There are about 2.7 million people with disabilities in Ukraine, but there was no centralized evacuation during martial law.
It was the 7th month of Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine; international humanitarian missions continue to express concern, and the evacuation of people with disabilities is still on the shoulders of public activists - the Ukrainian organization of people with disabilities Fight For Right bitterly states.
Its activists have been working on the consequences of Russian military aggression since 2014. And after February 24, they created a mechanism to support people with disabilities, which proved to be more effective than several state and international initiatives.
When the full-scale Russian invasion began, we saw that international organizations almost did not include people with disabilities in their humanitarian programs in Ukraine. So we turned to the disability community: activists worldwide quickly mobilized and started helping us. Very quickly, we grew from one evacuation service to full service: we deliver medicines and food, evacuate people from temporarily occupied territories, and provide legal advice. We have become the leading platform of assistance for Ukrainians with disabilities during this full-scale war, - says the head of Fight For Rights, Yulia Sawchuk.
The organization helps evacuate people from the most dangerous places and provides legal and psychological assistance and humanitarian support. So far, the team has managed to help almost four thousand people with disabilities.
Among the recent evacuations of people with disabilities and their families were the following routes: Kramatorsk - Lviv, Mykolaiv - Dnipro, Toretsk - Uzhhorod, Bakhmut - Vinnytsia, Bakhmut - Cherkasy, Zaporizhzhia - Lviv. People are also evacuated abroad; among the latest stories is the evacuation of a family from the Zaporizhzhya region to France.
We evacuated this family from the temporarily occupied territory of the Zaporizhzhia region. The mother of these smiling four children has a hearing impairment. At first, Fight For Right volunteers brought the family to Zaporizhzhia and sheltered them for the night. And in the morning, all five of them went abroad by train from Kyiv - Przemysl. Our case managers kept in touch with the family all the time, but even so, they managed to... get a little lost in Przemysl, deviating from the instructions. In the end, the representatives of our team did not get lost and helped to restore the route. And the family was able to reach the endpoint in France. They have already visited Paris, went to the dinosaur park, and taken a selfie near the Eiffel Tower, - the organization says.
Or the story of evacuation from Margarets. A Russian missile flew near the woman's house: "Please help me leave, but I am not alone, but with my cat. He will be in the carrier; he will not bother anyone!"
Now the woman and her cat-cosmonaut are safe.
Initially, it was vital for our team and me to give people hope that evacuation was possible. A lot of people with disabilities, when we talked to them, could not even believe that their lives matter to someone and someone will help them, - says Yulia.
Socportal asked the activists to tell more about their work and vision of the future for people with disabilities in Ukraine.
Socportal: Do you work with global humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross or the International Organization for Migration?
We understand the importance of cooperation with these organizations and the need for the voice of Ukrainian NGOs to be heard in their decision-making. Thanks to this, they will be able to increase their efficiency. Because their head offices and decision-makers are located in Europe, they do not have experience and immersion in the Ukrainian context.
We don't work directly with other humanitarian giants like the International Committee of the Red Cross or the International Organization for Migration. Still, we would very much like them to consider the work and needs of Ukrainian NGOs, especially those who work directly with communities and communities, in their decision-making processes.
From our experience, we have seen how critical it is to be 100% immersed in the Ukrainian context to be effective. Therefore, we encourage people to donate to not too large international organizations, but Ukrainian NGOs are working on the ground. Now we are forming a list of organizations in different fields, to which we advise sending donations.
The main obstacle is the bureaucratic procedure on the Ukrainian side and the lack of offers to accept large groups of people with disabilities who need support and specialized supported accommodation from our European colleagues.
We had an example when we provided legal advice to a family where the wife needed dialysis. She left with her husband and settled in Berlin, where she had access to this procedure. They are staying in a temporary shelter close to the clinic and looking for permanent housing.
We have requested to evacuate the institution in the temporarily occupied Oleshky, Kherson region, but our attempts to move people have been unsuccessful, unfortunately.
S: How do people find out about you? How do you look for volunteers? How do you talk to me about your work?
People call us on the hotline; we have two phones. They are used primarily by people who have not heard about us. Also, people write to the employees of our organization personally on social networks. People think: I know this person with a disability; he works in Fight for Rights and can evacuate so that I can do it too.
In our experience, smaller organizations and grassroots initiatives are better able to respond to people's needs than large humanitarian missions because they work directly with the target audience. Large organizations, for example, may not understand that a ramp is not enough to call housing accessible. Accessible housing should have a bed, toilet, etc. so that a person can live there with dignity and independence.
S: Where do you get transport, and where a wheelchair or stretcher can fit?
If we are talking about centralized evacuation (mainly concerning the areas where active hostilities are currently taking place), then, unfortunately, no one thinks about accessibility for people with disabilities. But if these are individual requests, we try to find the most accessible transport for people. During the war, we have already acquired contacts of drivers, in particular, volunteers who are ready to help with the evacuation. We also have medical evacuation by ambulance, which is possible and conditionally safe for doctors. We often use stretchers when there is a need for this kind of evacuation.
S: Do you have partners abroad?
We often find partners, for example, institutions where we can evacuate people through personal contacts. We also cooperate with two international organizations - World Institute on Disability and The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies.
S: Providing financial support - how does it happen? Do donors provide resources for financial aid?
We have grants from international donors and individual donations. Thanks to the long cooperation with some donors before the invasion, we quickly changed the focus of our peace projects to respond to the needs of today. We also attracted new donors, such as the Google Foundation, who asked us about our needs and quickly allocated funds to support our work.
S: What are your peculiarities regarding aid effectiveness compared to large international organizations? What are your advantages and disadvantages?
Ukrainians created the Foundation for Ukrainians, which is our most significant advantage. We know very well what our compatriots have to go through firsthand and from our experience.
Everyone from our team in Warsaw was evacuated and had their own story of losses and small victories. After the outbreak of the war in March, we created the Foundation because we could think of nothing else but to help our country. Our relatives and friends are still in danger in Ukraine. We communicate with volunteers all over the country and coordinate and direct contributions to the areas where it is most needed.
We are just beginning to develop communication. Building trusting relationships with donors take time to attract a more significant flow of contributions. Our team lacks a little experience in charity work, but we compensate for it with great efforts. We go through bureaucratic obstacles and set up processes independently, using and adapting our peacetime professional skills to the new realities.
S: Who are your employees? Where do you get human resources?
Our team consists of 15 enthusiastic girls. They have worked in different fields - communications, advertising, hotel business, etc. This is enough for the operational process, but we lack people in the places of assistance.
Therefore, we have opened recruitment of volunteers in Poland and Ukraine. We hope for people's responsibility for the future of Ukraine. Everyone is now able to help in one way or another. Eighty-four people from different parts of Ukraine and the world have already responded to our recent call.
S: What are your plans after the victory?
People with disabilities are capable and can build state policy in any sphere related to the disability; we will demand it and try to cooperate with the authorities. And after the war, we will not allow such a situation again.