Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance
"There is room for light."
back-to-school and winterization efforts in Ukraine
While the world watches intently for any small victory of reclaimed land and systems in Ukraine, the region is well into winter weather now, and concerns mount for those who have fled homes, tried to return home, or are making a new home elsewhere. From winterization and school restoration projects to specialized support for refugees with disabilities, Week of Compassion has come alongside longtime ecumenical partners, on behalf of the whole Disciples church, to respond to multiple needs across the region and in communities that are especially vulnerable and underserved.
In the eastern oblasts (provinces) of Ukraine, damage to buildings, infrastructure, and fuel lines has left hundreds of thousands of people without access to water, electricity, fuel, or heat. Even in areas where some utilities have been salvaged, extensive property damage, sudden evacuations, and instant loss of livelihood and income mean millions of people are living in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
In response, HEKS-Swiss Church Aid, a Week of Compassion partner through ACT Alliance, is intently focused on providing winterization kits that include insulation materials, basic repair supplies, and stoves. Neighboring villagers have opened their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the larger cities under siege, but money is still scarce and resources are few. Sleeping bags, food packages, and warm clothes are being provided at community centers for those who are internally displaced (fled their home but remain in-country).
While homes and shelters are being made habitable in winter weather, schools have started back, even in the midst of a war, and require significant refitting as well. Where internet connection allows, many students remain in online-only learning, until schools can be restored with the now-required secure bomb shelters. LWF-Lutheran World Federation, also an ACT Alliance partner, is collaborating with local municipalities to renovate existing but not-yet-functional shelters in school basements, so students can return to in-person learning as soon as possible.
In Kharkiv, basements and underground stations are not just temporary shelter during bombing raids, but in many areas of the city have been functioning as ‘home’ since the invasion began. As yet another ACT Alliance partner, HIA-Hungarian Interchurch Aid, shares:
“The local policy dictates that for central heating to be turned on at least half of the residents in a building must be permanently living there. Another issue is insulation: If there are holes in the walls or missing windows, heat will escape from the building so central heating will not be turned on in that case either. About half of the population has no work and therefore no income. In most cases, only those who have fled the occupied territory are eligible for financial assistance… Some have no relatives elsewhere to stay with or have run out of money to pay the rent. … Many of those living in such conditions practically only exist in the databases of local agencies.”
HIA is working around the clock to account for residents in these living conditions, providing stoves, fuel, food, and clothing kits and opening additional community assistance centers to serve any who come for aid.
Week of Compassion’s strength has always been serving with partners for the long-term, and the response in Ukraine will last across many years. Ukrainians surviving in basements aren’t the only ones living out of sight. Frequently underserved communities, like persons with intellectual and physical disabilities, are the direct focus of Week of Compassion partner L’Arche.
According to United Nations data, about one-third of the population of Ukraine has been displaced, and nearly 7.5 million have fled the country. For those with intellectual disabilities and their families, navigating this tenuous situation is even more complicated, and would be impossible without good support. L’Arche communities in Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania have worked to address the very real concerns of refugees with disabilities, including basics like food and medication, to more specific needs like transportation, medical care, and assistance in establishing new living and vocational opportunities, building relationships and offering emotional support.
“It’s a miracle that I’m here [in L’Arche],” one man said. “I’m treated like a human being, not an invalid.” A mother, taking refuge with her child, puts into perspective the work of so many striving to extend compassion in such extraordinary circumstances: “With the beginning of the war,” she said, “I had a feeling that a great darkness was approaching. But fate showed that there is room for light, goodness and joy in our world.”
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