Ukraine: Behind every door is a story to tell

By Sarah Easter, Emergency Communications Officer, CARE Germany and CARE Austria

I am standing in front of a closed door in a shelter in the West of Ukraine. My hand is raised to knock, but I am hesitating. I need a few more breaths to prepare myself emotionally. I knock and enter. A mother is sitting on a bed holding her 2-year-old daughter. A dog runs circles around me and nearly knocks me over, which makes everyone laugh. I crouch down to pet Motia, a small Spitz dog, and open my notebook. The first questions are more general to slowly introduce my interview partners to the conversations. Names, ages, relationships and where they are from. But here in Ukraine, for me the last question of the introduction is sometimes one of the most difficult ones. Names of cities and towns have images attached to them. When the people I meet tell me that they are from Mariupol, from Irpin or Butscha, I always have to take a deep breath. The images on the news about these places circle around in my head. Then the people sitting in front of me tell me their stories.

A woman sits on a bed in a shelter with a notebook and pen in her hands. A small dog sits beside
Sarah Easter, CARE Emergency Communications Officer, with Motia, a Spitz dog, in an emergency shelter in Lviv, Ukraine. The shelter accepts everyone, which is something special, as not all shelters accept the pets of the displaced. Roman Yeremenko/CARE

They tell me about missiles that go through apartments and about dead bodies on the street. They tell me about shaking windows and houses, because of the explosions. About staying in dark, cold, dirty basements with rats and insects without lights, heat, water or electricity for months and months. I hear about their terror, fear and traumas. I meet people that gave birth while fleeing from missiles and bombs. Families, couples, women and children who were only able to take one bag with them and whose homes and everything they own was destroyed. They tell me about all the things they lost; friends, family members, pets and homes. Behind every door of this shelter is a story to tell.

Two doors down the hallway I meet Kristina with her toy cat and pig, who both are also called Kristina and her older brother Sasha, 15. Sasha tells me that he loves to paint and that he wants to sell his pictures and use the money to help children with cancer, because he himself had cancer for five years. One floor down behind another door is Victor, 72, he stands up when I enter and formally introduces himself with his full name and even shows me his ID, which makes me smile. He stands very straight and then moves to straighten the sheet on his lower bunkbed. He shares the room with five other displaced people. He tells me that he is waiting for his wife who is in the hospital at the moment. She had her leg broken and because of the war and the active fighting, they couldn’t get into a hospital for three months. Her leg is in a very bad state, but he is glad that she can get the help she needs now.

I pass a wall with children’s drawings, and I stop to have a look at them. There is a lot of talent there. Most of the children can draw better than I ever could. I smile when I point out at a drawing of an angel. Victoria, head of the shelter, points at one drawing of a jeep in tall grass and tells me that the boy, who created this, saw how his father was shot dead.

Three women and a man stand together looking at a wall filled with children's drawings.
MEAL and Partnership Manager from CARE Ukraine, Moayad Zarnaji, and Sarah Easter, CARE Emergency Communications Officer, talking to Humanitarian aid worker Victoria Fiohnostava in front of the art gallery in the emergency shelter in Lviv, Ukraine. Roman Yeremenko/CARE

Everyone has a story and hearing them is very difficult, but this is their reality. This is what they have seen, heard, felt and lived through in the last six months. It is also very difficult for the women, couples and families to share their stories. There are always tissues ready and I have adapted the way I ask my questions in all of my encounters here. When we reach a difficult and emotional point in their story, I tell them that we can stop at any time and that they can take a step outside if they need to. Most tell me, that they want to talk about what happened to them. They want to share their story with me. If I notice that it is too difficult for them to continue, I change my questions. I ask questions about their previous jobs, about their pets, their children, their favorite memory. Once I feel confident that the timing is right, I go back to the difficult parts. The shooting, the bombs and the fear. I always end on something good. Something funny. I tell them how bad my Ukrainian is. Or let the baby on their mother’s lap eat my finger. Not just for them, but also for myself. Because I cannot end on fear, anger and sadness.

Two man and a woman stand together amid beds in a shelter and embrace facing the camera
Humanitarian aid worker Victoria Fiohnostava with Vanya and Victor, in the emergency shelter in Lviv, Ukraine. They are both in a room with single men who have fled the war. Roman Yeremenko/CARE.

It is important to hear all of these stories, even where I would not expect them. The administrator of a shelter tells me that she sleeps next to her bed with her daughter because is still afraid of explosions that shook her house back in the Donetsk region a few months ago. The photographer that accompanies me throughout my week asks me if I want to adopt a dog that he rescued in the first weeks of the war. My translator tells me, that she has anxiety attacks because of the air alarm. Even in moments, when I do not think about my work, when I sit in a restaurant for dinner after a long day of travelling and meetings with the most amazing and resilient women, I hear a story. When the waitress brings out the food and tells me that they prepare food packages for the shelter that I just visited that day and that the food we ordered for our dinner helps them prepare more packages.

Everyone here has a story to tell, and I want to listen to all of them. To take them with me in my heart, but also on paper and to share these stories back home, because they need to be told and they need to be listened to. It is important to raise awareness of what the people are experiencing on a daily basis, to understand their needs in order to give support where is needed and to raise the funds to help these people in need.

How CARE supports people affected by the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine:

Six months after the escalation of war, CARE and its partner have reached more than 466,000 people affected by the crisis, across Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Georgia, and Germany. In Ukraine, our priority is to meet the immediate needs of affected families through the distribution of critical medicine, food, and water supplies, as well as hygiene kits, cash assistance and psychosocial support. We are also working closely together with our partners to particularly support vulnerable groups — women, children, elderly, and people with special needs — by distributing aid according to their needs and setting-up safe spaces.

Help provide urgent support to those affected by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.