Internally Displaced- Finding Refuge at Home

This seemingly dark and ominous building was once a pied-a-terre for sailors in Odesa. Today, a community of IDPs call it home. Photo: Megan Birot

As the war in Eastern Ukraine enters its fourth year, the civilians uprooted by the conflict are finding solace in new communities. A port city on the Black Sea is paving the way for the integration of internally displaced peoples.

The building with boarded-up windows seems deserted, and for a while it was. But, children’s sketches on the decaying walls behind the entrance’s red wooden doors already hint at signs of life.

“This is our home now after the war, because I have nowhere else to go,” says Evdoki Ceprei.

The crumbling 19th Century building in the heart of Odesa, on Uspenska Street, is a burgeoning haven for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), including 82-year-old Evdoki. She fled the war in Eastern Ukraine after her home in Donetsk was devastated by shelling three years ago. Today, she lives there with more than 40 internally displaced families and those of fallen soldiers.

“My family built our home (in Donetsk) with just their hands many years ago, but I was not there to see it fall,” she says, struggling to holds back tears.

“I think that’s why we are close in this shelter. Some of us come from the same region and we all experienced something similar, but some have lost loved ones. We’re a real community.”

Evdoki and Sergey Ceprei live in small rooms next to each other at the shelter. Photo: Megan Birot

As the conflict in the East enters its fourth year, Ukraine now has nearly 1.9 million IDPs, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy. Odesa is home to more than 42,000 of them, a relatively small population compared to regions bordering the conflict, with Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv shouldering most of the burden.

The conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists was the bloody aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution and Moscow’s subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014. More than 10,000 people have died in the war, while 3.4 million need humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.

Unlike refugees, internally displaced peoples flee from conflict or persecution but don’t cross borders to seek asylum in other countries. They remain in their country, having to rebuild what they lost.

Sofia Markina was among the first IDPs to move into the shelter in the summer of 2014. She now works for several local NGOs helping others uprooted by the conflict to find accommodation in the port city. Evdoki and her son Sergey, 53, were welcomed through the red doors two years ago and have called it home ever since.

“Every IDP who lives here is family to me. Our children go to school together,” Sofia says.

“I have a social life now because everyone at the shelter is really close, and I volunteer to help other IDPs find homes in Odesa and close to it.”

Sofia is on a mission to help IDPs find shelter in Odesa. Photo: Megan Birot

Some 20 years ago, the dilapidated building was a bustling pied-a-terre for sailors and European foreigners. Today, it’s a not-so-secret haven for IDPs. Entry is only granted upon referral, or if you know someone on the inside. Sofia says it’s to preserve the privacy of families and deter looters.

Odesa Oblast Council owns the building and had previously tried to sell it, but local leaders and campaigners were able to get it recognised as a historical site to save it from going under the hammer.

Since then, the IDP community living within its walls have been on a mission to bring the 19th Century edifice into  present day. They installed windows, extra toilets and kitchens to accommodate new arrivals, with free materials and donations from private entities or local NGOs. The shelter now also has a makeshift child care center for preschoolers. Every few weeks, a new family moves in, more often than not from the East.

It is no wonder since Odesa is home to the second largest IDP population (13%) residing in collective centers after Kyiv, in Western Ukraine, according to the Global Shelter Cluster.

“We can’t afford to live anywhere else and we don’t want to leave Odesa. Our government doesn’t have the money to help us, so we must help ourselves,” Sofia says.

“So, we began to renovate the building so IDPs can live here and be safe.”

The pleas of IDPs haven’t changed much since the conflict began. Those fleeing the war scrambled to find shelter anywhere, mostly in abandoned sanatoriums or camps. What was meant to be temporary settlement for many became permanent. Meanwhile food, medicine and other basic supplies are still largely provided by international NGOs and donors.

The red doors at the entrance of the shelter lead to a corridor with children’s drawings on the walls. Photo: Megan Birot

IDP pension is on average 1,573UAH (EU50) a month and often the sole source of income of people uprooted by the war, according to OCHA.

“It’s very hard, you barely survive on that kind of money. Yes, you’re not starving, but you’re not living a normal life,” says United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Ukraine coordinator Yevgeniy Zelenko.

“Ukraine is not a rich country and has many issues like AIDs and drugs, so resources are stretched and IDPs are not getting the funding they need.

“Because there are other conflicts in the world, notably in Syria, there’s a general feeling among UN agencies and people that Ukraine is a bit forgotten. Attention is diminishing, and therefore funding for the humanitarian crisis is diminishing. There is a huge financing gap for IDPs.”

After leaving Donetsk, Evdoki couldn’t receive her elderly or IDP pension for six months until she was able to register at a new address. Then, the car in which she slept for countless nights in her search for refuge, was stolen when she arrived in Odesa with just a bag of clothes.

“This shelter and my son are all I have now. Everyone here is so friendly, and we have become a community,” she says.

