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The Displaced: Ukrainians struggle to start over
29 March 2017, 15:36 | Society-digest | 0 | | Code for Blog | |
Nataliya Menshykova never imagined fleeing her home would help fulfill a dream: running her own theater.
Once an actress and theater director in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, she re-entered the theater in Lviv six months after arriving there in April 2014, intent on doing what she knows best. Eventually, she collaborated with a war veteran to establish a theater troupe consisting of other internally displaced Ukrainians.
“Theater is a form of therapy, I want to help others. It’s better than giving to yourself.”
Theater, she says, is about people. “People need the theater. There’s a war in the country, yet the children grow older. They need ... some kind of example. They need to understand there are people in the country they could take after.”
Ms. Menshykova is one of the 10,000 people who have migrated to the city of Lviv in western Ukraine from Crimea and the villages and cities in Ukraine’s two easternmost regions, where a nearly three-year war has raged with Russian-backed separatists. Overall, about 1.7 million people have been displaced to other parts of Ukraine — the largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II.
In Lviv, most of the internally displaced persons, or I.D.P.s, have arrived with few belongings. Some are now adjusting to the fact they might not be able to move back to their homes for another five years, if ever.
“Frustration is very high. There’s no clear end in sight. That’s what I hear over and over again,” says Barbara Manzi, head of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kiev.
Displaced people, she says, need help to “move on with their lives.”
Moving on, however, is fraught with challenges. Some of the displaced need counseling as they or family members suffer from posttraumatic stress disorders. Many face unemployment or underemployment, and require legal assistance to restore identity and financial documents.
Fitting in also is a struggle.
“They speak Russian,” says Maksym Bondarenko of Caritas Ukraine, the charity of the Catholic churches in Ukraine headquartered in Lviv. This alarms the local people, he continues, as it reminds them of the Soviet Union’s annexation of the region from Poland in the wake of World War II. “The I.D.P.s are thus associated with being pro-Russians.”
A mother of two sons, Ms. Menshykova, 42, can attest to feeling as an outcast at times.
“An elderly lady asked me why I came to Lviv,” she recounts, suggesting she should have remained in Crimea because “the Russians pay higher wages and eventually pensions.”
Indeed, the Ukrainian government has made life more difficult for refugees in February 2016, when it suspended social payments to some 600,000 displaced people, many of them pensioners and usually the primary breadwinner of their families.
Ms. Menshykova’s theater, called Domus (Latin for “home”) is partly aimed at making people feel welcome.
“We have plays for adults and children,” she says. “I want everyone to feel at home here.”
In many ways, her story is that of so many displaced Ukrainians who are still struggling to fit in far from home. Yet, they are finding both help and hope through church institutions doing exactly what Nataliya Menshykova tries to do with her theater: help people feel at home.
For Nataliya Menshykova, the 682-mile journey to Lviv began in April 2014, a month after Russia annexed Crimea.
“I love freedom,” she says, explaining why she fled.
“I didn’t need to be ‘saved’ by someone,” she adds, referring to a narrative used to justify Russian annexation. “My children are Ukrainian and so am I.”
She packed two suitcases and a computer and took her two sons, now 23 and 14, to the only institution she trusted: the hospital where her younger son had been treated for a chronic heart disease.
Two weeks after she arrived, Caritas gave her “immediate relief,” she says, paying her rent and supplying her family with food. Caritas also raised over $1,000 to hire a French surgeon to fly in and conduct a complicated, life-saving heart procedure for her son. Ms. Menshykova had met Maksym Bondarenko of Caritas at a roundtable discussion for Crimean refugees together with local social policy officials.
Through a variety of programs, with mostly Western funding — through partners such as CNEWA — Caritas has provided assistance to nearly 300,000 people since April 2014, when the armed uprising in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine began. Last year, over $16 million was raised for outreach programs, which include acceptance and rehabilitation efforts.
Displaced people who chose to relocate to Lviv and other western regions tend to have more “pro-Ukrainian or pro-European views,” says Mr. Bondarenko of those impacted by the war in the east.
“Those who choose western Ukraine ... weren’t afraid to come here,” he says, alluding to the stereotypes of the region as home to “rabid nationalists.”
Ms. Menshykova acknowledges that adjusting to life in Lviv was not easy. For six months she washed office floors. The average Ukrainian only earns about $200 a month, partly the result of the country’s economy shrinking by more than 15 percent since 2013. In that same period, Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, has lost more than two-thirds of its value relative to the U.S. dollar, and domestic prices have doubled.
Churches have tried to help. Greek Catholic churches have for more than a year ended their liturgies with prayers for people who are suffering because of the war — especially the displaced — as a way to raise awareness of their plight.
Caritas hopes to harness the influence of churches to further promote human welfare, especially in western Ukraine.
The Rev. Serhiy Kulbaka, a Greek Catholic priest, reaches out to war veterans and displaced families suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.
The jovial Father Kulbaka, 45, lives in a monastery in Lviv while serving a parish from a wooden church on the north end of the city. But his journey to this point has been long and arduous — a journey of abduction, captivity and suffering that nearly cost him his life.
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