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Ukrainian city of Lviv faces a humanitarian crisis as over 200,000 seek refuge

The picturesque city has become the epicentre of Ukraine’s refugee crisis.

THE CITY OF Lviv is home to 750,000 people and is normally known for its architecture and medieval churches which earned it a UNESCO world heritage status.

The picturesque West Ukrainian city has found itself suddenly at the epicentre of Ukraine’s refugee crisis, as people fleeing the Russian invasion swell the city’s numbers by 200,000.

Lviv’s location and rail links mean that it has become a transit hub for those travelling to Poland. Over 1 million people have passed through it since the invasion began.

Bn2TmqB-0!sizeoriginal (1) Anna Nazarevych, a coordinator with the Red Cross in Ukraine Source: Hannah McCarthy

Anna Nazarevych, a coordinator with the Red Cross in Ukraine, has been working at Lviv Station every day since the invasion began at the end of February.

“At the height of the evacuations, we had to limit buses to Poland to mothers with 1-year-old babies,” she told The Journal.

“Lviv now has one of the biggest refugee populations of any city in the world,” said the city’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, at a press briefing on Monday.

“We would like to express gratitude for the help already provided but it is unfortunately not enough,” the mayor said. “We would ask international organisations to share the burden.”

IMG_9840 Lviv's mayor, Andriy Sadovyi

Traumatised children stream into Lviv

The Russian invasion mobilised Ukrainians across the country to both take up arms and help people fleeing war in Eastern parts of the country.

At Lviv Station, NGOs and church groups, as well as locals coming by themselves to see what they can do, are helping to deliver food, medical support, and information to families that are streaming in from the East.

Many of the children arriving in the city have been evacuated from cities that have witnessed heavy Russian bombardments and have spent days in bunkers.

 “When the air raid sirens went off on Sunday, everyone started to panic at the train station,” said Nazarevych.

Giuliano Stochino-Weiss is working on the ground in Lviv with The Hungarian Interchurch Aid (HIA), a partner of Christian Aid. 

He described speaking with a mother at a shelter who was looking after her two children, as well as the two children of her sister who had passed away. The children’s fathers were both fighting on the frontline. 

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“They left during bombing attacks and now the children can’t sleep,” Stochino-Weiss said. “They asked their mum if there were playgrounds and air raid sirens in Poland.” 

The Red Cross has set up psychological support tents at Lviv Station to help people who need assistance, particularly due to bombing attacks. The tents also serve as a sort of crèche where volunteers will play with children while exhausted mothers rest and plan where to go next and how. 

Lviv struggling to provide appropriate accommodation

In the city famous for its cultural life, 500 theatres, educational institutions and sporting centres are now hosting people displaced from across Ukraine.  “We are using all the resources of the city,” said Sadovyi.

Many families in Lviv are now living in spaces that were never designed for living though. 

In the historic old town, staff at Lviv’s Puppet Theatre shifted overnight from performing puppetry to delivering humanitarian support to people fleeing war. 

DSC00056 Slava Kuriko from Lviv Puppet Theatre

Families from Bucha, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Irpin and the Donetsk region – all under occupation or fire from Russian forces – have been staying at the theatre while they plan whether to stay in Lviv or keep moving. 

Meals are delivered every day as there are no cooking facilities at the theatre. An estimated 25,000 meals are being supplied every day by local businesses in Lviv. 

There is a lack of beds, cots, and mattresses in emergency accommodation across the cities, as well as child-friendly spaces for the tens of thousands of children now living in the city.

Sadovyi has issued a request to international aid organisations to provide tents with kitchen facilities, as well as mobile hygiene units.

A prolonged war will stretch local resources to the limit

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While it feels longer to many. Ukraine is only three weeks into a conflict that looks set to continue for months. “We are just at the beginning of a massive IDP [internally displaced people] crisis,” said Stochino-Weiss.

International NGO Mercy Corps began working in Ukraine following the 2014 war where Russia annexed Crimea. 

The aid organisation’s regional director Alan Glasgow said that “while 3 million people have left Ukraine, around 40 million are still in the country. If even 25% of them are displaced that’s 10 million people who need support – and the actual number is likely to be higher than that.”

A prolonged war and the economic impact of the invasion will stretch the ability of local NGOs and volunteers in Ukraine to continue to deliver support. 

Livelihoods and incomes will be lost, savings will dwindle, and many Ukrainians will find themselves supporting multiple displaced family members  

At Monday’s press briefing, Sadovyi recognised that the closure of kindergartens and the use of schools to accommodate refugees has created problems. 

While many men have left to join war efforts in the East, women in Lviv have been struggling to work and care for their children by themselves.

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So far, 67,000 children have enrolled in online school programmes in Lviv, but substantial resources are required to provide access to education for the thousands of displaced children.

Supporting local partners in Ukraine

There has been a large concentration of NGOs working along the Ukrainian border in Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova. 

“I would like to see more partners on the ground in Ukraine though,” said Stochino-Weiss, who believes that risk aversion among NGOs is stopping the comprehensive and massive response that needs to be delivered fast in Ukraine, rather than in border countries. 

“We need to get this response right,” he said.

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“Our aim is to channel the amazing volunteer and civil society response into a professional response,” Stochino-Weiss said. “This means helping these organisations and church institutions, who are already the frontline of the response, with money and training.” 

This type of support involves hiring local staff, financial support and training. 

HIA, for example, is training local NGOs in Lviv on producing a standard food basket including what should be its nutritional composition and what not to distribute. For example, HIA doesn’t provide milk formula in food baskets, as there is a risk that it could be mixed with dirty water that would be harmful to babies. 

Enabling displaced people to make their own purchasing decisions  

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Markets and food supply networks are still broadly functioning in West Ukraine. This means giving cash is in many cases preferable to providing displaced people with donated items.

Mercy Corps is focusing on cash transfer programmes for groups that overwhelmingly consist of mothers and their children, as men stay to fight.

“This will allow these women to make their own purchasing decisions in terms of things like food, nappies and cell phone credit,” said Glasgow. “They know what they need the best.”

Stochino-Weiss encouraged the public to provide NGOs with cash support rather than with donated goods. This allows the aid response to respond to the specific needs of displaced people, as well as for a prolonged conflict, he said

“The media cycle is usually about two or three weeks and then the reality is that people typically get tired – this is why we always request cash.”

About the author:

Hannah McCarthy

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