Oksana is a Ukrainian refugee, working at the clothing distribution center in Szczecin, Poland. Volunteering has given Oksana a wide network and a sense of meaning in a difficult situation. Refugees coming into the center receive clothes and other necessities but also exchange information and talk with each other. The center has become a community of sorts, where everyone wants to help each other.

On the 23rd of February 2022 Oksana packed her swimming suit and flew from Kiev to Egypt to spend her holiday in the sun. She could never have imagined then that six months later she would still not have returned home. On the 24th of February the armed conflict started in Ukraine and Oksana’s holiday turned into a nightmare.

Oksana comes from Kiev where she worked in administration management at a big company. She is now in Poland with her daughter who joined her in June, but the rest of her family is still in Ukraine.

Travelling to Poland

Being far from her family when the conflict broke out was difficult. Oksana’s only consolation was to stay in close contact with everyone back in Ukraine, to make sure that they were okay. She could not get a plane ticket back to Ukraine, but after some time the Egyptian government organized for Ukrainians to get on a flight to Europe, to Szczecin in Poland – a place Oksana did not know from before. When she arrived, she was taken to a hotel where she stayed until she was moved to permanent housing. She used the time at the hotel to start getting to know the town and her new surroundings.

For five days we were at the hotel. And during this time, we started to search everything about the city, about the situation, because at first, we don’t know what to do, what to think and what the next steps will be for us.

At the start of the conflict, Oksana’s husband was in the occupied territory of Irpin and they had managed to stay in regular contact. However, on the 5th of March, just when she flew out of Egypt, she lost contact with him. She was very worried because she knew that the conditions were hard in Irpin.

Photo credit: Brynja Dögg Friðriksdóttir / IFRC

Volunteering to deal with stress and uncertainty

Oksana’s anxiety levels were running very high. It was only when she reached out to the Polish Red Cross and found the clothing distribution center, that she felt useful, and it helped to keep the anxieties in check. During the first month she worked every day, without days off from 8am to 7pm. From May she started working 3 days a week.

At the distribution center they give out clothes and other necessary products. All the refugees have travelled with little luggage and need many things, especially when seasons change. Oksana herself arrived in Poland in the winter equipped only with her summer clothes.

Many people coming to Szczecin … had never before traveled outside of Ukraine. But here they find themselves all in the same situation, traveling with only one suitcase.

Through donations from Poland and other European countries the refugees get clothes, groceries, and hygiene supplies. But the center has also become a hub where the refugees come together to talk and to exchange information and to help each other. It has become a community of sorts. Oksana gets a lot of questions from people who don’t know the language and she is happy to help them. Through her work she has developed a network and knowledge that she is happy to share with people in the same situation as her.

We share all the information that we have and that we can share with each other. There are a lot of questions now, a lot of people don’t know the language but, in this situation, we want to help everyone, and everyone want to help each other.

Oksana says that Ukrainian refugees have a strong need to talk to each other. It gives them strength to deal with their fear and their stress. Everyone is monitoring the news and are in contact with their loved ones back at home. It gives a sense of belonging getting together and to talk.

Women and children

The center gets many visits from women with babies and young children. They may have come into the country without strollers or diapers and other necessities. It is especially difficult for them, coming with their children to a foreign country in a distressing situation. But Oksana stresses that these women have a lot of strength and that they are holding up together also in these unfamiliar circumstances. They help each other and follow each other on the road. Oksana smiles when she talks about a woman who was pregnant the first time she came to the center, and now has a little baby.

Our volunteers are our heroes

Oksana is often asked why she is volunteering and not looking for a paid job. She says that volunteering gives her a sense of meaning. She has always loved people and she wants to help. It is a way to handle her stress. But she also has very positive experiences of volunteers in Ukraine. They are the real heroes, she says. It was volunteers in Irpin who helped her husband get back to Kiev. Oksana says that this thought helps her.

Oksana ends by saying that she believes in peace in Ukraine and that she will be able to go home.

This article was written by IFRC’s Minna Guigon-Sell (CEA Communications Consultant)

Carla Guananga is a social communicator. She started her career at the Red Cross working for her national society, the Ecuadorian Red Cross. She then moved to the IFRC where she found her calling with the Community Engagement and Accountability (CEA) team.

I fell in love with CEA and that’s what I do now, and I can’t imagine myself doing something different… I think working directly with the communities, improving our work, it’s amazing, it’s something magic.

When the armed conflict started in Ukraine, she wanted to help and traveled to Poland during the third surge rotation. She tells us about her job and how important Community Engagement is during an Emergency. 

