Heartbreak and hope: One year of conflict in Ukraine 

What does it mean to live through a year of armed conflict? For some, it means having to leave behind everything they know for somewhere safer. For others, it means spending hours in bomb shelters, or hours without electricity. For too many it means being separated from family, struggling to access basic medical care and not knowing what will happen next. 
Damaged car and rubble on a street in UkraineThe conflict in Ukraine impacts the lives of people across the country in thousands of different ways, even those who live far from the frontlines. At the same time though, life goes on in many places. People go to the market on weekends, walk their dogs and go out for dinner. They try to maintain a sense of normalcy in the face of something that should never be normal. 
I recently spent two weeks in Ukraine meeting some of the people the Red Cross is helping, and local Ukrainian Red Cross teams providing this vital support. 
People in Canada have been exceptionally generous, donating over $171 million to the Canadian Red Cross Ukraine Humanitarian Crisis Appeal, with the Government of Canada matching $30 million. With these donations and other support from the Federal Government, the Canadian Red Cross has been able to provide vital support to people in Ukraine and those who have fled to neighbouring countries through our international Red Cross Red Crescent Movement partners. 
What I heard throughout my trip is how grateful people are for support. To know that people all the way in Canada are standing behind them; to know that Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies from all over the world are here to help. 
While I wish I could share every moment from my trip, that would take several thousand words. For now, here are a few of the stories that will stay with me. 

Sending warmth during cold winter months 

A wood-burning stove. It’s something so simple. Something most of us in Canada don’t think much about, certainly not as our only source of heat. But when you have electric heat and are experiencing regular power outages, a wood-burning stove can mean the difference between comfort and freezing during the winter. 
Part of a wall collapsed on a street in UkraineDamage to infrastructure across Ukraine has meant residents have power outages that can range in length from a couple of hours to over six hours. The Ukrainian Red Cross Society, with support from the Canadian Red Cross, has been providing homes and collective centres with wood-burning stoves to help keep people warm, safe and comfortable. 
Lady Maria lives in Shybene, north of Kyiv, an area that was impacted by hostilities in the spring of 2022. She was in the Carpathia region when the conflict broke out around her home and was unable to return immediately. When she finally made it back, she realized there was no home to come home to. Her brick house on the corner of a tiny street is destroyed, the word “mines” spraypainted in Ukrainian on her front fence. 
An elderly woman in a winter coat looking upMaria (pictured right) is now staying at her friend’s country house just a couple hundred metres down the road. The windows here were damaged in the hostilities too, but they’ve been replaced. It’s good for now, but it’s not home. We visit during a power outage, and the stove – which she’s had for about a month – gives off a comforting warmth in an otherwise chilly room. 
Maria explains to us that she walks by her damaged home almost every day; she is keeping her potato harvest in the cellar there, and proudly tells us it was a good harvest last year. She also picks apples from the tree behind her house and insists we each take one with us. You can see her immense sadness when she talks about her home, but she’s grateful for the help she’s received from her friends and international organizations like the Red Cross. 

A basement shelter for kindergarteners 

Under different circumstances, the tiny backpacks would have been the picture of innocence. Backpacks with various cartoon characters on them, one shaped like a yellow ladybug, neatly sitting on top of multi-coloured lockers.  
But I’m at a kindergarten in Nemishayeve, a village near Bucha outside of Kyiv. And these are the children’s air raid backpacks, filled with warm clothes and maybe a toy for them to play with during sometimes hours-long alerts. I’m immediately struck by the image of kids as young as three grabbing their bags and climbing down the wooden stairs to the basement while the air raid alert sounds. 
It's something no one should have to experience, let alone children this young. It’s become the reality across the country though as the conflict rages on. The best anyone can do is be prepared and try to make the shelter as welcoming and as comfortable as possible. 


