The situation in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions has pushed many to flee their homes

Beginning life with a blank sheet

The situation in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions has pushed many to flee their homes. Belarus’ Gomel Region has become a new home for hundreds of families. Ukrainians have been heartily welcomed, enjoying the same opportunities as local residents: accommodation, medical care, schools and kindergartens.

The Novikov family from Donetsk Region is settling in Belarus now

 Migrants began coming to Gomel Region in early 2014, with more arriving through summer and autumn, when the conflict in East Ukraine enhanced. Every day, dozens of families arrived at the regional centre, eager to forget the war and to find a safe home: elderly people, young families with children and pregnant women were commonplace.

The Gomel City Centre for Family and Child Social Services was the first to begin accepting refugees. Local staff cannot hide their emotions, saying, “We’ve never witnessed such an intense flow in all our years of work. We never thought that we’d need to help our Ukrainian neighbours.”

Gomel, and other cities of Belarus, reacted promptly to the situation. In the very first months, local authorities joined the regional organization of the Belarusian Red Cross Society to establish an interdepartmental commission to co-ordinate work. Representatives of almost all services able to render assistance joined forces, as the Chairperson of the regional organisation of the Belarusian Red Cross Society, Alla Smolyak, explains. She tells us, “People abandoned their homes, arriving virtually with only the clothes they were wearing, so all help was welcome — including food and clothing. Around 5,000 Ukrainian refugees are living in Gomel Region at present — including 550 children (most of school age),” she explains. “Our obligation is to help them get to know each other. We must create a true holiday for them, since they cannot celebrate at home.”

The algorithm of action was clear. The local migration service assists migrants in settling while the Regional Executive Committee’s online site offers a list of employment vacancies: most come with accommodation but are primarily in villages. Children are accepted into schools and kindergartens without problem and the educational sphere is also able to provide employment, as the Head of the Gomel Regional Executive Committee’s Education Department, Sergey Poroshin, explains. He notes that a teacher of history requested work and accepted a job at a day-care children’s centre. Other cases of such a kind have occurred.

The Gomel City Centre for Family and Child Social Services notes that local residents have responded to migrants’ needs, making donations of money (to a charity account), food and clothing, as well as offering accommodation. “A family from Lugansk Region came to us and we found a job and accommodation for them in Dobrush District. The house was great but had no furniture at all so we asked people to help; it might seem incredible but they brought everything necessary: sofas, wardrobes and white goods. The whole community assisted the family,” staff note.

Between past and future

Visiting the Gomel City Centre for Family and Child Social Services, we met the Novikov family, from Donetsk Region’s Khartsyzk. Yelena and Gennady arrived in Gomel with their three children: a 9 month old daughter, and sons aged 5 and 8. All were exhausted after their long journey and disheartened by vague prospects.

With tears in her eyes, Yelena tells of her past life, noting, “We always dreamt of having children and our own house. Our dream came true, as we have two boys and a girl. Each had their own room and we simply lived life. When the war broke out, we exercised patience until the last minute, not wishing to leave our home: my husband was a miner (due to retire in two years) and I’m a pharmacist. We had everything: a job and a house. We’re hard working people and wished nothing from anyone. We lived as ordinary people did, looking after ourselves. Suddenly, we were deprived of everything. Leaving town, we heard the noise of tanks approaching. My parents remained and we contact each other from time to time. They tell us that they need to cover the windows with sticky tape and barricade with sand — as was common during the war. It’s horrible. It seems that going back is impossible.”  

Olga Ivchenko used to work in the sphere of real estate, in Donetsk, but has moved to Gomel with four relatives, including her grandmother. “Our granny used to say that she’d never leave the city — until she saw houses being bombarded with mortar fire. We saw houses collapse, killing the whole family. As we escaped Donetsk, the train was moving slowly, its carriages shaking from explosions. We sat wondering if we’d get out alive.  In Donetsk, I ran my own firm and studied at a Law Department,” she explains.

Hundreds of similar stories can be told, as thousands of people have fled their homes. Life in Belarus is gradually restoring some semblance of ‘normality’ for those who have lost all they owned. The Novikov family now have a home in Rechitsa District, including employment for Mr. Novikov. Meanwhile, Olga Ivchenko and her relatives have settled in an Orthodox nunnery and jobs are available.

Many enterprises in Gomel and across the district centres are offering jobs to those who have fled from Donetsk and Lugansk regions, since no legislative obstacles exist. The 8th March and Komintern sewing factories, as well as Spartak confectionery and Gomeldrev wood processing company are all eager to offer jobs: the latter has already employed around 30 families, while providing housing. Local staff explain, “We are a major company, with open vacancies, and have our own hostel, making it possible to offer accommodation to refugees. The local authorities have assisted, providing several service flats, and refugees are being given the same access to social welfare as local residents: medical services, allowances, provision for children and the New Year gifts.

Let the new year be peaceful

The Belovezhskaya Pushcha, in Brest Region, always welcomes crowds across the New Year and Christmas holidays. Home to Father Frost’s Residence, children from all over Belarus dream of coming and send thousands of letters annually. One letter, written by sisters who moved to Gomel from Donetsk, reads: ‘Dear, Father Frost! We are Violetta (15) and Masha (6) and we used to live in Donetsk. We`re now staying in Gomel. For our major present, we’d like to ask that we might return home as soon as possible and enjoy peace.’

By Violetta Dralyuk
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