Ukraine

Abandoned dormitory transforms into emergency shelter

The Soviet-era dormitory building looks empty, just until the door opens and a couple of children appear in the doorway and run out to play in the empty parking lot outside. They are far from where they origin in east Ukraine, but the dormitory is their shelter and home for now.

Not long ago, nobody even passed by on the small road that leads to the former Commercial Academy that had been empty for several years. But the worn-out building has suddenly come to use as emergency shelter, and people are now desperately waiting for more spaces to become available there.  

‘We are slowly making progress and take more people in whenever and wherever we can,’ tells Svitlana.  

She retired as a teacher a few years back, but when the crisis started evolving after 24 February this year, and millions of people were displaced in just days and weeks, fleeing from intense shelling in east towards safer areas in west, Svitlana knew that it was time for her to act. Thousands of people from the Donbas-region and southern parts of Ukraine arrived in Lviv and needed shelter and protection. She volunteered and was sent to the dormitory to open and run the shelter there. 

Basic repairs 

The dormitory was originally built with rooms for 600 students, but the abandoned blocks can potentially accommodate up to 1,000 internally displaced persons. Facilities are run down and needs to be prepared and slightly improved to become livable after being left for years. 

One family is living in what used to be the reception of the dormitory and all thinkable vacant rooms and spaces are turned into some use as soon as the basics are in place with beds, blankets, access to toilets, water, showers, interim kitchens and other shared facilities in communal areas.  

‘We have managed to create room so far for a little over 400 people and more are coming as we get the work done,’ Svitlana tells as she opens the doors to yet another floor and shows the improvements underway in the first block. Each student room hosts on average three people, and for every eight rooms – meaning 24 people – there is now access to one shower. 

A constant race against time 

Next step is to start work on another block and free more rooms, and, when possible, to change some of the old and broken windows before the winter sets in soon. 

When asked about a typical workday and the scope of her responsibilities, Svitlana tells how there is no longer time to rest and that she needs to deal with everything from counseling people to distribute food, find more space for newly displaced, keeping her at the shelter from five in the morning till after midnight.  

‘Sometimes, the most important thing is to just listen to people and let them share their grief and their individual stories – and the suffering seems to know no limits,’ she tells.  

Safe spaces 

‘People at all ages have found their way here - young and old, alone or in groups, injured, disabled or traumatised – and they have been on horrific journeys across frontlines, even multiple times fleeing from one place to another. Everyone here has all either seen or experienced things that will mark them for life,’ says Svitlana. ‘But they feel safer here and we try to give them some peace of mind.’  

Most people are arriving from badly affected areas such as Mariupol, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odesa and other parts of the eastern and southern Ukraine. They cannot even be among others right away and often need extended periods of time on their own to be able to get back on their feet, explains Svitlana who are amazed of the resources and strength of the people around her. Her new assistant is among those who recently managed to escape from Mariupol. 

Four weddings and the birth of a baby 

In the midst of fear and suffering, there are also rays of hope. 

‘So far, we have had four weddings in the shelter, and a baby was born here recently,’ tells Svitlana proudly. A playroom has been set up functioning as a kindergarten run by the internally displaced people themselves. Toys and furniture are donated by local citizens. 

There are currently 147 children among the people sheltering in the old dormitory housing primarily women. Svitlana tries to support them all and to make the outside world aware of the needs there. There is still much to be done and still too many displaced people she must reject. 

Katarina made it to here with two children – her 11-year-old son and a daughter who is 7. They came in July from Luhansk Oblast in the east, when shelling and active fighting intensified in their area and several large explosions hit nearby. The damages had affected also infrastructure there – as has been seen many places in the east – and left them without access to gas, electricity and water which was cut off due to damages from shelling and attacks.  

Her husband who used to work in the coal mine before that too was gone, remained there when they decided it was time for her and the children to hurry to safer areas in west Ukraine as it was too dangerous for them to stay. Shortly after, he also left the area. Now, they are all together in the dormitory.  

‘I’m planning for today and maybe for tomorrow, but other than that I don’t know. We have no plan. I just want to go back to my home and to return to our village as soon as possible when the situation allows for us to travel there again.’ 

While some may stay only briefly at the emergency shelter in Lviv and try to go back home, Svitlana continues to work to improve and expand space at the dormitory to house more people there. Those who find room here, also find peace at least for some time.  

‘We need help to make sure there is more and better space, warmth, food and safety for just some of all those who are homeless, traumatised, and desperately need shelter and protection.’  

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