Mykolaiv Region – On an inlet off the Black Sea, amidst the echoes of a turbulent history, lies the city of Mykolaiv. The once thriving industrial centre for southern Ukraine has today become a sanctuary for those uprooted from their homes – both within the region and from neighbouring Kherson Region. By the end of May, the region was host to around 190,000 displaced people.
As Ukraine grapples with the largest displacement crisis seen in Europe since World War II, Mykolaiv stands as a poignant symbol of resilience and the unyielding human spirit. Despite their worlds being torn apart by war, the people of Mykolaiv defiantly move through life’s varied stages.
Although a haven for some, Mykolaiv is far from safe. Displaced people live under threat of air strikes, only a few hours from an active frontline where access to clean water is limited and fears of possible nuclear disaster are rising. To support displaced people, returnees and locals, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is working on the ground in Mykolaiv and across southern Ukraine.
Childhood in a Collective Centre
After Andrii lost his mother in a car accident, he went to live with his grandmother, Svitlana, in Mykolaiv City. Soon, his world was once again forever changed - this time by the outbreak of war. A missile landed in the yard of their apartment block, forcing the small family to seek safety in nearby Odesa.
“As soon as he hears loud sounds somewhere, he asks to go to the basement,” says Svitlana.
Unable to cover the skyrocketing rent costs in a city that many others had fled to, they moved back to Mykolaiv last April. But this time to a collective centre in a remote village and not to the urban area that had been their home. It was an adjustment for both grandmother and grandson.
“When we arrived, there were mountains of rubbish and concrete,” Svitlana says, recalling the first days in the former dormitory for hotel workers turned collective centre for people displaced by the war.
Since the start of the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this centre has hosted over 20,000 people, of whom more than half were children. For their sake, those running the centre and the temporary residents who have passed through its doors have put great efforts into transforming the space beyond recognition.
Today, the centre is a refuge for more than 91 families. To return a disappearing childhood to the youngest residents, the parents and centre administration set up a playground and ensure a mobile kindergarten comes to the centre a few days a week. They even planted roses and famous Kherson watermelons in the garden with the children.
All school age children are studying online in the local school. Andrii, who is in the 5th grade, was using his grandmother's old phone to study. With the new tablets provided by IOM with funding from the European Union, learning will become more accessible and comfortable for him and every child in the centre.
Although Andrii is missing his acrobatics and aikido classes in Mykolaiv, Svitlana can see that her grandson is slowly getting back to being the kid she knew from before experiencing events beyond his young years: “We had a trampoline here recently, so he started doing his somersaults on it again.”
Motherhood in a Dormitory
A tiny room with a sofa. A table to eat and do homework at. And shelves to store clothes. This is all single mother, Liudmyla, her three children and their cat can call home today.
She says they were “lucky” to get a room with a separate bathroom. Other residents have use of one bathroom per floor and in many collective centres, strangers are living together in common rooms. Her eldest son, 16 years old, has cerebral palsy. He can only move with the aid of a wheelchair and requires round-the-clock care.
Wartime motherhood is not what Liudmila had dreamed of, but she knows there is no other option – “you should be able to adapt everywhere.”
She has been adapting to displacement for 16 months since leaving Snihurivka village in Mykolaiv Region last year with her three children.
“The children suffered from the explosions. Even in Ternopil, my smallest son would hide under the bed when he heard air raid sirens. On the contrary, my eldest son does not show any emotions now,” she says, sharing the imprint war has left on her children’s mental health.
After fleeing to western Ukraine, Liudmyla came back to Mykolaiv Region and settled in a dormitory for displaced people in February 2023. She wanted to be closer to home but it is still too early to return. Yet, she remains optimistic, hoping to set an example for her children – “the key to survival is to keep positive."
To improve living conditions, Liudmyla’s collective centre received hygiene kits and household appliances from IOM. The Organization also repaired a ventilation and electricity systems and bathrooms at the centre.
Work as a Wartime Vocation
For three weeks last year, the area where a residential care facility for individuals with cognitive and neurological differences is located was beyond the control of the Government of Ukraine. The director of the facility, Oleksandr, knew he could never abandon the people in his care and decided to stay no matter what. During the worst of the fighting, he had to be creative to keep the residents safe.
“We hid them in a vegetable cellar but only for an hour or two, because it is not equipped as a shelter. We have 30 bedridden people, so we had to carry them each time with our hands,” he explained.
Today, there are 100 people living at the facility, twenty-three of whom were evacuated from Kherson Region in recent months.
“Among these evacuees, four people died here. They were very malnourished when they came to us, as they spent almost a year under the occupation. Now, the others are recovering and gaining weight.”
Established after the de-occupation from Nazi troops in 1944, the facility’s premises and equipment are in urgent need of repair.
“Help is constantly coming but it is still very much needed.”
Golden Years Without Family Around
Maria is a vibrant 71-year-old woman, full of life wisdom. The outbreak of the full-scale war tore the great-grandmother’s family apart and shattered her dreams of a peaceful retirement. Maria was evacuated to Cherkasy and then to a residential facility for older persons in Mykolaiv City. Her husband, Andrii, refused to leave their home in their village in Kherson Region. But the war came knocking on his door.
“He was in a summer kitchen when a cluster bomb hit. He got severe burns to his legs and only managed to take a package with documents from the open window of our burning house using a walking stick,” recalls Maria.
Risking his own life, Maria’s grandson came to the rescue and took his grandfather out of the village to the same facility as Maria. Homesickness proved stronger than the fear of shelling for Andrii.
“After the rehabilitation, he returned to Posad-Pokrovskyi. He lives in a modular house in our yard, near our destroyed home,” she says.
Maria has become well known among the 124 residents at the residential facility thanks to her vocal talent. And there is always something happening – mostly to distract the residents from haunting memories.
“I don't miss a single activity here. Where people are, there I am. I love people, I can't live without them.”
IOM supported the facility with repair works and provided a generator, partitions, beds, heaters, hygiene items and disinfectors, as in spring there was an outbreak of COVID-19 among bedridden patients.
Even with war raging in Ukraine, the life cycle continues. Every day people are forced to flee their homes and adapt. IOM, through support from the European Union, USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), and other international partners, is present at every phase of the displacement journey, ensuring people can experience whatever life stage they are at in as safe, comfortable and dignified a way as possible.
This story was written by Alisa Kyrpychova from IOM Ukraine.