Editor’s Note: This story was sponsored by East Europe Foundation, a Ukrainian non-profit charitable organization that helps Ukrainians affected by Russia’s all-out war.
Maryna Voloshyna could barely hold back her tears when she stood at a crowded train station in Donetsk Oblast on a cold morning in late March last year.
With her youngest seven-month-old baby boy in her arms and her three other children at her side, Voloshyna was awaiting an evacuation train to escape Russia's brutal war raging near her hometown, Bakhmut, in the east of Ukraine.
The 39-year-old knew she and her children were welcome to stay at her relatives' home in the relatively safe Cherkasy Oblast in central Ukraine. Yet, leaving everything behind felt scary for Voloshyna, especially since she was fleeing with little money and only one suitcase packed for a family of five.
Just like Voloshyna, millions of Ukrainians were forced to flee their homes when Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year. Currently, 4.8 million internally displaced persons are registered nationwide. But the actual number of IDPs is much higher, estimated at around 7 million, according to Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.
Many of them, including Voloshyna, had to start their lives from scratch in unfamiliar settlements as the war has destroyed their homes or even their entire hometowns.
Luckily for Voloshyna, she wasn't left without help upon arrival.
She applied for humanitarian aid funded by East Europe Foundation, a Ukrainian non-profit organization that supports internally displaced Ukrainians, among its other projects, by funding humanitarian and psychological assistance and equipping shelters.
According to the Ministry for Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories, IDPs over 18 years old from eight war-affected Ukrainian oblasts can receive monthly state payments of Hr 2,000 (around $52). The payment is slightly higher for children and people with disabilities — Hr 3,000 ($78) — but is still insufficient to cover even basic needs of IDPs.
Under the Shelter initiative, launched in March last year, the foundation has already helped to equip 65 shelters for IDPs in 14 Ukrainian oblasts. They have also delivered 275 tons of humanitarian aid across 20 Ukrainian oblasts and helped to distribute over 9,000 food packages to Ukrainian IDPs.
"We decided to cover all the urgent needs as much as possible," the project's manager, Olha Moloko, told the Kyiv Independent.
Thanks to East Europe Foundation, Voloshyna has been receiving a free package of essentials that includes food and hygiene products for her and her children once a month. She says the amount of help was enough to last the family about a month.
"Such help is essential," Voloshyna told the Kyiv Independent. "You feel that someone cares about you. It gives moral support as well," she added.
Starting from scratch
For Voloshyna, leaving Bakhmut was a tough decision to make. She describes her pre-war hometown as "beautiful, calm, and friendly." Now, however, Voloshyna has nowhere to return.
"I had an apartment, my mother had a house, and my sister had an apartment (in Bakhmut) too. Nothing is left there," she says.
Bakhmut, the current epicenter of the war in Ukraine, has been left almost entirely in ruins and is nearly empty of its pre-war population of 70,000.
After fleeing the city, Voloshyna, her four children, her mother, and her sister with a child have nestled at their relatives' house in the village of Vodianyky, Cherkasy Oblast. Voloshyna's fifth and oldest son joined them in August after fleeing Bakhmut due to intensified attacks.
Even though they were extremely grateful to their relatives for hosting them, Voloshyna says they didn't want to cause them any inconvenience and decided to rent a house on their own. Since they didn't have enough money to pay the rent, they were lucky to find people who allowed them to pay only for utilities.
Voloshyna says she and her mother tried earning some cash by taking seasonal jobs in the village, but it wasn't enough for them to feed the whole family. So the help that she received from East Europe Foundation — which included not only food but also hygiene products, towels and bed linen — has been crucial.
Moloko says that as soon as the all-out war began, they "started thinking how to help." And the Shelter project became one of their ways to respond to the "challenge of the times."
It adds to the broad portfolio of East Europe Foundation, which also includes programs aimed at pursuing the digitalization of state services in Ukraine and supporting the country's civil society.
Back in March, they started by crowdfunding nearly $16,000 on the GoFundMe platform, which allowed the organization to transport humanitarian aid to centers for IDPs in Ukraine.
With the further help of their partners and donors, such as the Embassy of Denmark in Ukraine, Fondation de France, Eurasia Foundation, Sy Syms Foundation, and the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund, the nonprofit raised over $1.5 million and began providing grants to smaller local charities all over Ukraine for them to implement equipping shelters for IDPs, as well as distribute humanitarian aid and provide psychological assistance.
