“My go-bag is always ready. I have all the documents inside. For the rest, there might be no time,” says 52-year-old Olena* drinking mint tea that, as she believes, helps her better sleep at night and cope with the emotional toll of the war. Unlike the majority of people in Ukraine, for her, the war did not start at the dawn of 24 February a year ago. It was eight years earlier when the armed conflict flared up in eastern Ukraine, tearing up the lives of approximately 1.5 million people who fled their homes.
“Everything that we had owned — our house, our business, even family photographs, were left behind. Like all displaced people, we thought that one day we would come back,” she recalls, now not being sure if such a moment will come. When the first tanks and gunmen appeared in Donetsk Region, Olena and her husband Andrii* closed the door of their home and their own sweet shop, and left with two of their sons.
Their past life where Olena was a successful pastry-maker with many regular customers was left on the other side of the “contact line”, dividing Ukraine into government-controlled and non-government- controlled areas. Several times they travelled back trying to pick-up their belongings, including Olena’s cooking equipment, however, regulations introduced by the then de-facto authorities created additional obstacles.
During eight years, Olena’s family lived in Dnipro, Odesa and finally settled in Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine. Their sons got happily married and started their own families, and Olena was able to restart pastry-making craft, using equipment, most often borrowed from friends. The restored stability, however, was fragile.
“All these years, I did not feel calm as if I knew that one day the peace would collapse again. The sense of danger and anxiety has stayed with us all the time,” Olena recalls.
Her worst fears came true on 24 February 2022 when the Russian Federation started a full invasion of Ukraine. Kharkiv was one of the heaviest-hit areas, and Olena made up her mind fast: “It felt very different, not unlike in 2014 when we just waited for somebody to tell us what to do. As soon as we heard about the invasion, we packed, got into a car, and headed to western Ukraine.”
In the following weeks, the full-scale war caused the largest displacement crisis in Europe since the Second World War. In a matter of weeks, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in Ukraine increased from 3 to 18 million. Like Olena’s family, almost a third of other displaced people in Ukraine (27%) fled their homes from Kharkiv Region, the latest IOM survey estimates. Olena and her husband were able to rent an apartment in a little town of Buchach, Ternopil Region. Her situation is typical for the majority of those displaced inside the country. Sixty per cent of people, surveyed by IOM, indicated that they were staying in the rented housing, and one in four stated that they relied on social benefits.
Even accumulated benefits for Andrii and Olena are not enough to pay rent and cover basic needs, such as medicines and health care. After the first displacement, Andrii suffered from a heart attack, and his health deteriorated further during last year. Trying to meet ends, Olena is once again relies on her culinary talents to win the hearts of customers from the local community in Buchach:
“After 2014, I sold all my jewels to support the family. Today, I have nothing to sell. I started going to local cafés offering my pastry and sweets, and day by day, new orders were coming. Baking pastries and cakes helps me deal with anxiety and the unknown. It is a luxury for me to go to a shop, buy things and cook pastries for ourselves. But I really enjoy doing it for others: seeing people smiling and enjoying my products makes me happy.”
As part of its protection programming, IOM provided Olena with specialized assistance, which included covering expenses for Andrii’s treatment that he is now undergoing. She also received a semi-professional mixer that came handy for increasing production, and a tablet to support the development of the social media page promoting her tasty pastries.
“I never give up. That is not who I am. Yet, it is not easy to see what the future holds for us, in particular, for people of our age. It all depends on housing. The rent is very expensive. If we had our own place to live, we could have started building our lives even here. But we need an anchor to hold to,” Olena told.
Since the start of the full-scale war, IOM provided humanitarian support, which includes specialized protection services, to about 3 million displaced and war-affected people in Ukraine. Prioritizing immediate relief assistance, IOM is also looking for middle- and longer-term solutions to foster protection through safety, dignity and well-being as well as improve people’s livelihoods and living conditions, contribute to business recovery, and develop housing opportunities jointly with the government authorities.
* Names changed