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A centre for internally displaced people in Yavoriv, Ukraine. Allen Kiely/GOAL

'It's absolutely terrifying': Charity workers on the shock and despair faced by displaced Ukrainians

Doctors say Russia’s targeting of civilians is having a severe impact on many Ukrainians mental health.

MORE THAN TWO months after Russia launched its massive assault, many Ukrainians still can’t believe what’s unfolding in their country, charity workers on the ground say.

“I think there’s still disbelief that this is happening,” GOAL’s Dr Georgina Jordan explains.

“There’s two types of shock; One is that they’ve seen terrible things on the way out and the full reality of it hasn’t hit them yet.

“The other type of shock is, maybe they didn’t see terrible things the way out, and they still don’t believe what’s happening,” the charity’s head of emergency response says.

GOAL has been in Ukraine since 2014, when war broke out between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region.

It recently established an operational base in the Lviv oblast, in western Ukraine.

In the east of the country, where Russia has now consolidated its assault, the Irish charity is working with local partners to supply essential items such as hygiene products and food.

In the west there’s a greater emphasis on safeguarding, mental health support and preventing sexual exploitation.

It recently successfully delivered hygiene and food kits into hard-to access areas close to the frontlines of the conflict.

“We’re delighted that we were able to do that, through local partners, because that’s really where you’ll have the most impact,” Jordan explained.

“The worst needs are in the east because there it’s the people who didn’t have the socio-economic means or the physical strength to leave. They just weren’t able to get out.”

Mental health 

Sandrine Tillier of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) says Russia’s targeting of civilians – such as the Kramatorsk railway station attack – is causing major issues, both in terms of physical injuries and the impact on people’s mental health.

A total of 59 people were killed and 109 were injured in the missile strike on the station earlier this month. The Ukrainian government and its allies have blamed Russia for the attack but the Kremlin has denied involvement. 

Doctors and aid workers are continuously reporting that many Ukrainians are suffering from trauma from what they have experienced since Russia launched its invasion. 

fourth-msf-train-referral-arrives-lviv Médecins Sans Frontières is operating a medical train that transfers patients from eastern areas to safer parts of Ukraine. Maurizio Debanne / MSF Maurizio Debanne / MSF / MSF

People who have repeatedly experienced traumatic events – such as shelling or displacement – are likely to develop depression or stress and anxiety disorders.

“The main issue here is the fact that civilians are under attack, and there’s no real safeguards for civilians… It’s an absolutely terrifying situation, especially if you’re in the areas near the frontline.

“There are over seven million people in Ukraine who are displaced and the biggest need we’ve seen with that displaced population is really around mental health. The idea that you can’t really feel safe anywhere, it’s very pervasive and very difficult to manage. We see a sort of generalised state of anxiety,” Tillier said.

The medical support NGO is active across Ukraine, providing humanitarian assistance to internally displaced Ukrainians, supporting hospitals that have received evacuated patients and operating a specially equipped medical train that transfers patients from eastern areas to safer parts of Ukraine. 

MSF also supports Ukrainian medics on the frontline to prepare hospitals for mass casualty events.

As well as this the charity is concentrating on supporting the needs of elderly and vulnerable people whose care has been disrupted as they either decided to stay in their homes or were left behind.

“Something like hypertension, which is no big deal if you miss your pills for a day or two, can actually escalate very quickly, especially because people are under a huge amount of stress. Seemingly minor manageable, chronic conditions can really deteriorate,” Tillier said.


In western areas of Ukraine and in Poland, GOAL is placing a greater emphasis of its work on safeguarding efforts, making internally displaced people aware of their rights and entitlements and preventing exploitation.

Like anything else in the world, 99% of people are good, but that 1% – This is their dream. 

“This is a human trafficker’s dream, because there’s all these people coming across and they can be picked up from the border, promised this, that and the other and be whisked away and never seen again. There’s massive protection issues, there really is,” Jordan explained.

The aid expert says working with local NGO Right to Protection makes this significantly easier as it helps overcome language barriers and cultural differences. 

“It has to be done in a really sensitive way. You can’t just walk up to people and say ‘are you being sexually abused’, it has to be sensitive. That’s why local partners are so important.”

idp-centre-in-yavoriv-ukraine-photo-allen-kiely GOAL has been in Ukraine since 2014 and recently established an operational base in Lviv. Allen Kiely / GOAL Allen Kiely / GOAL / GOAL

Jordan explained that the mental health supports are targeted at different groups including the most vulnerable.

“They look at at-risk individuals – such as families in the temporary shelters – and implement what we call ‘psychological first aid’, active listening, all of those things. They’re experts on that; working to avoid depression, PTSD and other long term mental health disorders,” Jordan said.

The psychological work takes place in both online and offline situations through group sessions and one-on-one person consultations.

Jordan says peoples’ expectations about the upheaval the war will cause and when they expect normal life to resume can have a significant impact on the toll afflicted on their mental health.

“I have friends who left Syria with a backpack 10 years ago and haven’t been back since. Are people thinking this will be for a month? Or are they realising they may be here for longer because this is really important in terms of resilience and mental health. 

“If you think this is a temporary situation, you let behaviours go that you wouldn’t in the long term or you don’t deal with things. But if you know you’re going to be here for at least two years, you start to mentally think ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to do this?’”

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