They oversee and support the charities that receive their grants throughout the project and launch educational programs for them.
"Local organizations have the expertise, and they know exactly what is happening in their region, what exactly the needs are there," says the foundation's communication manager Viktoriia Gladchenko.
"They can identify people who need certain help," Gladchenko adds.
Over 6,700 Ukrainian IDPs have been hosted at the shelters East Europe Foundation helped to equip. Almost 75,000 people have received humanitarian aid.
The shelters are mainly located in Ukraine's central and western regions, where the number of internally displaced persons is high. Most of them are based in dormitories, schools, or kindergartens, and some are in hospitals, Moloko says.
According to her, the foundation helps in supplying shelters with different kinds of necessities: For the shelter based at a college dormitory in Cherkasy, for instance, they have purchased 22 refrigerators.
"We buy washing machines, kettles, slow cookers, kitchen utensils, tables, and beds — everything that wasn't there, as we understand that these institutions were not adapted for people to live there permanently," Moloko says.
Another Ukrainian IDP, Svitlana (who asked not to be identified by her full name to protect her identity since her relatives remain in a Russian-occupied town), fled her hometown of Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, after spending nearly seven months under Russian occupation.
She and her sister have been staying at a shelter in Vinnytsia, a city in west-central Ukraine, for a couple of weeks. She says they were happy to find a roof over their heads and were shocked that no one has asked anything in return for the provided help
At the shelter, Svitlana met people from another local non-profit who later offered her a job.
"I work as an assistant on one of their projects now and help other IDPs in our region," she says.
Too early to stop
To provide grant money to local charities, East Europe Foundation collects applications and holds competitions. A total of 30 charities all over Ukraine have been involved in the Shelter project.
Six of them have received grants to provide psychological assistance to IDPs.
"We supported an organization that provided psychological assistance at the Lviv train station in spring, where about 600 psychologists, doctors, and volunteers provided help to people who needed it," Moloko says.
For Pavlo Medvid, local deputy and the founder of a Dnipro-based charity that supports IDPs, the grant from the foundation was beyond crucial.
On the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion, Medvid hosted 80 IDPs from Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts at his office in Dnipro.
"The youngest child was about two months old, and the oldest woman was 89 years old," Medvid says. "They spent three days at our office."
Then, Medviv helped to move those people to the dormitory nearby and began using the office premises to receive and distribute humanitarian aid for IDPs.
"People started bringing goods to us," Medvid says. "We didn't have a queue of those who wanted to receive help but of those who came to offer it," he adds.
In September, however, Medvid's charity experienced an unexpected decline in support from locals. By the time the charity received the grant from East Europe Foundation, they had "totally run out of goods" to help local IDPs.
"When there was nothing in our warehouse, we received the magic call (from the foundation)," Medvid says. "The whole team was so happy," he adds.
East Europe Foundation provided them with around $9,300, which allowed the charity to purchase 900 food packages for IDPs.
"Around 1,800 people were provided with humanitarian aid thanks to East Europe Foundation," Medvid says.
Another grant for around $12,600 followed in February: Medvid says it allowed them to increase the number of packages and "increase its amount and improve the quality."
"We put essential goods like canned meat, noodles, grains, and more, along with some sweets like waffles and condensed milk," he says.
Even though Medvid's office was heavily damaged after a Russian missile was shot down nearby, he didn't even consider stopping to support IDPs. To continue helping them, Medvid says, his organization will need further support as well.
"Locals are no longer able to support us as much as they used to," Medvid says.
To help charities like Medvid's, East Europe Foundation needs help as well.
"From what we see now, it's becoming more difficult to attract funding for such assistance for local organizations," says Moloko. "There was this surge of support at the beginning (of war), but it's decreasing now."
Moloko says that many charities and donor organizations rushed to help people in Kherson Oblast after its liberation from Russian troops in November. Now, she says, there is "almost no help there, and the needs are huge."
According to Gladchenko, many donor organizations have already started to "look ahead and think about the post-war rebuilding of Ukraine," while the needs of IDPs are not entirely met yet.
"Unfortunately, the state can not fulfill these needs yet, and we are beginning to feel this lack of attention from the donor community to solve the (IDPs') problems," Gladchenko says.
"It's too soon to stop caring for internally displaced persons," says Medvid.