Platform of Goodness: How a Team from Mariupol Created a Support Network for Their Townsmen

АвторОлена Тищук
21 Березня 2023

Within the Platform of Goodness project, the editorial staff of Platfor.ma online magazine pay visits to worthy projects, personally help their causes, and write pieces about their experience to raise awareness of important initiatives and show people that helping others is easy. This time we visited one of YaMariupol (lit. IAmMariupol) initiative’s support centers, created by and for the people of Mariupol to provide their townsmen scattered all over Ukraine with care and support.

🇺🇦 Text in Ukrainian is available here🇺🇦

Mariupol citizens fleeing the occupation were first arriving at an Epicenter [home improvement retail corporation: Ukrainian equivalent of Home Depot] store situated on Orikhiv highway, Zaporizhzhia. People arrived, column after column, escorted by police vehicles, ambulances, and emergency responders from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine. After making it through dozens of the enemy’s roadblocks, the evacuees could finally feel safe — at least, physically, as they did not feel quite at home mentally. Though the worst was already behind, what lay ahead scared them. Therefore, evacuated Mariupol authorities established their muster point for their confused townspeople, to greet them and offer necessary assistance.

“Mariupol folks were greeted by their municipal authorities, which put them at ease and gave them the feeling of arriving to their own people,” shares Volodymyr Mohylniy, head of one of the YaMariupol centers. “We were hearing everyone out and offering them groceries, personal hygiene items, and accommodation, we negotiated temporary accommodation for the evacuees with Zaporizhzhia regional authorities. But most importantly, we asked the people from Mariupol about their primary needs and requests. This is how the idea of creating a network of support centers came to be, arising from the duty of Mariupol municipal authorities to care for the people of Mariupol.”

Understandably, people who fled the occupation to Zaporizhzhia felt the urge to flee even further. Thus, the Mariupol townspeople continued to leave, with most of them settling in Dnipro, which at the time was perceived as a city deep in the rear. It was in Dnipro that the first YaMariupol Center was opened, providing the services that evacuees from Mariupol requested from the authorities.

“People needed legal support, as most of them were lacking documents as they fled. Some lost them to fires or under the rubble of collapsed buildings; some were temporarily staying with their friends or relatives, when their homes (where they kept their documents) were destroyed. Others had no time to pack, at all,” recalls Volodymyr.

At the center, they distributed humanitarian aid, registered the new arrivals, and formalized their IDP status.

“We offered mental health support, too. People were disoriented, having lost their homes and their entire lives they’d built for themselves before February 24. They’d lost everything in a single stroke and were left to their own devices. That was very hard for them, but they had the YaMariupol center that they could approach to get help. During the initial stage, we basically took it upon ourselves to cover all needs of those people.”

It was the Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko who initially came up with the idea of such a center, and Pavlo Kyrychenko, Head of Donetsk Regional Administration, supported it immediately. Currently, 17 such support centers are operating all across Ukraine, with four of them involving consumer services centers and are more like community hubs.

“When we launched YaMariupol in Dnipro, we were flooded by requests to open similar centers in other Ukrainian cities. Of course, we can’t open our center in every settlement. However, we opened them one by one in places with the highest concentration of IDPs from Mariupol, gradually expanding the range of our services. As of today, we have 17 YaMariupol centers across the country. No one has ever done that before.”

Volodymyr serves as head of the new YaMariupol center in the left-bank part of Kyiv. It was created with the intention of covering as many needs of IDPs from Mariupol as possible, all in one place. There is another such hub in the capital city, operating near the Olympic Stadium. In total, those two centers serve the community of 18,000 IDPs, whom Volodymyr jokingly calls the “Mariupol diaspora in Kyiv.”

Having opened its doors on December 15, 2022, the YaMariupol venue spreads over two floors of a business center. Right at the entrance, there is a children’s play area, where daycare assistants entertain the little ones from Mariupol while their parents file their applications for assistance. The room is much like a regular kindergarten, with all the noise and music playing and scattered toys, so even when their parents are finished, the kids pester them to stay a bit longer.

“Here we have such a cozy mess. There’s no such thing as clocking hours in the children’s room, it operates continuously, so that the kids are not stuck in the hallways. All the kids are here, even if their mom popped in for just five minutes,” explain the staff members.

Further down the hallway is the administrator’s office where program coordinators greet IDPs from Mariupol and ask them about the services they need.

“This is Anna, our inexhaustible spring of energy and care, and she is the one greeting the IDPs,” Volodymyr introduces us to the woman. “She inquires about the type of assistance needed in each case and decides where to bring visitors next. While we all are universal and interchangeable, everyone has their area of responsibility.”

Olena, for instance, issues coupons for humanitarian aid and then takes the visitors to the warehouse where they receive the goods.

“Most IDPs from Mariupol are already registered, so they come for some specific service. For instance, to receive humanitarian aid or winter bedroom accessories (pillows, duvets, and duvet covers). Everything is provided by our partners and charities, and the humanitarian bloc — that is our warehouse — is in charge of that part.”

