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A community centre in eastern Ukraine offers respite for vulnerable families

By Sven G. Simonsen

A community protection centre in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, is a hub of support for displaced families. Dedicated volunteers like Jana keep the spokes moving.

KHARKIV, Ukraine, 24 September 2015 – “I always bring some food,” laughs Jana, as she places apple pie in front of us. “I have many children, so it seems to me that everybody is always hungry, and I must feed them.” 

© UNICEF Ukraine/2015/Demchenko
Jana came to Kharkiv from her home town in Luhansk region to give birth to her baby girl. As conditions deteriorated at home, she and her husband decided to stay with their children.

Volunteering is of second nature to Jana. We’ve met her at a UNICEF-supported community protection centre in Kharkiv, where she has quickly become a valued contributor to activities and services offered for internally displaced persons and permanent residents, alike.

A hub of support

The city of Kharkiv is currently home to more than 102,000 internally displaced people, including more than 13,000 children, as of 3 September 2015.

The community protection centre, which is operated by the NGO Ukrainian Frontiers, is one of 16 that UNICEF supports in Ukraine. It is intended to serve as a hub of social opportunity and support.

Over the past two weeks, the centre has had nearly 500 child and adult visitors, says Zhenia Levinshtein, the manager.

Families who visit the centre find a child-friendly space, complete with toys – and even an animator. They can take classes in English language, computer skills and entrepreneurship. The centre hosts such events as literature readings and film screenings with discussion.

Also on offer are legal advice and psychological support. “Every day a psychologist comes here, and every day the slots are filled,” says Ms. Levinshtein.

Viktoria Bulavina, a programme manager, sees firsthand the results the centre’s services can have. “We find that educational and arts programmes work very well for people in crisis,” she says.

According to Ms. Levinshtein, the centre is oriented towards internally displaced persons. “But we think it is helpful for integration that also permanent residents participate,” she adds.

Today, among the volunteers at the centre, half are from Kharkiv. The other half are, like Jana, themselves internally displaced.

Craft and master class

It’s been almost a year since Jana’s family first came to Kharkiv. They came from the city of Antratsyt, in what is now a non-government-controlled part of Luhansk region, so that Jana could give birth to her baby girl. 

© UNICEF Ukraine/2015/Demchenko
Jana’s son Mohamed, 4, takes advantage of the centre’s child-friendly space while his mother is volunteering as a handicraft teacher.

“By then, we could already see that the situation was getting worse back home,” she says. “So we only returned briefly to collect our belongings.”

At one time, Jana studied aviation engineering here in Kharkiv. Since the family relocated, she has been too busy with her children to take on a full-time job. She has worked part-time with her handicraft, Japanese kanzashi, which is making decorations from textile bands.

And, as soon as the community protection centre opened its doors, she started volunteering.

“Volunteering is part of my personality – I cannot not do it,” she says. “I have always thought that we should be helping people. And these days, there are more people who need help.”

She gives master classes in kanzashi. “I’m making myself available wherever people ask me to,” Jana smiles.

Volunteer among volunteers

At this point in our conversation, every person around the table has helped her- or himself to a piece or two of Jana’s apple pie.

In addition to feeding the other volunteers at the centre, Jana prepares food for the volunteers working at Station Kharkiv, a joint initiative by several organizations to receive displaced people at the Kharkiv railway station and address their most immediate needs.

“Jana is an inspiration to all of us,” says Yulia, another volunteer at the centre. “She has so many commitments, with her big family and everything. We understand that if Jana can find time to do all these things, then we can surely do something good, too.” 



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