If you are going to survive in Kharkiv, Ukraine, you need to keep your mobile phone with you at all times  — 24 hours a day —  with the volume turned up. 

The phone apps provide potentially life-saving air raid alerts.  You can never switch off or relax. Almost every night Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second city —  is shelled by missiles or drones.  Very often we get just 30-60 seconds warning that a missile has been launched, because the city is just 42 kilometres from the border with Russia.

So when there is an alert, you have to move fast. Many residential buildings do not have bomb shelters.  The nearest to my apartment is the metro, which is a five to seven minutes  walk.  There is no time to run to a shelter.  That’s why most people in Kharkiv take cover in their bathroom or the corridor, or don’t have time to hide anywhere.

It’s impossible not to be on alert all day, every day. It’s is impossible to go to the theatre or a concert.   Children do not go to schools and kindergartens.  All mass gatherings of people are  forbidden. Sometimes it is impossible to go out in the evening unless it is in the basement.  In some shops it is impossible to shop for a long time, because in Kharkiv the air-raid alarm goes off an average of five times a day.

It’s very painful to see a once thriving city, famed as a cultural and scientific hub within Ukraine, turned  into a half-empty and wounded one, with the homes and hearts of its inhabitants destroyed.

Where once there were two million inhabitants, now there are 1.2 million.  Those who have remained have made a conscious decision to stay, no matter what. They love Kharkiv.

A few days ago, after a major fire in the city, when there was a need for clothes and food for the victims, there was a traffic jam with cars bringing aid in a steady stream. When you realise every day that you could be the next person to be attacked, it is hard to remain indifferent to other people’s problems. It is powerfully unifying.

I was one of those who left Kharkiv in March, 2022, and sought sanctuary in France.  February 24, 2022, was the worst day of my life, the day my life collapsed.   It was unclear what would happen next, whether Kharkiv would stay, whether Ukraine would remain independent. I was very scared for my family, friends and acquaintances.

It was a day of exchanging calls and messages. Some people were leaving, some were going to the front, some people’s phones did not answer, and then, for some the other person would never again answer. It was the day when it became clear that things were not going to be the same, that everything had changed.

At first, I wanted to stay in Kharkiv, but the intensity of the shelling was incredible. It was unclear where the next missile would land. Houses in all districts were being hit, people’s lives were being destroyed, administrative buildings were falling. It seemed that there was no living place left in Kharkiv. So, at the end of March, I decided to leave. 

I drove to Chernivsti in western Ukraine with my parents and sister, before crossing into Romania and flying to France – Wizz Air was providing free tickets for Ukrainians at the time.   

I thought things would get better in a month or so, that Russia would withdraw and we would go home, so I didn’t take much with me. I went to France with a small backpack, with a minimum of things, because I thought I would return soon, but I ended up staying in France for 15 months.

During some of that time, I was a recipient of aid from humanitarian organisations.  I saw how dedicated these people were, but I also understood what it was like to be a recipient of aid, what was really important to you, and what could wait.

After a few months in Roen in Normandy, I became co-founder and president of an association to help Ukrainians. We helped refugees in France, organised events for children and collected money, clothes and food to send to Ukraine.

I worked as a solicitor in Kharkiv before the conflict. But my experience in France left me motivated to return to Ukraine to help people and work in Kharkiv Oblast.  I had left for France in complete despair because everything I had was broken. I saw no prospects.  I just hoped that everything would end soon. 

I returned to Ukraine last June  with the same hopes, but also with an understanding of what I should do and how I want to live.

Concern Worldwide and German humanitarian organisation Welthungerhilfe had set up a joint humanitarian programme, the Joint Emergency Response in Ukraine (JERU).  I joined as a protection officer.  It was exactly the role I was looking for.

My job involves providing social and legal protection to vulnerable people to help them cope with challenges and stress. Working with a local partner we run psychosocial support for children. Both psychologists and teachers work with the children to help them catch up with their education.

Psychosocial support session activities for children in Kharkiv Oblast. Olena Kovalenko said: “We help children to have a childhood full of fun, games and laughter — that is extremely important. Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/Concern Worldwide

We monitor the process of working with the children, communicate with the children and parents, discuss the topics of the sessions to make them as effective as possible, and together with our partner organise a comfortable space for the children to forget about fears, explosions, worries and just be children.

A psychosocial support session for for children in Kharkiv Oblast. The sessions provide a comfortable space for children to forget about fears, explosions, worries and just be children. Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/Concern Worldwide

It is a joy to see the great results of our work, to see children happy and excited to go to class. We help children to have a childhood full of fun, games and laughter — that is extremely important. And when parents see happy children, they become happier too, it is very noticeable and it is a real pleasure to work.

Last year JERU supported over 16,500 adults and children to access essential psychosocial support. It provided multi-purpose cash payments to over 80,000 people. Working with nine national and local partners, we reached a total of 144,000 people last year and a total of 208,000 people since JERU was established in 2022.  

That support has taken the form of:

  • cash to cover basic needs and winter readiness;
  • psychosocial support such as counselling sessions for children and adults;
  • livelihoods programming, which involved financial and educational support to small and medium sized business owners affected by displacement and the ongoing conflict.
Children are waiting in a school bomb shelter in Ukaine for the air raid to end. Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak/Concern Worldwide

Our partners have enabled us expand our programmes to the north, east and south of the country where alongside Poltava and Dnipro, we have implementation in Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzha, Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts where some of the most vulnerable populations are residing in front line regions and areas with international borders to Russia.

In the eight months since I have returned to Ukraine, it’s striking how everything and everyone has been changed by what they have experienced over the last two years. On the bad side,  there is constant stress, insecurity and a deterioration in the standard of living for many people. Even our cities, which used to be cheerful, full — even overcrowded —  are now empty and gloomy.

But there is also a positive side. We have learnt to adapt to constant challenges and emergencies, to react quickly, which will certainly be useful for the further development of ourselves and our Ukraine.

The war makes people change their priorities, not to put things off and to value life and their loved ones more. It is very noticeable that people have started to doubt less and do more, to understand better who they are and what they can do, to support each other in difficult moments and to celebrate small victories together in anticipation of a big one.

I think what everybody misses is the peace — the time without air raids, moments of lightness, big celebrations, pre-war routines. Sadly, many people also miss their loved ones, whom they have lost and will never see again.

I also miss the opportunity to visit every corner of Ukraine, long walks at night in Kharkiv, which has not known war, the opportunity to meet with a large group of friends and the news that does not contain the death of children or young people.

When I look to the future I have one big dream, like everyone else, and that is victory. I really want it to come soon and for us all to live peacefully and happily, without worrying about our loved ones.

Olena Kovalenko is a protection officer with the Joint Emergency Response in Ukraine which is run by Alliance2015 members Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe. Photo: Dmytro Karpov.

When the war is over, I will walk around Kharkiv at night, have a picnic with my friends in the countryside, lie on the grass and look at the calm and peaceful blue sky, and then go to Boryspil airport and just sit in a coffee shop and admire the civilian planes flying back and forth, people enjoying meeting each other and not saying goodbye for the last time, people rushing to the check-in counter instead of taking shelter from the air raid. I wish I could all implement such plans as soon as possible.

By Olena Kovalenko, protection officer for JERU in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

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