After fleeing Mariupol, law student heals by helping others

A young law student is using her own experiences to help others who have fled their homes.

23 May 2022

When 21-year-old Violetta finally escaped the horrors of Mariupol, she was determined to help others who had been through the same thing.

“If anyone survives this war, I think it’s for something bigger,” says the young law student. “And everyone should find out for themselves what is that something for them.”

Before the war broke out in February, Violetta lived a happy life by the sea. She graduated from university, helped out in her local community and worked for a law firm founded by a group of friends after they took part in UNICEF’s UPSHIFT programme, which empowers young people by developing their social entrepreneurial skills.

“We worked with vulnerable groups who needed free legal aid,” says Violetta. “And understanding that a person sitting in front of you is having hard time enabled me be compassionate about people’s feelings and help them with legal means.”

Then, war turned her happy reality into a nightmare that was impossible to wake up from.

“The hardest thing was to realize that this is not a dream, that this is happening right here and to you,” she says. “There was endless shelling and constant air strikes, with nowhere to hide. You just start praying, because that’s the only thing you can do to escape.”


Holding on

Before long, a humanitarian crisis enveloped the city, with residents cut off from food supplies, drinking water and electricity. 

Violetta and her parents were forced to build fires to keep warm, melt snow for water and ration food to in order to share their supplies with their hungry pets and the elderly.

“Snow was a gift for us,” says Violetta. “We realized that we could hold on for a while.”

But just walking through the city to deliver supplies to her grandparents was dangerous.  

“Shells hit very close to you and you have no choice. All you see around you are completely destroyed houses. Everything that the people of Mariupol loved so much was destroyed in a blink of an eye. Everything we loved was taken away from us by force.”

After a month, Violetta and her family were able to flee the city in their car. They left behind their shattered homes and took with them the hope of returning one day.


Moving forward

Today, Violetta, her parents, grandparents, three dogs and a parrot share a single room in a dormitory in Zaporizhia. Every morning, she pulls on a yellow and blue volunteer vest and goes to volunteer at the city’s support centre for internally displaced people (IDPs). There, she helps refugees from Mariupol to address legal issues and queries.

Questions range from what to do if a birth certificate was destroyed in a fire, to how to establish the whereabouts of a missing relative.

“The most difficult is not to consult on a legal matter, but to listen to a person’s history,” says Violetta. “Everyone’s story is tragic in their own way. The most difficult is to reach out to a person, to convince them that life still goes on.”

Every day, Violetta provides advice for to up to 25 people who have fled their homes, using her experience from the law clinic she helped to found in Mariupol. 

All the while, the youngster is trying to heal from her own devastating experience. 

“When I decided to volunteer, I was driven by the desire to help those who lost everything in Mariupol. To make them feel that they are needed, so that they are not left alone, even in a foreign city. So that they are not left alone with the war and its hardships.”

As of 20 April, UNICEF has provided assistance to over 9,000 people evacuated from Mariupol and frontline locations, including 115 people (40 children) evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant on 3 May. Evacuees have been provided with over 30,000 litres of water, 5 metric tons of medical supplies, 1,200 hygiene kits, recreational items, emergency food for children, counselling, and psychosocial support activities.