Poland Calling

When the armed conflict began and the surge positions started popping up, Carla immediately wanted to apply, initially planning to go during the first rotation. However, many CEA trainings took place during this period and so her departure got delayed. In the end she went for the third rotation and stayed in Poland from mid-March to mid-July.

In the beginning Carla was a bit nervous: because of the emergency of course, but also because of all the great work that had already been done there and how she would be able to catch-up. But the team was very friendly, welcoming, and helpful and she caught-up quickly – a testament to the fantastic teamwork going on there. Things also happen so fast in an emergency setting, she says, and all the great and impressive work that is developed in Poland is a product of this amazing teamwork.

Working in emergency settings  

“When you are not working in an emergency it’s really easy to have a plan.”

During her two years at the IFRC, Carla has already worked in two emergencies. The first one at the very beginning of her employment: the COVID-19 pandemic. The second one the Ukraine emergency. In between, she has done many non-emergency missions and so is well-placed to tell us about the difference between non-emergency and emergency responses.

In non-emergency settings, she says, there is time to establish a plan before the trainings: to create tools and documents and to work with your national society and the focal points. In short, there is time for thorough background work. During trainings in an emergency, all this background work is not always possible. “You often have to improvise and use your creativity”, Carla laughs.

When Carla organized trainings in Poland, she created brand-new training packages, as CEA was a new concept to the communities there. She says that CEA was a whole new notion for most of the participants and it had never been applied within their national societies. So, she created new trainings to suit this context.

Another challenge was the language barriers. Being used to work in Spanish and English, this was a new situation for Carla. And it was particularly tricky, because she was in Poland but often worked with Ukrainian refugees who didn’t necessarily speak Polish either, so there was a mix of English, Polish and Ukrainian in the CEA trainings. She got all the material translated and then conducted the trainings with the support of a translator, in Polish or Ukrainian, depending on the context.

“The language barriers are really present and not only with the volunteers but with the staff as well and of course with the communities as well.”

This is a complex situation. What do you need to be successful? Carla says that she learned a lot every day, and the fact that she had an understanding boss who supported her was very important and helped her succeed in the mission.

Are there typical days in emergency contexts?

Carla says that she had three different types of day. The office day, the days at the information line, and the days when she went to see the shelters or to visit the different branches.

Two or three times a week she went to the information line, which was placed outside the city. There were six amazing women, themselves Ukrainian refugees, working the line. She talked with them about issues they may have encountered, how they addressed them and what they may need to improve the response.

Other days she would go to visit branches where they had meetings, trainings or implemented programs, for example cash voucher assistance (CVA). Carla says that, during these days, an important element was to have lunch and eat together.

Because to share food with the people is a really important part to engage with people… you have really interesting conversations…that you don’t have in formal meetings.

She also made visits to the shelters and other facilities to explore opportunities to set up CVA programs. And she worked on CEA internally with the volunteers and the volunteer team.

CEA in Ukraine response

Carla felt that the CEA component was very important and appreciated in the Ukraine response. For example, when she created the feedback report for Poland, it was widely shared by the Budapest team. She felt that the information was useful and acute for the whole operation, which was really encouraging.

Carla also points out that she worked during the third rotation, which means that they already started to have some feedback from the communities and to know more than at the beginning of the emergency about the different necessities. Right now, the emergency response is going into its next phase, Carla says. It’s moving from emergency to recovery. This means starting to look at the future of the operation and what will be needed longer term – for example extending the CVA for livelihoods, shelters, and other areas.

At the end I ask Carla if there is anything else she would like to add. She says that she wants to say that she is a mom with two kids. She wants to say to all mothers out there that it’s possible to have children and at the same time to do a lot of good work for the world.

This article was written by IFRC’s Minna Guigon-Sell (CEA Communications Consultant)

Photo credit: Carla Guanga

Running a nation-wide Information Centre during an Emergency

When there is conflict in a country, emergency responses for the communities need to be put in place quickly. For actors in the field this can lead to new vocations. This has been the experience of Volodymyr Havryiluk and Andriy Maryniak who are running the Ukrainian Red Cross (URCS) Information Center in Lviv, Ukraine.  Volodymyr, coordinator of the info center, has a degree in HR and private sector economy. Andriy, deputy coordinator and Vladimir’s right hand-man, studied history and is a teacher by training. When the conflict started all this changed and they stumbled on this new vocation at the URCS.