She shares her office with a recruiter who helps the IDPs with job hunting, both in Kyiv and beyond: every center of the network has its own recruiter, so people who are planning on leaving the capital are offered jobs in their destination. Next door is the lawyers taking care of financial assistance, helping new parents with obtaining baby boxes, etc.

When necessary, the visitors are invited to the second floor, for an appointment with a general practitioner or a psychotherapist. Each medical professional has a separate room, so they can receive the IDPs in private, learn about their problems, and offer necessary assistance.

Dmytro the psychotherapist shares that the most frequent pains are “I want to go home” and “I’m struggling to adapt,” coupled with PTSD, which 50% of the visitors have.

“My task is to mitigate those problems and help each person get back on track, find a purpose, and recover their internal resources. Their life has changed, so they have to find a different approach. They can’t go home just yet, and when they will finally able to, it will never be the same as before. Thus, I feel that my mission is to help them to shift gears. Sooner or later, the war will end, but the lives of those people will still never be the same again,” sums up Dmytro.

Inna the general practitioner is in charge of Mariupol IDPs’ physical health. If there is a problem, she redirects her patients to specialized medical doctors.

“We are a dispatch station of sorts, knowing many hospitals where we can redirect our patients. We receive people, hug and comfort them, and after they have calmed down, we ask them where they live and redirect them to a medical facility nearest to their neighborhood, as people from Mariupol don’t always know their new city that well.”

It turns out that there is even a branch department of a Mariupol hospital in Kyiv, near the Shuliavska metro station, initiated and operated by medical professionals who fled Mariupol, joined their efforts, and found a property that could accommodate a medical clinic. The clinic does not charge IDPs from Mariupol for appointments with doctors and select medical tests.

Besides, YaMariupol is also launching online consultations by a pediatric infectionist from Mariupol, so that the mothers would have someone to ask for advice. Adjacent to the general practitioner’s office is a baby care room, a gift from Save the Children Fund.

Apart from all the mentioned above, the left-bank YaMariupol is one of the four centers in the network that involves a consumer services center, with a dentist’s, a laundry room, a hair salon, and a tailor’s station right next to the administrator’s office, and a coworking upstairs.

“We closely monitor the needs of IDPs from Mariupol, and never seize to ask them what services they would like to have at our centers, and dental care is one of those requested services.”

“Everyone’s teeth have gone bad,” says the dentist, “because of nerves, because of the stress, of the terrible living conditions that people had to endure in Mariupol, due to them melting snow for drinking water and consuming technical water from the pipes and the centralized heating system. So to them, accessibility of dental service is crucial. Our task is to provide at least minimal care in order to save their remaining teeth.”

At the center, it costs UAH 54 [~USD 1.5] to be examined by a dentist, with the rest of the dental care services also being considerably below the market prices. Obtaining such huge discounts in regular dental clinics turned out to be an impossible task, so dental services are provided on-site. The same price policy extends to the venue’s hairdressing salon run by two hairdressers: the prices are very low, and the most vulnerable groups are serviced free of charge.

“People rent whatever accommodations they can afford, and not every such accommodation has a washing machine, so the laundry room is quite popular. We have three industrial washing machines, which are used in dry cleaning, as well as two dryers, and even a laundry roller iron for bedsheets, a highlight of this laundry room. All the equipment was tested on the clothes that endured life in Mariupol basements, and now those clothes are as good as new.”

The tailoring station is also in high demand. Here, people mend their clothes, hem them, and even make alterations: due to the stress, many people from Mariupol lost weight, while some of them gained it due to emotional eating.

“Realistically, people can’t afford to buy new clothes,” shares Oleksandra, the consumer center’s supervisor. “And they aren’t really in a mood to go on a shopping spree, as most of them are feeling homeless and trying to figure out what to do next, waiting for a chance to return home. After all, the Armed Forces of Ukraine do give that hope.”

Having learned not to have many possessions the hard way, people from Mariupol do not want to obtain too many material things, they will rather repair what they have until they are able to return home.

As every staff member also has that traumatic Mariupol experience, they know exactly how to talk to their fellow townspeople and how to support them. After all, the center’s main asset is the community of people sharing similar experiences and are willing to take care of one another. A community of people from Mariupol for people of Mariupol. Humanitarian aid is just the glue that holds the center together.

“As a rule, people returning from the frontlines or captivity come to visit us,” shares Volodymyr. “Some of them don’t need anything but rather to just have a chat, meet people they know, or attend events. YaMariupol is not just a building, not just a venue, but also a lot of activities that we offer: theater trips, themed nights, hobby clubs, and children’s entertainment.”

Speaking of plans for the future, Volodymyr assures that the centers will continue their work after the victory.

“Not everyone will be able to just return home, right that instant, as many people have lost their homes, and now Mariupol simply can’t accommodate everyone willing to return. Maybe that’s even for the best, as it is going to be a very painful experience. My wife says she can’t even imagine seeing the city in ruins, when in her memories Mariupol is still a flourishing city.

Along the hallways, we see posters of beautiful, cultivated, and blossoming Mariupol. This is what the city looks like in the memories of people who come here seeking support, and this is what it will look like after our victory.


You can also read this text in Ukrainian. Support Ukraine here.

Photo — Bohdan Magdych.

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