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A year of tackling homelessness on the frontline in Ukraine

Depaul International’s Father Vitaliy Novak has provided life-saving support throughout Ukraine and now is helping to rebuild homes despite blackouts

Father Viltaliy Novak

Father Vitaliy Novak of Depaul Ukraine. Photo: DePaul

The war in Ukraine has caused a wave of homelessness and for a year Father Vitaliy Novak has been relentlessly working on the frontline to support people displaced by the conflict.

The Big Issue named Father Vitaliy Novak one of our Changemakers for 2023 after he told us of the lifesaving work he does for Depaul International in Ukraine. 

Speaking one year on from the start of Russia’s invasion, he told The Big Issue blackouts were making life tough in war-torn Odesa but people were determined to rebuild. 

“Most of the city is suffering without electricity as the energy system collapsed on February 4 because almost 50 per cent of it was destroyed,” says Father Novak. 

“In the last two days we have only had a few hours of electricity in the house and so it is quite difficult to learn to live without power, without energy, without warmth. 

“Wherever you walk across the city in Odesa you only hear the voice of electric generators. I call it the voices of freedom because even though we are broken, we continue to live like this and it is our wish to stay and become free.” 

A lack of power is the latest issue for Novak who, alongside his Depaul colleagues in Ukraine, has had to come up with innovative solutions to provide aid, such as working with couriers to distribute food and supplies and supporting people sheltering in a bunker in Kharkiv. 

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The charity’s latest efforts are focused on rebuilding homes damaged by conflict and keeping winter at bay. 

Depaul has been installing windows in cities, rebuilding damaged roofs and distributing firewood in villages around Kyiv. 

Elsewhere they are looking to the future. In cities across Ukraine that means setting up programmes to help children overcome the lasting psychological effects of the last year. 

Olga Zanozina, 27, is being supported by Depaul in Kyiv alongside her two young children. 

The trio were evacuated from Kupiansk near Kharkiv in September after spending two weeks hiding in a basement as the city was liberated by the Ukrainian army. 

“My children’s emotional state has improved since moving to Kyiv,” Zanozina tells The Big Issue. “They were very traumatised at first and they were flinching every time they heard a sound, even when my three-year-old girl heard a toilet flushing she would cover her head with her arms. After some time they have started to be more calm and they are improving. 

“We get food packages from Depaul. We’re very grateful for them because it would be difficult for us to cope without it.” 

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In the countryside the rebuilding has begun with Depaul helping people returning to liberated villages to restore destroyed buildings. 

“It is points like this where people can come back together as a community again,” says Father Novak. 

“The villages have been forgotten in a way but people are immediately trying to come back as soon as possible but they find their houses in ruins, so they start again from zero. We decided that we will support these communities.  

“But they know they are on free land. It’s very difficult but they are happy because they know what occupation means. The people start to value freedom again, when you lose it only then [do] you recognise its value.” 

Speaking as Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited European leaders, Father Novak says support from abroad has been bolstered by the hope felt by Ukrainians a year on. 

“It means you still care. It means you don’t forget,” he says. “It is building us up because we have to stand as long as it is needed on the side of freedom and independence.”

Depaul International’s Ukraine Winter Appeal is supporting the charity’s work in Ukraine. Donations can be made here.

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