Interview with an IOM worker in Ukraine: “Working in such a situation really helps to put oneself together”
Varvara at work on the Ukrainian border during the recent Media and Communications workshop in Moldova. Photo: IOM
Chisinau – On Monday, October 10, Varvara Zhluktenko, communications manager at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Ukraine was to leave Kyiv for a three-day workshop in Chisinau. On the same day in the early morning, the Russian army began a massive shelling of Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv. Fortunately, after some 16 hours on the bus, Varvara reached Chisinau and was able to join her colleagues who had come from the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Belarus. IOM volunteer Elena Vapnichnaia spoke with her.
EV: You left Kyiv on Monday, October 10th. How did your day start? How did you get to Moldova?
VZ: As my colleague and I were sitting in a bus for Chisinau waiting for its departure, we heard the sound of, what they call it these days, an “arrival”. My first thought was that maybe something was being unloaded from the nearby bus and it made this loud sound. But no, it wasn’t that. People ran out of the bus and read the news: indeed, another rocket attack on Kyiv was happening right at that moment. We tried to decide what to do: run home or continue with the business trip anyway. And luckily, we managed to come. Along the way, we saw smoke rising from the city – as we know now, there were several hits that day.
EV: Of course, we all know that this was not the first shelling of Kyiv. I don't understand how you can work in such conditions.
VZ: Actually, working in such a situation really helps to put oneself together and find some kind of internal and external anchors in order not to get overcome with panic or succumb to depression. It's very hard for everyone. The concept of safety and security in Ukraine has now become quite relative – almost everywhere. But we understand that there are people who, today, are much worse off than us, because their houses are destroyed, because their cities are under continuous shelling. People either cannot leave, or they leave with a bare minimum, not really understanding where they are going. They all need support.
EV: We all talked with Ukrainian refugees and with those people who help them here in Moldova. We view them as journalists, while certainly with sympathy and compassion. But for you, they are your compatriots. Was it more difficult for you to work in this situation?
VZ: I think that a human catastrophe of such magnitude cannot leave anyone indifferent. Therefore, I think our colleagues – regardless of citizenship, regardless of nationality – must have been very deeply moved by the stories they heard in the collective centre for Ukrainian refugees in Chisinau.
What makes this situation unique is that, for a very long time, people in Europe thought that wars, shelling, loss of one’s belongings and property, death of loved ones, not knowing what might happen to you tomorrow – whether you will have a job, whether you can buy food, whether you can get medicine and whether you yourself will be healthy or, simply alive – all this can happen somewhere very far away, and not in Europe. And the current war has shown that the war can affect everyone. And, of course, for us, the IOM staff in Ukraine, this all is especially painful, it hurts a lot.
EV: What do you feel now, returning home? What awaits you there?
VZ: Family and work. In fact, it was very good to spend these few days outside of Ukraine, among colleagues from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, because everything that the International Organization for Migration is doing now is not just some kind of targeted interventions. We have a global approach. And this is how it should be in the current situation, when everything is so connected, when there is such an unprecedented level of mobility. And interacting with colleagues, sharing expertise and understanding that we are all working towards one goal – to make sure that the situation in Ukraine does not disappear from the front pages, from the screens, that it is still in the top stories on social media – this kind of understanding is very important. Because, unfortunately, the situation will not end tomorrow, it will not end next month. Nobody knows when things might get back to normal. Given such a long-term prospect, a unified approach and joint work of communication professionals from all over the region is especially important.
EV: Can you briefly explain what exactly IOM is doing now and can do in Ukraine? I assume that your work has changed a lot. What are your priorities at the moment?
VZ: The International Organization for Migration, of course, first of all provides emergency assistance. This includes hygiene products, emergency psychological assistance, and mobile medical teams – both in the east and in the west [of the country], in places where there are many internally displaced persons. There is also financial assistance that allows people to decide for themselves what their most urgent needs are and what they should spend money on.
Also, our hotline for safe migration and combating human trafficking continues to function and is now very active. It is very important to provide people with up-to-date verified information.
But in this unprecedented situation, in addition to emergency response, we try to think about the future – because people in Ukraine now more than ever need hope and some confidence in the future – if not for the day after tomorrow, at least for tomorrow. So, we managed to obtain funding for programmes supporting displaced small businesses – those who were forced to move their production to the safer western regions of the country, and businesses that are now trying to recover in the areas where the control of the Ukrainian government has been restored.
It is very important that people have jobs, that people can create new jobs, give jobs to others. And we continue to communicate with donors in order to help Ukraine find solutions to housing problems. Collective centres are a temporary way out, but there is a huge need to restore the housing that was destroyed. And we need to look for some more long-term solutions in those regions. First and foremost, they are needed in the west of Ukraine, where many internally displaced persons have arrived. Some of them really want to stay there and to find work there. And they have. But they need alternatives to collective centres.
This interview, by IOM Volunteer Elena Vapnitchnaia, was first published on the UN News site in Russian