Kyiv - Their journey is one of resilience, empathy and unwavering commitment. Three humanitarian workers responding to the crisis brought about by the war in Ukraine share their stories, what drives them and the impact they hope to leave on both individuals and communities. In a world so often divided, Natalia, Mykyta and Anhar remind us that compassion knows no boundaries, and that the spirit of humanity can shine a light even in the darkest of hours.
“Pride: a simple word that describes my attitude to work,” says Natalia, part of a team managing the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) warehouses in Uzhhorod, one of Ukraine's main logistics centres for humanitarian operations.
“I see not just a cargo truck in front of me, but items that can improve or even save the lives of hundreds of people.”
Among the first to join the Uzhhorod team after the start of the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she helped build the warehouse team and for almost a year was among those who managed four warehouses at once. Natalia’s professional achievements feel to her like a stark contrast to the woman who once had to condense her entire life into a single suitcase.
Originally from Donetsk region, where she happily raised two children and worked for almost 15 years at the Berdyansk cable factory, her life took a drastic turn in 2014. Her city became embroiled in chaos, followed by shelling, forcing Natalia and her family to leave everything behind and flee into the unknown.
Starting anew in Kyiv just as semblances of stability became to return, the 2022 escalation of the invasion forced her back to the world of displacement once again.
“Unlike the events of 2014, from the first moments of the full-scale invasion, I stayed as calm as could be: I already knew what to do and how to survive. Within a few days, we were in Lviv and then in Uzhhorod. When we arrived, I saw dozens of people who were completely in shock and confused. I knew I could help. I advised others on what to do and how to process documents,” recalls Natalia.
To shake off the sense of déjà vu and stay grounded, Natalia channelled her energy into volunteering, helping look after the children of other displaced people, preparing meals and running a volunteer warehouse stocked with essential aid items. Then, by chance, she heard about an opportunity at IOM and soon became a part of the team. Today, Natalia continues to dedicate herself to improving the lives of others.
According to the latest IOM data, more than 5 million people remain internally displaced across Ukraine. In addition to financial assistance, their priority needs include non-food items like clothes and blankets, hygiene items and materials for repairing their war-damaged homes.
“In my warehouses, you can find anything — from construction materials to household appliances, family and hygiene kits. These items remind me of the days when I had no faith in tomorrow and waited for help. Today, the speed with which the goods reach their destination depends on the quality of my work. So, we work non-stop, even on weekends and holidays. And we will continue to do so, because kindness always comes back, and IOM is more than just a job.”
Mykyta also works in the IOM team, but in Odesa, covering Ukraine’s southern regions.
"I was 15 years old when I felt the calling to work in the social field," he shares.
A few years later in 2014, at a time of great unrest and shifting of consciousness in Ukraine, the Chernihiv-native entered Ivano-Frankivsk National University to study political science, hoping to delve deeper into societal structures and gain a broader understanding of how the world functions.
"I grew up in an environment of constant discussion around diverse social and political questions. And even as a child, my voice was always heard within the family. This definitely influenced my future."
At university, Mykyta provided peer support for students from other cities, much like himself. For example, he would help them find accommodation. Following a stint in the business world after graduating, the beginning of the full-scale invasion compelled him to turn his childhood aspirations into reality.
"I simply couldn't remain passive in the face of what was happening. I wanted to join an international humanitarian mission and contribute my best to aid Ukraine."
In December 2022, he joined IOM as a United Nations Volunteer and soon was promoted to a staff contract - ensuring essential aid like blankets, mattresses, kitchen sets, furniture and more reach war-affected and displaced people across southern Ukraine. During this period of career growth for Mykyta, his team directly helped over 30,000 people – a feat only possible through the support of international partners like the European Union.
"I was a displaced person myself. My family and I relocated from Chernihiv region to Zakarpattia region for a few months when the invasion began. Based on my own experience, I understand that evacuees can't bring much with them. We had to buy many basic necessities while living in another city, amounting to several weeks or even months’ wages."
Mykyta’s job starts with an assessment phase. This entails extensive research and travel, involving interactions with various organizations and local authorities. The objective is to gather comprehensive information on community needs.
"After the assessment, the requests undergo verification. This is meticulous work where we confirm the exact number of beneficiaries to ensure no one is left out in the planned distribution within the community."
