Uzhhorod, 19 May 2022 - Before the war, some 1,200 students walked the halls of School 6’s brick building, in the narrow cobblestone streets of Uzhhorod, the capital of Western Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region.
Now, 263 people who fled from the east and south call it a temporary home — a familiar scene across the country.
Among them is Oleksandra Telenkova*, 57, who fled her home in the eastern city of Rubizhne in Luhansk region. She spent a month in a cellar protecting herself from shelling before she was evacuated. Widowed before the war, she was separated from her son and grandchildren, who stayed behind.
"I came to Uzhhorod alone, but my family found shelter near Kviv," she said.
"My city has been bombed almost every day since the beginning of the war. I had a contusion when my house was shelled in March. I thought I would not be able to speak anymore,” she added, sitting on a single mattress on the floor of a classroom where she lives with six other people and a dog.
Like Oleksandra, many have gone through long journeys and experienced the perils of war. Each day, she thinks about her destroyed home, and breaks down in tears. “My home was destroyed. There is nothing to return to. I do not know where I can go back to,” she said.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and partners have been working to offer information to help Oleksandra and many others get settled as quickly as possible. “The welcoming of the people of Uzhhorod and the support received from humanitarian organizations has been outstanding,” she remarked.
But after working all her life in a manufacturing factory in her hometown, Oleksandra does not know what to do next. She wants to find work in Uzhhorod but has some concerns: “At my age and with the situation in the country, my chances may not be great, so I am willing to do anything.”
As the war entered its third month, more than eight million internally displaced Ukrainians, 17 per cent of the prewar population, struggle to find safety, adequate housing, and access to employment. A further six million people have crossed into neighbouring countries.
A place to rest
Small chairs and desks are piled up around the school. They have all been removed from the classrooms. Instead, people — mostly women and children — sleep on mattresses laid on the floor, beneath chalkboards and crayon containers.
IOM mobile teams are working nonstop to rehabilitate schools, student dormitories, sports centres and other buildings to provide safe and more dignified accommodation for up to one million displaced people. Windows, doors and roofs are being replaced; electrical systems rewired; more outlets provided; sanitation facilities improved; non-functioning lights and ventilators replaced; and temporary partitions installed for privacy.
“Even though these are temporary solutions for displaced people, we are trying to improve the living conditions by providing safe, secure and dignified space to the extent possible. We are especially looking at integrating inclusive design features in these existing facilities, such as installing handrails in showers and toilets, so that they cater to the specific needs of the elderly and people with disabilities,” explained Nadia Tithi, IOM Shelter and Settlement Officer.
The first part of this programme has been rolled out in the Zakarpattia region, which currently hosts around 180,000 displaced people. It will cover the five western regions of Ukraine, which are the primary destinations for newly displaced people – viewed as safer than areas where fighting is intense. The programme will then be expanded to other regions, depending on the need and the security situation.
To help people like Oleksandra, IOM is working closely with local authorities to significantly expand the temporary reception capacity for internally displaced people and identify buildings for rehabilitation to serve as collective centres for longer-term stays.
Uncertainty remains as conflict endures
On a sunny day, a Ukrainian flag floats over the entrance of the school. The yard is silent; only soft light shines through lines of clothes drying in the back. Through a maze of school corridors, Mariia Grynchuk, School Director walks with a beaming smile towards what used to be the school’s sports hall. Dozens of mattresses are placed next to one another. Plastic bags with a few personal effects in them indicate which space is currently occupied.
"Our government asked all of us to help in any way we can," Mariia said. "Here, we might not have much to offer, but it is at least something. IOM has repaired electricity and added additional sockets in the gym and classrooms. Now, people do not need to queue to charge their gadgets.” Mariia is proud of her school for being one of many facilities in Western Ukraine that has opened its doors to provide accommodation for displaced people.
In the meantime, Oleksandra is hopeful that she will soon reunite with her son and grandchildren. “I have no idea how long we will stay here. I hope the war will be over soon. I would then like to go home, and I will see my son and grandchildren, but this is not an option now.”
Like every other person who managed to flee for safety, Oleksandra counts herself lucky to be alive, even if she has lost everything. But, like millions of other displaced people, she is living in this school without knowing when, or even if, she will be able to return home.
*Names have been changed for protection purposes.
This story was written by Gema Cortes, with IOM Ukraine Response.