How to support people forced from their homes by war

Thinking of helping those who have fled their homes in Ukraine? Here are some tips.

On 9 March 2022, in Medyka, southeast Poland, a family is photographed inside a tent set to host people who have crossed the border into Poland, fleeing the escalating conflict in Ukraine.
22 March 2022

Millions of lives have been destroyed by the war in Ukraine. So far, over 3 million people have fled their homes – of which 1.5 million are children.

Many people across the world are reaching out to offer their support, opening up their hearts and homes to those who have fled. If you would like to join them, here are some tips on how you can help.

1. Help provide basic needs and, if possible, a little quiet.

People who come to you for support may have been living under fire for a long time, in cold rooms, deprived of sleep or forced to sleep on the floor, among a large crowd of people in "survival mode”. This means that, even when they are safe, people may still speak loudly or quietly, or be nervous and struggle to adjust, especially in the first few days of their arrival. At this time, their basic needs and safety are paramount. Help them with this. A quiet place with the opportunity to find some solitude will help them settle down.

2. Refrain from asking questions and forcing conversations unless the person initiates them.

Don't be the first to ask about what happened where people came from. When they are ready, they will open up to you. Do not ask whether any relatives were left behind or could not get out. Don't inquire about future plans ("Are you here for long?", "What's next?", etc.). Most likely, there are no plans at this time, because there is no understanding of when the war will end, whether there is a place to return to and how to move on with their life, which is now divided into "before" and "now", but not yet "after".

Don't make promises you can't keep ("everything will be fine"). If a person cries, let them cry – do not stop them. Just be there for them.

3. Try to organize useful activities for children.

Children may react differently to new circumstances: fussing, refusing to make contact or being aggressive. This is a result of the stress they have experienced. Children need to be given time to adapt, and you need to accept the worries and behaviors they exhibit in response to stress.

Useful leisure activities for children (such as drawing, crafting, sports games), as well as a daily routine, work wonders to help them get back to normal.

4. Assist in providing information on where people can get help in your community.

You know your way around the local community better than them, so your help and even accompanying them to the relevant services will be very useful. Pass on important information using emails, messenger apps or a sheet of paper (e.g., in notebooks or on postcards). Spoken words may not be taken in or easily remembered. A person may ask you to repeat information several times – this is a trait of someone under stress.

5. Try not to treat attempts to adapt as ingratitude.

Moving and adapting to a new place, even in peacetime, is not easy for most people. It can be especially difficult during times of war. Up until February 23, 2022, the people who have now moved into your community were living a completely different reality, with their own habits, jobs and housing. In the blink of an eye, they lost everything – or at least it can seem this way right now. In trying to adapt and seemingly "bring back their old lives", people can ask questions that may seem strange and untimely to you as the host community. These may be about the refrigerator, hot water, Wi-Fi, a special diet or a separate apartment. Please respond politely, detailing what you can and cannot do for them.

6. Avoid using stereotypes and spreading negative stories about internally displaced people and refugees.

If possible, do not engage in emotional conversations with others in the community about negative experiences with people who have moved there from other regions. Such stories should be fact-checked and perceived as objectively as possible.

Remember that emotionally loaded retelling of such stories can create a negative stereotype of displaced people, which will ultimately negatively affect the comfort of both the host and those you receive.

7. Involve displaced people in your community once people feel safe.

On the third or fourth day after moving (although the timing can be conditional), and after meeting the basic needs of their family and gaining a sense of security, people are ready to connect to help others. If a person does not work online, invite them to volunteer for the benefit of your community and the country as a whole. Talk about opportunities and invite them to join in. In this way, people will be able to get away from their experiences, get involved in the active life of a community and feel useful.

Overall, remember to take care of yourself and your family, and help others, in this order. It can give you energy and inspiration – and change your life forever.