HelpAge International s Ukraine Humanitarian Response Manager, Orla Murphy, reflects on the past six months of full-scale war in Ukraine and the plans ahead to respond to the longer-term needs of those embroiled in a protracted war.
Just before February 24, everybody was preparing but nobody thought that an invasion was going to happen. Then it did.
This had a direct impact on our staff and volunteers who were mostly located in eastern Ukraine, where HelpAge International has supported older people since the conflict with Russia started in 2014.
They and millions of others became displaced. They moved to Lviv, to Dnipro, left the country. Some had no option but to leave older relatives behind.
The impact on them, as people and as humanitarians, was colossal. But they picked up what they could, crammed onto trains and started working in new, areas: meeting different authorities, reaching out to other organisations to help those needing support, while also finding accommodation and getting up four times a night for the bomb shelter.
Their courage and determination enabled us to open two new offices – in Dnipro and Lviv – in a relatively short space of time. Through them we distributed 35,000 food kits in the oblasts of Dnipropetrovska and Lviviska and Chernivetska further west.
Meanwhile, the volunteers who remained in the east helped co-ordinate food distributions and have continued to provide phone support to more than 2,600 of the older people we worked with before, helping them face the trauma of a war so precariously close.
It is largely down to our national staff and these volunteers that we have achieved what we have, and I remain in awe of what they have done.
An unprecedented response
The wider response has been extraordinary. The volume of volunteers is changing the face of humanitarian action at a scale I have never seen before. They are setting up new organisations, providing food, clothes, shelter and support.
I ve never before experienced so much public generosity. Support has come from governments and people everywhere, including the more than 350m raised by the UK s DEC appeal and over 226m from the public appeal in Germany.
This funding is very much needed. Ukraine is different and more complicated than most emergencies in that a functioning government and systems are still in place. This requires a different approach, which has been challenging, especially with the pace of change and uncertainty.
Ukraine is also in Europe so it s expensive. Rent, for example, can be prohibitively high for those who have fled their homes and lost almost everything, including their income. How can they also afford to buy food, fuel and other basic needs for an unknown length of time?
There are currently 17.7 million people needing support in Ukraine, 2 million more than in April. There are still 6.4 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe and 6.6 million displaced people within the country.
Millions of older people have remained at home despite the danger, either through choice or because of mobility difficulties. Many need food, medicine and access to healthcare as well as emotional support as they face the horror of war alone. For those older people who have moved, they often need specific support to help them navigate their new surroundings, find shelter and access the services they need, like healthcare, pensions and vital medicines. Our assessment shows 89% of older displaced people had a health condition while 12% had no access to the medicine they needed.
The HelpAge response
A quarter of Ukraine s population is over 60 and one in three of those affected by the conflict in the east since 2014 – even before February – was older, making Ukraine the world s oldest humanitarian disaster. Even so older people s needs are often overlooked by the humanitarian response.
Our focus is to support older people and those with disabilities. We work with them, new local organisations and partners, listening to the challenges they face and giving them a chance to make key decisions for themselves. By shaping our plans with them, we are likely to be more effective and targeted.
With so many people who are older or with disabilities remaining at home, rolling out our home-based care in the four oblasts where we work Dnipropetrovska, Lviviska, Chernivetska and Kharkivska – is central to our work. We are training volunteers who are often older themselves to help.
We have registered 4,000 displaced people, who need support and have set up a scheme so that they can receive a payment of one lump sum from the Ukraine Post Office to enable them to purchase what they need over three months.
Our work to establish community safe spaces for older people to be heard and to access services, also continues.
Six months into the war, thousands of displaced people are still living in collective centres. We are providing small grants to 38 centres. The people living in the centre together with those running them decided on the most urgent needs. They have bought beds, built urgently needed bathrooms, purchased food, or simply paid bills.
At the same time, we must start looking at longer-term needs, helping people who know they are not going to be going home because of the protracted nature of this war. They need support to adapt in this new future that they couldn t have imagined this time last year.
We aim to help older people and people with disabilities regain a sense of control in their lives, despite the unpredictable situation they live in and we re committed to doing the best we can.
By Orla Murphy, Ukraine Humanitarian Response Manager.