When people began fleeing their war-ravaged homes in eastern Ukraine after fighting between Russia-backed separatists and Ukraine’s military engulfed the region in 2014, both Russian and some Ukrainian media were quick to stoke fears in Kyiv, the country’s capital city, that the arrival of displaced persons would sew social discord.
But when RFE/RL Regional Reporting Fellow Olga Komarova began exploring the stories of Ukraine’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) last winter, instead of the burden the media had warned of, she found survivors determined to rebuild their lives, and often already successfully doing so despite lacking access to financial support and social services.
Her series of IDP profiles recently won third place in a competition organized by Internews-Ukraine. Her work was selected from among more than 180 submissions received from 130 media outlets for putting faces on the displacement crisis. Of her six published profiles, five detail the triumphs of internally displaced Ukrainian women.
Although Komarova did not intend to focus on women in her profiles, she found the women IDPs she met to be extraordinarily resilient in the midst of tragic circumstances. From the outset she encountered recurring tales of women who viewed their circumstances as opportunities to start over and succeeded, but whose stories weren’t being told.
Komarova’s work provided a needed response to Russian media outlets, which manipulated the displacement crisis to portray chaos in Kyiv, and to the lack of in-depth reports on IDPs in Ukraine’s own press. A 2015 European Union study found that stories about IDPs in Ukraine “often lacked more analytical and contextual information” and “examples of qualitative informing were rare.”
“The media spread only negative stories associated with integration and conflicts,” Komarova said. “Many worthy stories remained out of sight.”
Recognizing the opportunity to amplify the voices of IDPs, Komarova began reporting their success stories for Radio Svoboda, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, through a combination of video, audio, and text.
“These stories are a call to action--step by step instructions, an inspiration and example for those who doubt and lose faith,” Komarova said.
Ukraine has registered more than 1.4 million IDPs since Russia-backed seperatists ignited conflict in the country’s eastern regions in 2014. Most of them fled fighting or left to access pensions and other social support that the Ukrainian government suspended in the separatist-controlled areas.
Komarova found that the displaced men she met were better able to find employment than women, but that displaced women took matters into their own hands by retraining, searching for housing on their own, and arranging assistance from volunteer centers. Some struck out on their own as tour guides and dance instructors. One displaced woman opened her own tailoring shop and one started a private daycare center. Some displaced women volunteer their time to help others in the same situation.
Such was the story of Viktoria Vasilevska, an internally displaced woman who began volunteering at the Kyiv Center for Humanitarian Assistance after receiving support from the center herself. Since Vasilevska’s family are now able to get by on her husband’s income and her maternity benefits, she spends her time helping others.
“When we came here, I applied to many different agencies for help, and didn’t hear back from any of them,” said Vasilevska. “Then, one responded. It was the founder of the volunteer center. She did not ask the ages of my children or how I am financially supporting them, but simply said to write the list of medications we need. The next morning, I received a package of medicine.”
Over the past six months she has worked in nearly every department at the center, and now operates a hotline for IDPs. Vasilevska said she could not imagine living in a new place without the support of her new friends at the center. But her new life is not without its challenges. When Vasilevska’s mother died, she did not return home to attend the funeral for fear she wouldn’t be able to return.
As for Komarova, the experience of reporting on these women will remain with her, as each story has left “an unforgettable mark.” She hopes that these success stories will demonstrate not only the humanity of IDPs, but also their extraordinary strength.
“One of my heroines said, ‘we have nothing to lose, so what is there to fear?’ And it's really surprising how strong a person can be if they decide to be.”