Hotline of compassion

We have agreed with Olha, an operator with a Kyiv-based hotline providing advice to internally displaced persons (IDPs), to meet when her shift is over but she stayed on to assist a lonely elderly woman immobilized in her flat nearly 700 kilometers away in Donetsk due to a hip fracture. A neighbour had called the IOM-supported IDP hotline, and Olha was getting in touch with the Donetsk social services to ask them to provide aid and send a social worker to help the woman. Olha knew where to call, as the elderly woman lived in the same neighbourhood of Donetsk where she has lived for many years before she had to move due to the war. Twenty minutes later she is ready for the interview, and would tell me that her mother, who evacuated with her in August 2014, had a similar fracture a couple of weeks after they arrived in Kyiv and died here last October.

For 21 years, Olha was a teacher of physics and for some time the deputy director of her school in Donetsk. Her daughter started her university studies in Kyiv three years ago, so when the war broke out the family had no doubts where to go. Olha quickly found a job here. “It was the first school where I went for a job interview, and the director immediately offered me a post. I’ve asked her whether she knew that I’m from Donetsk and understood that I might leave at any time,” recalls Olha. “You will be here for at least a year,” the director sadly concluded.

Olha lives in a dormitory with her daughter and their cat, which they have brought with them from Donetsk. It shared their troublesome journey, riddled with frightening explosions, armed men afoot and people fleeing with their furry and feathered friends on the last train going from the station of Yasynuvata near Donetsk to Kyiv before this route was discontinued. For quite a while they had been hiding the cat from the director of the dormitory but fortunately were allowed to keep it.

After her mother’s death, Olha felt devastated. “I wanted to work hard so I would have no time to think about everything we’ve been through.” Her daughter, who had been working as an IDP advice hotline operator, suggested that Olha also join the team. “The first days were overwhelming, I did not know how I would deal with all the desperate requests we get,” remembers Olha. But then she quite quickly adapted.

The hotline is run by the NGO Donbas SOS and supported by IOM with funding from the European Union. One-third of hotline operators are IDPs themselves. They answer up to 100 calls daily, providing displaced and other conflict-affected people with information, referring them for psychosocial support and legal advice, and fostering connections with the main state and non-governmental institutions providing counselling, aid, rehabilitation and integration services. They are a good example of the numerous local non-governmental organizations that have been at the forefront of the robust response of civil society to the crisis in Ukraine since its outbreak in 2014.

As of late July 2015, the number of internally displaced persons registered by the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine reached over 1.4 million people. According to the Humanitarian Country Team estimates, another 5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Eastern Ukraine; out of them 3.2 million are the most vulnerable.

 “Many people are under immense stress in their new living conditions, they do not know whom to turn to and where to look for information, some don’t have Internet access, the others are just disoriented,” explains Olha. “In most of cases we are able to help at least with information.” Almost half of the inquiries received by hotline operators are about documentation and the procedures that should be followed to cross the border between Government-controlled and non-government controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Approximately one-fifth of people calling want to know which state authorities, international and non-government organizations are providing support to IDPs.

The work at the hotline does not only entail answering phone calls. Olha spends a significant amount of time searching for information and reading the NGO’s internal information updates in order to be able to provide proper counsel. During the school year, she had her hotline shifts in the evenings, after the school day. “On an hour-long or so way from the left bank of the Dnieper River to the city centre, I was switching from physics lessons to the plight of IDPs,” she says.

Olha visited Donetsk a while ago and brought the IOM hotline business cards with her to distribute to the locals. She says that they were in high demand. So far, about a quarter of all the calls received by the hotline come from the non-government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

At the end of the school year, Olha’s students asked her if she was going to move back to Donetsk. “Guys, have you seen the news? As soon as you here that everything is OK in Donetsk, I will move,” she replied. “We hope that everything will be OK in Donetsk, but that you will stay here,” replied the children.