For Ukrainians in need for information or help, there is a number on the webpage, Facebook and Instagram of the URCS. On the other side of the call, in the background handling the processes, are Volodymyr and Andriy. With patience and understanding of the difficult situations of both the people calling in and the operators, they work tirelessly to make sure that everyone gets the information, humanitarian aid and help that they need.

A Nation-Wide Information Center

The information center is based in western Ukraine, Lviv. Lviv stands at the heart for people seeking shelter during the conflict. The information center is based in western Ukraine, Lviv. Lviv stands at the heart for people seeking shelter during the conflict. However, the night before the interview alarms were heard also here. 

The center gets calls from everywhere in Ukraine. They then send the requests to the regional offices. “We try to provide only one phone number, one email address. It’s simpler, so that every part of Ukraine can call one number… It’s very hard to remember five phone numbers – one is easier.” – Andriy explains. People also hear about them through word-to-mouth. Volodymyr and Andriy talks about a time when a call came in from a small town in the eastern region. The regional branch provided them with help and suddenly calls came in from all the small towns in the region because word had spread that the URCS was working and helping.

Before the conflict, there was an existing small-scale information center, originally set-up during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the conflict, the requests increased and the need for help grew drastically. Volodymyr and Andriy assisted in expanding the center. They helped finding a place, rented an office and started working. The center, as it is today, was fully up-and-running on the 3rd of May.

The information center is now operated by 14 people, many of whom are themselves Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s). They get up to 15-20 000 calls a week. This is a vast number of calls – do they work 24 hours a day? “No”, they respond. The center is open from 8 am to 7 pm. They monitor the peak times to have sufficient capacity then. For now, having night shifts and work during holidays is not a priority – on the contrary – they need to manage all the requests coming in during working hours. They can currently respond to approximately 30 – 50 % of the requests but are in the process of hiring more operators to be able to adequately handle all the calls.

Photo credit: Hugo Nijentap

Three departments, four lines

All the calls coming in are divided into three departments depending on the request. The first department is an “ordinary” information hotline, the second is for psychological support and the third one is to Restore Family Links (RFL). Calling the general number, you get directed to the appropriate department. A fourth line that handles the requests coming in through email, messenger, and the chat-bot is recently set up.

Today, most requests concern humanitarian aid – people who lost their homes, who lost everything, get in touch. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) ask for temporary shelter, food, and hygiene products. When they return, they may also ask for help to start rebuilding their homes – these requests now come mainly from the Kiev region as people are starting to return there.

Many requests for financial aid also come in– people ask for vouchers and financial support programs. Many have lost their jobs and their income due to the conflict and they need help to be able to support themselves.

They also get many requests to Restore Family Lines (RFL) – there are really many of them, they say. People have lost touch of friends and family during conflict.

Volodymyr and Andriy point out that armed conflict is especially difficult for people with disabilities and older populations and that they get a lot of requests for home care. Knowing how to help is best done through active community engagement.

Volodymyr Havryiluk (left) and Andriy Maryniak (right)

Community Feedback

This information center, at the heart of the emergency response, is an important community engagement hub in Ukraine. Most operators are IDP’s themselves and have been through traumatizing experiences, which makes them well-placed to understand and respond to the requests of the caller. They handle the requests that come in primarily in Ukrainian but also in Russian. The important thing is that everyone feels comfortable with the language they use.

The center gets information about people’s needs in real time. They can then provide information directly back to those who needs it, but they also collect feedback, conduct analysis, and notify the needs to other branches such as the URCS, IFRC and the ICRC. Getting feedback from the community is immensely important, they say, even just to be able to give the right help to each person.

Right now, for instance, there is a big medical emergency in Ukraine. People need access to both medical services and medicines. It’s difficult to get hold of, for example, high-value cancer medicines. Volodymyr and Andriy puts this into their reports so that other organizations can pick it up and hopefully provide help.

Focus on mental health and feedback sessions

Working in such high-pressure environment demands a lot of feedback sessions. There is a weekly meeting where everyone can bring their questions and they are discussed and processed together. At the beginning of each workday, Volodymyr and Andriy do a 15-minute information session to make sure the operators are up to date before the start of the day.

The center also provides mental health help. If the operator receives a very difficult call there is always a possibility to take some time off, have a break, go for a walk, or just think about it. This is important. They also have operators with a diploma in psychology who can help and give professional support in a critical situation.

This article was written by IFRC’s Minna Guigon-Sell (CEA Communications Consultant)

Photo credit: Hugo Nijentap