Subsequently, the distribution phase commences, either through direct IOM distribution or by implementing partners. Collaboration with partners proved particularly crucial during the response to the destruction of the Kakhovka dam and subsequent flooding, ensuring rapid delivery of assistance to remote affected areas along the banks of the Dnipro River.
"Whether we can do our work relies heavily on the situation at the frontline. If it remains stable for an extended period, we will have to fine-tune our aid strategy to accommodate changing needs. However, if the frontline shifts, more individuals will require assistance to meet their basic needs."
Mykyta plans to continue working in the humanitarian and development sphere and knows that if he has the right people around him, his motivation will stay intact.
“I can definitely say that team is one of the main sources of inspiration. You can do so much more when the management listens to your suggestions and when you can rely on each of the team members.”
Ensuring that the aid reaches those who need it most, that it is not diverted or unfit for local needs is the role of another team member, Anhar. Originally from Yemen, she spends much of time visiting communities that IOM has committed to serving by distributing essential aid items.
“I love interacting with people. My role is to act as a link between those we support and the organization. Our monitoring of IOM’s activities helps build trust with the communities. We meet them face-to-face, we hear their survival stories and we get their feedback on the job IOM is doing."
Anhar began working with IOM back home in Yemen in 2019, joining a team responding to one of the largest crises in the world at the time. Living her whole life in Sana’a, she could not escape the war.
“On the first day of the air raids, my sister and I were on our way to work but when we left the house, we saw children running telling us to go back home and older men and women crying. We could see that everyone on the streets was trying to get to their homes, but we didn’t understand what was happening. Then suddenly, we heard bombs go off, anti-missiles everywhere,” she explains.
The once vibrant, historic city was soon filled with black smoke. Anhar and her family stayed home unsure of how to keep safe. She could not count how many times their doors and windows were blown open by pressure from explosions in those first weeks.
But it was not the war that caused Anhar the greatest pain. During this time, she lost both her brother and sister from medical conditions that leave her questioning what could have been if the situation in her country had not cut off their access to adequate health care. In Yemen, more than half of all health facilities are not functioning.
Anhar’s brother, Bassam, is tragically survived by his two young children but her sister, Roa’a, just three years her junior, had yet to make her mark on the world. Although she tried to set up a business before the war, the dangers and economic crisis forced her to put her dreams on hold.
“Then, my sister got really sick. We didn’t know what was wrong with her. We took her to many hospitals and all the doctors gave us different, conflicting ideas, opinions and diagnosis.”
It was not until she underwent surgery that the doctors confirmed it was cancer. Anhar’s family did all they could to get her the best care possible and so they were forced to send her to India.
“We were trapped inside the country. We didn't have any way to leave, not by land, not by air, not by sea. Everything was closed. It was really a struggle for us to find a way out for her, to send her to India. So, while doing that, the disease spread fast in her body.”
“And then finally, we managed to get the [plane] tickets, but from Aden. So, while she was sick, she had to take the route from mountain to coastline over damaged infrastructure – it could take up to 20 hours.”
Anhar's sister was told she achieved full remission. Yet, after returning to Yemen, her condition unexpectedly worsened, necessitating a return to India. During her final journey back home, she endured extreme pain. As Anhar departed for her new job in Ukraine, she could not escape the thought that she was travelling on the same arduous route her sister had.
“The whole way I was thinking how…how must my sister have felt.”
It is these thoughts that stop Anhar from attempting the long journey home or summoning the courage to ask her parents to revisit the profound distress they experienced while accompanying their daughter during those extensive car rides. Travelling with Anhar to drop her to the airport when she was initially leaving the country - owing to the travel restrictions imposed on women by the de facto authorities in northern Yemen - was enough.
Now, she will only go home if she can secure a flight into the newly reopened Sana’a airport and if she can travel without restrictions related to her gender, restrictions her parents – a self-made IT specialist and a charity volunteer – never put upon her or her sister growing up. For now Anhar stays in touch with her family online and throws herself into helping others in Ukraine but she does not feel too far from home.
“Despite our differences – languages, ethnicities, backgrounds – we are all similar. We are all just people in need of a decent life who want to be heard, talked to and engaged with. And you know, I'm very passionate about what we do. As a kid, I always envisioned myself working in an emergency context. Recently during my field work in eastern Ukraine, I paused for a moment remembering that I have always wanted to do this, to reach and support people who need assistance the most. That moment made me realize my dream came true."