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Poland supports those who help


“In a new room, we can have individual sessions with our patients, uninterrupted by other people. It’s also a perfect place for group work because it is so spacious,” says happily Olga Pronina, a psychologist working with trauma victims in eastern Ukraine.

A group of women sitting in a circle and training

It was the co-financing from Polish Aid that enabled equipping the room in Avdiivka’s psychological assistance centre, where Ms Pronina works.

Without help, they won’t make it

Ms Pronina has a very difficult task ahead. Avdiivka is a town in Donetsk Oblast, which repeatedly became a battleground in subsequent stages of eastern Ukraine’s armed conflict, now into its sixth year. Its inhabitants experienced heavy rocket and mortar fire, which caused severe trauma in many of them. Psychologists and therapists have to treat the mental health consequences of the war—not only in adults but also children and young people. The events suffered by the youngest may affect their entire later life.

But the hardest hit by the conflict are those who cannot cope without the help of others—people who are elderly, alone or have chronic diseases. But it is not easy to reach people who live near the front line. Public transport, if it operates at all, is irregular, and roads are not always passable. In many towns, health facilities are shut down because of the lack of medical personnel, medicines, and equipment. Access to public services is hampered, which—with poor transport services—prevents some people from visiting banks, post offices, government agencies or even social services. This is also important in the context of being able to collect old age and disability benefits. Some houses do not have running water or working toilets and must be heated with firewood or gas heaters.

Lyudmyla Steputina+deputy director of educational Center Kransnohorivka

The coronavirus pandemic has aggravated the problems of the oldest people

The situation of the oldest residents of Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts was thus particularly difficult even before the coronavirus pandemic. According to a needs assessment carried out by the Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH), more than 90% of their population suffer from at least one chronic disease. More than half, on the other hand, need immediate support when it comes to water supply and improving sanitation and hygiene. Most of these people live alone and often have difficulty moving, while some require constant care from their household. They usually live on a meagre pension which is not sufficient to meet their basic needs.

Residents of eastern Ukraine

The coronavirus pandemic has made their problems even worse, exposing them to a risk of getting infected with a disease that is particularly dangerous for elderly people and those in bad shape. It has also brought with it even greater restrictions on mobility and the availability of various services, including psychological and social services, as well as the rising prices of food and hygiene products. And it has presented aid organisations with a new challenge—compliance with sanitary restrictions.

“We had to make sure that by helping we would not harm those who are most exposed to infection,” said Hanna Yizhak, a project coordinator for the Polish Humanitarian Action’s Ukrainian branch. “Social workers, whom we train and support, must directly reach those in need every day. It’s a very heavy mental and physical strain for them.”

Hanna Yizhak works on a daily basis with people who provide help in eastern Ukraine’s isolated towns. Run by PAH and co-financed by Polish Aid, the project delivers support to social workers and people employed in social services centres, including psychologists such as Ms Pronina. Social workers in eastern Ukraine provide many services, usually housework, such as shopping, cleaning, or cooking meals. They also help with getting simple formalities done at banks or offices, which is a serious challenge for some, especially during a pandemic. But equally important is the psychological support they provide to those who live in the shadow of war and poverty. Social workers are the first line of help for those whose suffering is usually forgotten.

“Thank you for looking out for us, for the people who live on the front line. We’re having a really rough time,”

Valentina Savchenko, whose husband has been bedridden for nearly three months because of a severe illness, told a PAH employee. The man needs not only round-the-clock care but also expensive hygiene products. The family does not go out too often to reduce the risks of coronavirus infection, which would be particularly dangerous in the case of Mrs Savchenko’s husband. For this reason, the couple were not visited by their grandchildren, which deepened their sense of loneliness and abandonment.

It is such people whom the staff of social institutions reach daily. Thanks to their hard work, the residents of eastern Ukraine can, at least for a moment, forget about the difficult situation they are in.

Social worker: just a human

And all that does affect the level of stress that social workers feel about working in such difficult conditions. Tiredness, trauma, and the sense of helplessness and constant danger—such feelings accompany those whose task is to support others. It is especially for them that PAH organises meetings and workshops to help them cope with stress and discouragement, stimulate creativity, and develop common solutions for the future. These actions have a direct impact on the quality of their services.

“I took part in the workshops together with other people who want to work actively for the local community,” said Galina Belenko, the head of the day department in Siversk’s social services centre. “I could meet colleagues who also work in the social sector. As a result, I have also been able to obtain a lot of information about my work, about how to help people and how the situation in the region has changed, especially now, during the pandemic.”

Ms Belenko works in Siversk, Donetsk Oblast, where we have retrofitted the local social psychological services centre, as in Avdiivka and Toretsk. This was made possible with the creation and training of special groups of local activists who identified the most urgent needs in local communities. The Polish Humanitarian Action then financed the purchase of necessary equipment for these institutions, also adapting them to the needs of people with disabilities. All these measures have a direct impact on how professional social and welfare assistance is provided to the region’s residents.

Residents of eastern Ukraine

The activities are carried out by the Polish Humanitarian Action as part of a two-year project co-financed from the development assistance budget of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Workshops organized by Pollish Humanitarian Action