Dnipro region — Chumaky, nestled in the heart of Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, served as the gathering place for a recent event organized by IOM's mental health and psychosocial support team, where families of veterans found the much-needed joy and support through shared experiences.

Veterans’ families at the equestrian club, where IOM organized an event. Photo: IOM/Anna Tsybko

The event not only connected them with the calming presence of horses at a local horse riding club, but also allowed them to connect with each other. Among them were two families, each with a unique story of resilience. 

The first family — Maria, 14, and her mother Svitlana — carries the heavy burden of loss. Maria's father, a veteran of the Ukrainian Armed Forces since 2014, tragically lost his life in the war in April 2022, two months after the onset of the Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

Maria and Svitlana at the equestrian club, where IOM organized an event for veterans’ families. Photo: IOM/Anna Tsybko

Reflecting on their journey, Svitlana shares the initial difficulty in discussing and sharing their experience with others: “It was very hard to even talk about it at first.” However, the event – horse-riding and an excursion in a horse nursey and stables – provided an avenue for connection with other veteran families, offering solace in shared understanding of their similar challenges.   

Maria has been horse riding for over a year, so the event was particularly joyful for her. Photo: IOM/Anna Tsybko

For Maria, horseback riding has become a source of joy and strength. "I learned about horse-riding from my cousin. I asked to come with her one day, and that's how I fell in love with it," Maria shares with a smile. Despite describing herself as an introvert, the girl finds comfort in her friendships and various hobbies, such as belly dancing and recently learning English.

Maria and Svitlana share their experience with other families at an IOM-organized event. Photo: IOM/Anna Tsybko

Their memories of life before the war, particularly family trips to the seaside, remain cherished. "We’d go to Azov seaside as a family, especially when Maria was little," reminisces Svitlana. "But we don't have time to be sad now, we keep ourselves busy," she adds. 

“Every night I go to bed wishing to wake up to a text message from him, 'Good morning, dear’”

In another corner of the event, Kateryna* and her twin sons, Maksym and Matvii**, 10, share their own journey. Kateryna's husband, a dedicated railway worker turned soldier, has been serving in the Ukrainian military since 2021.  "Railway was his true love," Kateryna says, recalling her husband's passion for his former profession. 

Kateryna petting a horse at the event organized by IOM. Photo: IOM/Anna Tsybko

Kateryna juggles professional responsibilities with caring for her boys and the constant worry for her husband's safety. Yet, despite the distance and uncertainty, the family finds moments of connection and joy. The boys eagerly recount their father's rare visits home. The three of them spend time doing yard work: the last time their father came home, the boys helped him cut the trees in their garden. 

"Every night I go to bed wishing to wake up to his usual text message: 'Good morning, dear,'" Kateryna shares, highlighting the emotional toll separation has on the couple. However, amidst the worry, Kateryna maintains unwavering optimism in front of her sons. "We are very worried but we are staying positive. Everything will be alright. The most important thing is that all of them come home alive and healthy," she says, referring to her husband, as well as all Ukrainian soldiers. The boys nod in agreement, adding, "We always text him how much we miss him." 

As the event concludes with a circle of shared emotions and experiences, these families find themselves not only grounded and connected but strengthened by the bonds forged.

IOM’s mental health team conducts an activity, as part of the event. Photo: IOM/Anna Tsybko

During the conversation, IOM specialists offer useful grounding and breathing exercises for self-regulation, which participants will be able to use independently in stressful situations. 

“An important element of these activities is communication among people with similar life experiences and the opportunity to share common emotions and feelings, to receive mutual support under the professional facilitation of IOM team”, says Svitlana Volovych, IOM's Social Activities Facilitator in Dnipro.

The event was organized by IOM as part of “Path of Resilience” project, thanks to the financial assistance of German Federal Foreign Office.   

*names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals  

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