What does your role with SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine encompass?
Since 2007, my work has been directed to the issues of children without parental care, protection of their rights and the child’s rights to a family.
As National Program Development Director, I am tasked with ensuring the quality of the services delivered by SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine, as well as with developing new services and new directions of work to ensure a systematic approach to child rights issues. Advocacy is also my responsibility, meaning cooperation and partnership with all important stakeholders from the government and non-government sector active in the field of child welfare throughout Ukraine.
For the last six years I have been leading the Ukrainian Child Rights Network. This network brings together 27 child protection organizations, including SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine, to coordinate their efforts on the national level to save and protect children.
How did you prepare for the current situation?
In 2014, when the war in Donbas started, I was working with a different organization in Donetsk. We managed to relocate all foster families and children who were in residential institutions on time.
When it became obvious that the country was facing war again, we started active communication with the government asking for preparatory steps. Then the war started suddenly with everything changing quickly. Many stakeholders started contacting me because they knew about my past experience.
It was unfortunate that despite the efforts made by SOS Children’s Villages and other stakeholders, including the Ukrainian Child Rights Network, the preparatory steps for evacuating children were not done on time.
We mapped all child care services in nine regions considered to be risk zones in case of a conflict. The mapping gave us data about the numbers of children living in foster families, as well as children in residential institutions. The nine regions were selected based on criteria we considered relevant, such as bordering Russia. We made a slight mistake because it turned out that actually ten regions are risk zones right now.
How many children live in these regions which are now risk zones?
The number of children living in these regions is around four million. Within these regions, about 1.5 million children live in hotspots—meaning cities and towns that are blocked at the moment, like Irpin, Mariupol, Bucha, Hostomel, Stanytsia Luhanska, Sievierodonetsk, Starobilsk and Popasna.
Some residential institutions from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions managed to evacuate the children to western Ukraine. Currently, there are problems evacuating children in the Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Sumy, Kherson, Zhytomyr and Chernihiv regions.
We are constantly monitoring the situation of the children in residential institutions there. On Saturday alone, we managed to relocate 150 children under three years old from four children's homes in Kharkiv. The staff of these homes didn’t want to leave, and evacuation of the children without them is illegal. We persuaded them for three days and ultimately succeeded.
The people on the ground who are supporting the evacuations are risking their own lives because the evacuation from risk zones often happens during shootings. There have been cases when the shooting started exactly at the moment of evacuation.
You have to choose between risks. On the one hand, you risk being isolated in a town or a city that is totally blocked without electricity, access to medicines or heating. On the other hand, you take a risk evacuataing knowing that shooting may start and you may not get out alive.
We know of a children's home with around 50 children living there in Vorzel, near Kyiv, that has been isolated for five days. Nobody knows what is happening there. Nobody has access. We used to have contact with volunteers and the director of the home, but now contact of any kind is not possible. They don’t have phone connection, and the physical access is blocked.
Through our network and together with the Commissioner for Children's Rights, we are trying to monitor and consolidate the situation.
How can you help them?
I wrote a letter to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child asking about opening humanitarian corridor, which was facilitated through our advocacy colleagues. Humanitarian corridors are being negotiated between the Ukrainian government and the Russian Federation.
There was an attempt for a humanitarian corridor from Mariupol and nobody managed to get out. The Russians forces are opening fire towards buses full of people or on people walking while evacuating. All of this is happening under fire. There is, in fact, no humanitarian corridor.
People are leaving on their own and taking with them only what they can carry. Ukrainian soldiers help them by carrying children and those who cannot move.
On Sunday, a family with two children died during such evacuation in Irpin. They were about to cross a bridge, where the Ukrainian soldiers were helping the people. At that moment, fire was opened and two children were killed. That's how the evacuation goes.
What is the situation in the towns and cities that are blocked?
There are risks for dying not just from bullets, but from hunger and freezing. This is exactly why we need to urgently have functional humanitarian corridors. People are hiding in cold basements. There are basements with hundreds of children.
In the basement where I was we had some water and bread, but now you can’t buy anything. The shops are not operating in the blocked towns and cities. Food is a problem. There is no heating and the temperature in the night was -46o F. There is no electricity in the blocked towns, so people cannot charge their phones. They cannot use generators anymore because there is no fuel to run them.
There are many babies among the people in the basements. Their mothers cannot breastfeed them because many started to lose their milk, and they cannot give them baby formula because it’s not available. Many children are at serious risk of dying from hunger.
How are your children?
I have two daughters. The older one is 19. She went through this already when she was 11 and we had to leave our home in Donetsk.
For her, war happening again is a huge tragedy. It was because of her that we didn’t leave our home in Irpin until two days ago. She said, "I don't want to lose my home again. I don't want to lose my home for the second time."
My younger daughter is almost three years old. We were making up fairy tales for her and saying that the sound of bombs is thunder. Yesterday when we were driving to western Ukraine, she would ask, "What is that noise? This is shooting, right?"
It’s crushing to know that even though I have two daughters with an age difference of 17 years, both of them have already experienced war.
Are you considering evacuating abroad?
I get many offers to move to a safer place, and I am very grateful. At the moment, we are staying [in western Ukraine]. My husband cannot leave Ukraine [because of the general mobilization]. We are together and want to stay together for as long as possible. It’s very difficult to predict the situation. If we see that here it will not be safe anymore, then we will look for a safer place.
As long as I can stay here, I will keep the work of SOS Children’s Villages going. I will do everything possible.
What is SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine planning?
We need to focus on the humanitarian actions in the areas where there are most internally displaced people from the most affected regions of Ukraine. We will continue to coordinate the relocation of foster families from the country to safer places.
One of our biggest tasks is to support our staff. We must help them to stabilize emotionally. They need psychological support to be able to continue working, otherwise, we will lose them.
It's time to focus our support on our staff so that they are able to continue to work.
Many describe you as a hero. What do you say to this?
I don't think I am hero or brave. I think that women, in conditions of stress or shock, don't fall apart. I pulled myself together, focused and concentrated. This is a way of self-protection.
I dove into the work. I tried to analyze what can be done, where we can focus, the resources I need and what needs to be done. The situation is very uncertain. If you think about the uncertainty, you may really lose your mind and that is not the way out.
I try to focus on what I can do well. We all are thinking of how to help children and colleagues in this situation. There is no sense to panic. The terrible events that have been happening in Ukraine for years now have somehow prepared us for all of this.
We are trying to save families and we are happy to see it work. We also clearly understand that it is not going to get better anytime soon. It will be a very challenging situation for adults, staff and children above all for a long time. The consequences of this war may last even for a decade, we are aware of this.
Do you have any message to the colleagues of SOS Children’s Villages around the world?
Thanks to everyone who is standing with Ukraine and is expressing solidarity. Thanks to the people who are helping and supporting. The children and families of Ukraine need your help and support.
I want to everyone to know that what is happening here in Ukraine, in Europe, this is the hell of hell. I want everyone to know that we are in hell.
For media inquiries, please contact Rachel Taschenberger, Director of Branding and Content (SOS Children's Villages USA), by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.