Visiting a kindergarten in Nemishayeve that received support from ICRC. From left to right: Anastasiia Mykhailova (ICRC Access to Education office), Katerina (Head of the school), myself, Anton Klymenko (ICRC language specialist), Adam Tadros (Canadian Red Cross Video Editor-Content Producer). (Credit: ICRC)

Due to an air alert during the morning commute, there are no students at the school on the day we visit. We meet with the head of the school, Katerina, and she shows us around. The school feels warm and welcoming, with brightly painted walls and shelves filled with toys and books.  
Katerina leads us to the school’s basement, which serves as the air raid shelter. The school has been operating as a hub for kindergartens in the area since the spring, as it’s the only one with a shelter. The basement is painted with hearts and animals to make it more inviting, and various games and toys help keep the students occupied. Katerina tells me sometimes they play music during alerts. 
The basement served as a shelter for the community during the earliest days of the conflict when hostilities came to the village. At times up to 100 people slept here, every corner being used for shelter. The village was heavily impacted by hostilities, with over 300 buildings, including 26 apartments, and almost 200 houses damaged. 
When the kindergarten was able to reopen for normal operations in mid May, the school received support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as part of their Access to Education program. The ICRC donated equipment such as computers and monitors, some of which were destroyed during the occupation, for the staff to use. They also gave tarps and anti-blast film for the windows. The tarps are used throughout the basement to stop drafts and to line the floor – under a mismatch of colourful rugs – to keep it warmer and drier. 
One teacher tells me the changes she sees in her students over the last year are dramatic. All the children react differently during the alerts, but they’re very nervous and worried. It’s especially hard when they’ve had overnight alerts that disrupt their sleep. 
Operating in exceptional circumstances, the school’s teachers and staff do their best to keep things as normal as possible for the children. For the children who have already been through so much in their short lives, I’m grateful they have such a welcoming place to come to everyday. 

Making a hospital a home 

With 6.5 million people displaced within Ukraine, collective centres have sprung up across the country to provide a safe and warm place for those who have fled their homes. These centres served a number of different functions before the conflict; some were dormitories, some were community centres and some were rehabilitation facilities. 
Men in Red Cross vest unloading bags of supplies from a large white truck
Red Cross personnel deliver mattresses to the collective centre housing internally displaced people in Geronymivka.
We visit one such facility in Geronymivka, Ukraine, which is now housing 53 internally displaced people. The head of this centre explains to us that many have come from Donetsk and have had their homes damaged. She anticipates that their stays here won’t be temporary. The oldest person staying in the shelter is in her mid-80s and the youngest is a baby boy who, on the day of our visit, is just 29 days old. 
While it’s hard enough to make a former hospital into a welcoming home, this centre faces additional challenges: this rehabilitation facility was for children. The shelter’s brightly coloured walls make it inviting, and one little girl proudly shows us the centre’s pet hamster. There are a number of practical obstacles though to housing grown-ups in a facility intended for children. 
All of the furniture is made for kids, including tiny tables and chairs in the kitchen, and tiny beds that aren’t meant to hold more than 100 lbs. Some of the furniture is also just too low to the ground for many adults to comfortably use. The Ukrainian Red Cross Society, with support from the Canadian Red Cross, is providing funding to replace some of this furniture, including many of the beds. 
There are also important updates needed to make the facility safer and more comfortable for residents. The Ukrainian Red Cross is currently supporting with building separate washrooms for men and women and building laundry facilities that residents can use.  
During our visit, an engineer from the Ukrainian Red Cross conducts assessments for other repairs to the facility, many of which will make the building more accessible for older adults and people with disabilities. This includes simple things like adding handrails to the hallways and bathrooms, as well as more extensive improvements like building a ramp to enter and exit the back of the building. 
We meet one gentleman who is staying in a small area cordoned off by a privacy partition because the doorways are not wide enough for an adult-sized wheelchair. The Ukrainian Red Cross will also look to widen some of the doorways so people with wheelchairs and other mobility aids can get around.  
Throughout the tour, it’s evident how passionate the head of the centre is about helping the people in her care. It must be hard for her, to switch from being a doctor to trying to make the hospital a home for people who have been through so much, but she’s doing her best.  

Final reflections 

Thinking about my time in Ukraine, I won’t soon forget driving past bridges and buildings destroyed by hostilities, or spending four hours in the middle of the night in a shelter during an air alert. But what I will always remember is the kindness and resiliency of the people I met, their incredible stories, and their immense gratitude for the help they’ve received. 

To everyone who donated to the Canadian Red Cross Ukrainian Humanitarian Crisis appeal, know that your support is valued and making a difference. 

As the conflict enters its second year, the humanitarian needs are only growing. Frontlines shift, air raids continue, and more people are forced to flee their homes. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, including the Canadian Red Cross, will continue to work across the country and the region for as long as people need our help.  


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