Unforgettable resilience: Interview with Victoriia Panchenko on survival and support amidst war in Ukraine


Victoriia Panchenko has been with HelpAge since 2015, supporting older people before and through the full-scale invasion. She tells her story of personal hardships, humanitarian work, and people she has spent nearly a decade supporting – older Ukrainians.

Victoriia is originally from Donetsk region, and had to leave her home in 2022, seeking safety in the town of Lviv, 1,500 km away from home. She is the Programme Lead for HelpAge International in western Ukraine and is currently the interim Country Director for HelpAge’s work in Ukraine.

Last October, I got an invitation to visit the UK and meet His Majesty King Charles III. The full realisation of the honour to be among the humanitarians who would represent the people we support didn’t hit me until I was standing in front of Him. I felt nervous, humbled and proud all at the same time. But a part of me was also sad that this was preceded with insurmountable pain and suffering of millions of people. This is a story older than two years and it’s a look beyond anniversaries.

The early days 

“24 February – the anniversary of the full-scale invasion is difficult for all Ukrainians. But many have been living with the war for much longer.

I am one of those people. For me it all started in my native town of Sloviansk in 2014. There was shelling, there were displaced people and people who stayed in their homes. I was not planning to leave – I sent my daughter to safety and decided to hold down the fort. That is, until mortar shells rained down on me and my friend on the street one day.

I was shellshocked the whole day after that, lethargic, numb, and physically unable to get out of bed. Friends and family insisted I get to safety.

And that is perhaps the beginning of my current life. Although, at the time, I didn’t know just how many more storms I would have to withstand.

A new chapter

In 2014 my daughter and I found safety in Svyatohirsk – a small town in the same region, home to a breathtaking monastery – a place where I spent many hours praying for peace and guidance. It was also a town that received the number of displaced people four times its population. That, I think, was my guidance.

Confident that I had all I held dear already with me – my daughter and a bag of documents – I decided I could do something for others. I didn’t have much else, just my savings. As most people didn’t even have that, applying for allowance or assistance felt wrong.

What I also had was the belief that I could change the world.

After meeting with a few friends and contacts, I brought together 60 volunteers to help the displaced persons in Svyatohirsk. Soon, I established an organisation that continues supporting people in eastern Ukraine to this day. Through this work, I met amazing people and partners inspired to make a difference. Perhaps more importantly, this is how I met HelpAge.

At the time, we were helping older people living near what we used to refer to as the “contact line.” I saw unspeakable misery, isolation, loneliness in their eyes – something that much of the world was tragically unaware of.

But I also saw hope. To older people, every interaction with a social worker meant they were not forgotten. It was this look that kept me motivated through the darkest times of my personal and professional life.

The crescendo  

“It started exactly two years ago. It brought destruction, death and loss the scales of which none of us expected. Having lived and worked in this context, I was aware of the danger. I read up on conflicts and scenarios for their escalation. I learned about safety measures, for myself and my family, for my staff that I was leading in the two most affected regions of Luhansk or Donetsk. But there is only so much you can do in the face of the full war.

My family was growing: my daughter had just started a family and was a new mum to a beautiful girl. She and her husband were setting up a private business, planning their future. When I told her a full-scale war could be coming, she naively asked: “When?” “Yesterday,” was my reply.

It sounded so surreal that my pleas for relocation went unheard. What followed is still hard for me to talk about: constant air raid sirens, deafening explosions, basement shelter for hours on end, frightened infant, and the stubborn determination to survive.

Navigating the storm

The road that led us to Lviv, where we currently live, was no less challenging than those weeks under bombardment: Over a dozen of us were cramped in a small compartment on a train – scared and relieved at the same time. But most of all, unsure. Unsure of what kind of future awaited us at the end of the train ride.

The fate of the HelpAge staff was even scarier. Most of them were local to the two frontline regions, with families and programme participants alike looking to them with hope. I remember the months when we could not reach one of our colleagues in Mariupol. That feeling of fear and helplessness still sends shivers down my spine. When she finally resurfaced, the entire organisation was celebrating, relieved and hopeful that the worst was behind us.

In this chaos, it would have been easy to forget about the older people that we cared for. But not for our staff: they helped them with everything they could. They helped them with evacuations, visited them even with the risk to their own lives. I used to wonder, what made a humanitarian. I stopped dwelling on that long ago. Now I just think back to my colleagues and that’s all the answer I need.

Now there’s more of us. We’re reaching farther across the country and to more older people. Unlike the rather narrow assistance we used to provide before 2022, we have diverse projects. We’re supporting them to handle the now and the later. We assist them with the needs that cannot wait. But we also look ahead to healthier, safer and more dignified future for the ageing population.

Adapting to the unthinkable

The saddest thing yet is seeing how the war has not changed but older people have. They’re adapting to something that should never be normal. Some of them barely flinch at the sound of explosions even though their lives are in as much danger as in the first days. Even though they still cannot reach shelters for lack of mobility. Even though they’ve lost families, friends, and homes.

We try to adapt too. We plan against the odds; we organise in ever-changing circumstances. But most importantly, we listen. We listen to the needs that may sometimes get buried under the rubble of broken lives. We look out for health challenges that the system cannot handle. We watch out for the mental health concerns that are often neglected. And through it all, we remember the hopeful look of the older people who feel that much better, that much more appreciated and cared for every time our social worker asks: “How are you doing?”

The voices we must hear

“Look at my leg,” an older woman in a shelter in Lviv told me, pointing to the stub where her limb used to be. She lost it while waiting in line for humanitarian aid. Survival here comes with its own dangers.

“If I have to die, I’d rather die in my own home,” said a man in a frontline village, far out in the east of the country. His daughter has left abroad for safety, but he’s stayed behind to take care of his house, garden, and pets.

I try to speak with them as much as I can. It’s a reminder of why I spend long hours in the office, why I pour over documents when I could be spending time with my family. It’s a reminder that years into the war, older people still need support. They still need hope for a world where it doesn’t take superhuman strength just to survive.

In the meantime, in this world, they persevere. They prop up households and communities, they volunteer to help others, they dream of the after. And they challenge us to do better.

Their struggle and efforts should not be forgotten. They should not be forgotten. Standing there in Buckingham palace, in front of His Majesty, surrounded by other humanitarians, I was filled with hope that they will not be.”

Two years of war in Ukraine through the eyes of older people

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