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‘We just don’t want Europe to leave us in this terrible situation’: The view from the ground in Ukraine

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine rages on, an aid worker at the organisation Narodna Dopomoha, based in the western city of Chernivtsi, tells The Big Issue how it is affecting people on the frontline.

As war rages on in Ukraine, an aid worker in the west of the country has spoken of the efforts to welcome refugees and asked people across the world to do all they can to help.

Anastasiya Beridze works for Narodna Dopomoha in Chernivtsi, near the border with Romania. The organisation was previously linked to street paper Gazeta Kiev published in the capital city Kyiv, which, along with The Big Issue, is part of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP).

It has been working with internally displaced people in Ukraine since the conflict instigated in Russian military forces in the country’s eastern Donbas region in 2014. The organisation’s work has increased dramatically since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.

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Beridze spoke to The Big Issue about the work the team are doing at this uncertain and tragic time for the people of Ukraine.

The Big Issue: How is your organisation working at the moment?

Anastasiya Beridze: We are continuing our work as an NGO. Previously we worked with people experiencing homelessness, but in the years since the conflict in eastern Ukraine [Russian forces have instigated conflict in the country’s Donbas region since 2014] we started to work with internally displaced people and realised a lot of projects with these groups. And now we are working with refugees from other parts of the country affected by the escalating conflict and war, with people coming from Kyiv and other affected regions.

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What are some of the things you’ve been doing for these people?

We have an estimated 6,000 refugees in Chernivtsi now from different parts of Ukraine, and this number is increasing each day because people continue to keep coming. We organise a welcome for people coming to the town. They can stay here and drink hot drinks, and we provide food and meals and also a place to rest and sleep because people usually have spent three or four days on the journey to get here. We help them to find housing and shelter in the town, in different ways. We really use our previous beneficiaries who have already come from past years. And the residents of the town.

The city council organises a lot of places too. So, we try to help these people. And also help to get them high value items like medicine and clothes because people are coming here without anything.

So, where you are is safe for the moment and far from the conflict?

Well, safe yes but not so far now. When the conflict started, it was 1,000 kilometres away and now it’s more like 500 kilometres, because now Kyiv is a very dangerous place, and is attacked each day. So, people from the Kyiv region and places in the central part of Ukraine are where the majority of people we are working with are currently coming from.

In Chernivtsi, now, no we haven’t experienced any attacks. But we are waiting for that situation. We are very close to Romania and a lot of people say that there are no attacks here because Romania is so close and that means the EU is close, but we will see what happens.

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The war is affecting all Ukrainians but can you say much about how this conflict is affecting people who are already marginalised?

It’s difficult to say now really. But we can say that the people who can currently move through Ukraine, these refugees, are not from marginalised or vulnerable groups. It is usual Ukrainians who have cars, families, and enough funds and money to do this and travel. But these other groups, those living in poverty for example, are those who are suffering worst because they are having to stay in the cities which are being attacked now.

In Chernivtsi, we continue our work with people who are homeless, our centres and shelters are working, people are safe here. So, in our region it is normal for now. But not in Kyiv, or Kharkiv, which has been almost completely destroyed. So, the people who stay there, especially families, big families with children, are very vulnerable, and many people have already died.

How has your worked changed over the years since the 2014 conflict started and how has it changed now?

Well, we were always continuing our work with homeless communities, this was very separate. But when the original invasion in the eastern regions began, and we started working with internally displaced people, Chernivtsi didn’t receive that many refugees as, of course, people went to the bigger more resourced cities like Kyiv. But we worked with them, they lived here and have become part of our community. But now it is expected that our region, and the area at Lviv near the Polish border, will be the focal point for both those refugees and new ones.

We have been seeing how the UK government has reacted slowly to how to facilitate Ukrainians coming here, and we don’t have an idea of how many might end up placed here. While elsewhere, we’ve seen nearly half a million people have fled the country already for nearby nations like Romania, Hungary and Poland. What are you seeing? Are people already moving on from you to these other places?

Yes, a lot of people now are taking the opportunity to cross the border into Romania, Poland, Slovakia, and a lot of people from our organisation of course are moving to Romania because it’s the closest border. But due to Ukraine’s mobilisation efforts, it’s only women and children and the elderly who can make these kinds of moves. Men from their late teens to 60 years old are to remain due to the possibility that they may be called up to fight.

How are you feeling about the near future as things remain so uncertain?

Of course, we are hoping for peace. But to be honest, it looks like Russia will continue their attack efforts. The discussions between our governments in Belarus were inconclusive. There seems to be very little agreement between both sides. And so, I think it will continue.

In the next days, weeks, months, we will see a lot more people coming to us. Kharkiv is almost totally ruined, and of course we are worried about Kyiv because if it goes the same way, Ukraine as a state will be in a very difficult position.

How can people in other countries help and support your organisation and others like it?

I think the first thing people should do is speak about the situation as much as possible because it’s not, in the end, just about Ukraine and Russia – the whole of Europe is vulnerable after the most recent statements from Vladimir Putin about his intentions.

For us specifically, you can go to our Facebook page where we are publishing information about how to support us. A lot of our partners from Austria, Germany and other countries have sent us money to help others. We just don’t want Europe to leave us in this terrible situation. It’s the 21st century and war in this era should not be happening, it should be stopped.

Courtesy of the International Network of Street Papers

This interview is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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