Millions of Ukrainians left their homes to save themselves from invaders’ atrocities. People escaped from the shelling just to save their lives. Someone could think in the circumstances of a full-scale war a legal framework could disappear. In fact, it became even more necessary. Forcefully displaced people face many issues they cannot solve by themselves:renewing a lost passport, going abroad, or finding out what documents are needed to send at least children abroad. This article describes one case of volunteer legal support for internally displaced people in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion.
Oleksyi and Viktoriya Zaitsev are lawyers. On February 24th, Oleksyi planned to go to Kyiv to attend a court hearing, and he woke up early. Viktoriya was woken up by explosions around 5 AM. The windows were reverberating. Their house is in Kharkiv’s Saltivka neighborhood.
They didn’t have a bug-out bag ready, Viktoriya recalls. Luckily, they still had all the important documents prepared and kept a car full tank. Around 6 AM, the family packed their stuff into the car. They grabbed only the most necessary things, rushed children into the car, and left to the strains of shellfire.
They live now in a tiny village of Velykyi Hlybochok in Ternopil oblast. Furthermore, they don’t know the state of their house in Kharkiv. There’s no one to go and check.
In 2019, a couple collaborated with STAN NGO in a “Cultural management school” project. They ran training courses for artists and art managers about intellectual property and legal aspects of operating an NGO. Since then, Oleksyi and Viktoriya kept relations with STAN, and after February 24th they contacted with organization’s CEO Yaroslav Minkin to offer their help.
“Apart from the war itself, apart from the fighting, there is a humanitarian catastrophe. People are forced to move, they have lots of needs, so STAN reoriented its activity to support such people. We said we could be useful in this process too”, says Oleksyi Zaitsev.
This offer came just in time. As Minkin tells, his organization faced many requests in the legal field from people in shelters, so they needed qualified lawyers for those requests to be answered.
“The most confused are those people who happened to be in the middle of something when the invasion started. For instance, someone had attended driving school, was just about to pass a driving test and couldn’t do it, or had paid for some service and couldn’t get it due to the war. Many people lost their documents and have no idea what to do”.
Being IDPs themselves, Oleksyi and Viktoriya understood and felt very well what others forcefully displaced people were facing, in what situation they found themselves. But the real picture is always more complex than one can predict.
To understand the reality of displaced people’s lives, Oleksyi visited all the shelters STAN supports to get acquainted and to talk to people face to face. In each shelter, he consulted people, and in the process of this communication and consultations started to understand better what questions disturb them the most.
To provide answers to those questions, Oleksyi and Viktoriya designed a training course and once again visited the shelters with this course. This time, they were not only answering the questions, but also providing a program with presentations and printed materials. The information they provided was related to the following topics:
What is martial law and what are the citizens’ rights and responsibilities under this law. Which of the constitutional rights could be abridged, and which could not.
Such training turned out to be more efficient than consulting, because forcefully displaced people in shelters have similar problems. On the other hand, this helps people to open up for further communication – not everybody is comfortable with asking for assistance. Minkin says the format they invented is a kind of rock concert by star lawyers.
Oleksyi and Viktoriya work in one of the leading law companies in Kharkiv and they really went on tour. STAN is working now with more than 15 shelters in three regions in the west of Ukraine. Oleksyi and Viktoriya boarded a bus and visited all of them. They were departing at 8 AM and working until late evening. They visited from one to three shelters a day.
“This is an amazing format. We had tea together with lawyers and talked. In these circumstances lawyers also have to be psychologists and find the right approach to people”, says Olha Oleynichenko, a coordinator of MiCuLab shelter in the village of Staryi Lysets near Ivano-Frankivsk.
After each training, people approached Oleksyi and Viktoriya with more individual questions. Some of those questions were complicated and needed deeper research of the legal framework. So the conversations start in the shelter and go on distantly.
One of the most complicated topics is compensation for the destroyed houses or their renewal. This interests and worries people in the shelters the most. Even when their cities will be safe and the Russians will leave, not everyone will have a house to come back to. People worry they will be left alone.
In her practice before February 24th, Viktoriya specialized in real estate development and agricultural business. That means, such questions lie in her expertise, but answering them is a challenge anyway. And these very questions she hears in every shelter. She explains:
“Right now the regulations in this field are in development: what to do, whom to address, what documents to prepare. This algorithm is not ready. Everything is shaping now, in real time. There are governmental decrees that regulate some sides of the issue. There is a legislation draft that has been approved at the first hearing that emphasizes the transfer of the built housing, not financial compensations”.
There is simply no answer to all the housing questions at the current moment. Viktoriya is tracking the legislative process as the information is being updated every day. Every piece of information that people in shelters need to know she includes in the training program. For instance, people have to know that now they need to record the damage via the application Diya. And Diya will be the filter where the state will take information to create a register of damaged and destroyed property.
Another topic is an employer-employee relationship that will be a topic of a new training. “People don’t understand how they can quit their former job. Or whether they will be fired since they moved to another city and currently are not able to work. Such questions will be arising as businesses are coming back to work while people have left the cities where the companies are located”, Oleksyi Zaitsev explains.
When Oleksyi is not in the shelter, he consults by phone. He mostly gets calls from people who have already attended the training courses. It turned out to be important that Oleksiy and Viktoriya visited shelters and talked to people face to face. And the most important thing is they not only have been informed about the possibility of helping and have given a phone number but started a conversation.
Volunteers who help at the train station indicate that displaced people often don’t see their needs in the first days after their arrival, and they often keep calm about them. People have just saved their lives and found a roof and a meal, and in the first days, they feel they don’t need anything else. And only later do they allow a thought they need to make decisions about their work or studies, they need to renew their documents or get a psychologist consultation.
The horrors of the war make people quite disoriented. They need someone to offer them a hand of hope, to explain they can count on financial support or talk to a psychologist or a lawyer. To show them these opportunities and to make them understand they can use them.
The activities of the Youth Organization “STAN” in 2022 are supported by IM Swedish Development Partner (Sweden), Save the Children (Sweden), Hilfswerk International (Austria), Studio Kitsunya (Netherlands), MitOst (Germany), LGBT + DK (Denmark), Prague Civil Society Centre (Czech Republic), People in Need (Czech Republic), Global Fund for Children (USA), House of Europe (EU), and Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (USA).
The IM Swedish Development Partner and Prague Civil Society Centre support the organization’s team and the activities of the resource centre, where the coordinating headquarters of the Carpathian region’s shelters are located. House of Europe provides the necessary equipment for the work in the region. The Hilfswerk International provides humanitarian assistance for shelters, food and comprehensive support for people, provides funds for baby food for the youngest IDPs.
Save the Children Foundation with the support of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) helps to provide comprehensive work with children and young people affected by hostilities.
Global Fund for Children (USA) and Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (USA) support anti-crisis work with children. MitOst and LGBT + DK assist in relocating cultural managers and activists in need. People in Need helps to provide psychosocial and legal assistance to the people.