“We look after the kids, we cook together and look after each other, but I feel bad for not being as active as I used to be.”

In the prime of her life, Evdoki worked as an elevator operator in a coal mine during the Soviet Union.

“It was very respectable work, and I got a lot of prestige from management and a good salary,” she says.

“Life was easier back then, but it’s good now too because we all have each other.”

From rehab to refurb

Irina spends most mornings in the room she shares with her two sons before heading off to work at the shelter’s kindergarten. Photo: Megan Birot

In a former rehab centre on the outskirts of Odesa, another community of IDPs is rising from the ashes of war.

“We have a roof over our head, food and our children, so we cannot say we’re not happy,” says Irina Smagina. She extends her ear to catch the faint singing from the building’s kindergarten and smiles.

The shelter is a far cry from its dubious past. In the last few years, refurbishments sponsored by local NGOs have allowed more than 50 internally displaced families to settle there over three allocated floors. Their children run amuck along the pink corridors, and preschoolers attend the shelter’s de-facto kindergarten.

“I don’t stop smiling even now,” says Irina- the smiley pinned on her vest, a quirky testament of her optimism.

The 45-year-old fled her hometown in Luhansk with her teenage sons Michael and Anatol at the beginning of the war. The family now lives in a 10 square meter room with red Soviet motif rugs covering coated wooden floors. The boys share a bunk bed, and Irina gets her shut eye on a single bed, under which she stocks jams and canned food.

She suffers from diabetes and was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago. She hasn’t been back to the doctors since.

“Why would I?” she asks. She can’t afford cancer treatment; her savings were depleted in the move and her eldest son’s cataract surgery.

Irina survives on her IDP pension and a small teaching salary.

“It’s not a lot,” she says. But she refuses to speak of amounts, “It’s not proper to talk about money with strangers.
IDPs help each other. If someone needs food, we give it to them. If someone needs money for medicine or school, we all give a little a bit.”

Irina received a Business Start-up Grant from the UNDP to help IDPs start new careers or businesses. She studied English for six months before becoming a teacher at the center’s day care, where she works most afternoons.

A family of five share this room at the shelter for IDPs on the outskirts of Odesa. Photo: Megan Birot

But according to UNDP Ukraine coordinator Zelenko, prolonged unemployment remains a challenge for IDPs in host communities.

“Finding jobs or earning money is still a problem. I would say by now IDPs have found a place to live, but really it’s temporary, not permanent and that’s a problem also,” he says.

“There is a debate on this; some people believe we should help them relocate permanently, others say we need to restore Donbas so that they can go back because there is no funding or enough infrastructure for permanent relocation.

“Ukraine is very friendly to IDPs in general. People are very receptive and welcoming, but host communities like Odesa also have their own problems with prostitution and drug use, for example, where government funding is most needed.”

Odesa is leading the charge in IDP integration and protection. Last year, the city, in conjunction with the Council of Europe, hosted a series of seminars advocating streamlined guidelines in the field of IDP protection, in line with European human rights standards. The regional council also works with civil society on initiatives aimed at improving the rights of IDPs in the community, including property rights and basic social protection.

Vasiliy Garlowska from Good Home, a local NGO helping IDPs find accommodation in the city, describes Odesa as a success story for IDP integration.

“We have partners all over the country, and the feedback we get every month is that IDPs want to settle here most of all. It’s a word of mouth situation where someone who knows someone who is displaced tells them of Odesa and its inclusiveness,” he says.

“Civil society is very active here, and we’re never short of volunteers who want to help IDPs and refugees feel welcome. They’re proud of their city, and they want to instill that in others.”

Internally displaced peoples: A snapshot

Overall, IDPs are reporting better integration rates in host communities. Photo: Megan Birot

According to the latest National Monitoring System Report on the Situation of Internally Displaced Persons, the employment rate for IDPs has increased from 35 to 50 percent since 2016. Overall, IDPs have also reported better integration in local communities, attributed to housing and regular income.

Odesa and Kyiv are among the top employers. The average monthly salary for IDPs has also increased to 2,446UAH (EU76) in the last two years, although most still rely on government support as a second source of income, according to the report. More than half of IDPs have described their financial situation as “enough funds for basic needs”.

The report also revealed most IDPs now live in rented housing, with more than 47 percent renting apartments, while most live with relatives or host families.

However, IDPs still struggle to exercise their most basic constitutional right in host communities. Voting in local elections is restricted by the government’s use of the antiquated Soviet-era propiska system, which only allows citizens to vote at polling stations to which their voter address is assigned. Since most IDPs don’t officially reside in the territory of their host community, most can’t vote in local elections.

IDPs also face challenges when accessing basic social services, including IDP pensions due to bureaucratic red tape and delays in registration processes.

Despite this, IDP integration overall is on the up, and the rest of the country could well look to Odesa for inspiration.

“We have found a real community here, and that’s priceless for me,” says Evdoki.