live through this war are taken from my life. Only the Lord knows when this will end.”