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Published on 24 February 2023

"I was on a call at the time and I felt something go boom. You could see smoke rising from the centre of the city."

Karen McDonnell, Christian Aid’s Global Humanitarian Manager recalls the moment missiles hit close by whilst she was in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. It was part of a wave of attacks across the country in November, which left millions of people without electricity, heating or water just as the cold winter months were beginning to set in.

“It was very different because usually the air strikes were hitting in the oblast which is like being in Dublin and the airstrike hitting in Wicklow whereas this was like being in Dublin and an airstrike hitting Grafton street,” Karen recalls.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Karen has spent weeks at a time travelling to Ukraine to helping to steward the rollout of Christian Aid’s cash response.

Working with partners, Christian Aid has delivered emergency assistance to around 800,000 people affected by the war. This includes 600,000 people across Ukraine and another 170,000 Ukrainian refugees in neighbouring Hungary and Romania.

 We have provided lifesaving and life-preserving activities including frontline medical support, evacuations as well as distributing food and cash.

During her time working on the Ukraine response, Karen was struck by the large number of ‘accidental humanitarians’ that she met who had left behind their previous careers in order to dedicate their lives to helping their country.

Two Ukrainian staff members of Christian Aid’s partner Hungarian Interchurch Aid, Olga and Zhenia, perfectly encapsulate this phenomenon.

“I met Olga on her first day, she’s a dancer and dance teacher. Zhenia worked in IT. They knew nothing about the sector, however, they were then and are now, two of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met in my life,” Karen said.

Together with Olga and Zhenia, Karen visited a rural area in the Lviv region to identify families who had been forced to abandon their homes and were in desperate need of cash support.

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Zhenia and Olga who work for Christian Aid’s partner Hungarian Interchurch Aid Credit: Christian Aid/Adam Haggerty
2 women posing

“We were told about an older couple who needed cash. They had come from Kharkiv and they had just been bombarded for nine days straight,” Karen recalls.

The woman had undergone a hysterectomy just before the war and her husband had a neurodegenerative disorder which left him in chronic pain. However both had run out of their prescription medication.

I gave her enough money for four months’ worth of medication for herself and her husband,” Karen said.

“It’s so rare in my job that I get to see somebody’s life turned upside down in a good way. She was crying, her niece was crying and they were hugging. She told me that I had changed their life in two minutes,” Karen added.

One year into the conflict, there are still 18 million Ukrainians in need of aid and still more than 13 million people unable to return to their homes. This includes 5.4 million displaced inside Ukraine and another 8 million Ukrainians living as refugees elsewhere in Europe.

During the summer, Karen visited a transit shelter for displaced people in Mykolaiv in Southern Ukraine which Christian Aid was supporting with our partner HEKS. Previously a holiday camp, the shelter now houses displaced families, mostly those fleeing from eastern Ukraine. At the shelter Karen met another ‘accidental humanitarian’ Svetlana who has worked as a cook in the holiday camp for 40 years and stayed on despite the war to make hot meals for people seeking refuge there.

“At the start of the war, everyone left but she stayed with her husband. She has two sons who were both now soldiers. One who was working to support the export of grain from the black sea by making sure they were safe and her other son was on the contact line. Every day she waited and they would call her to say ‘hey mom I’m alive’.

A hallmark of Christian Aid’s wider response working with partners has been to provide funding to local community groups and NGO’s in Ukraine to be able to pay for essentials identified by themselves.

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Svetlana works as a cook in a Christian Aid supported transit shelter for displaced people Credit: Christian Aid/Karen McDonnell
Woman smiling

The funds have been used to support a wide range of initiatives from building bomb shelters and a children’s playground, to repairing cars used to evacuate people from danger and to pay for renting a hostel for displaced members of the LGBTQ+ community.

While encouraged by the efforts of Ukrainians to support one another, as the conflict in Ukraine enters its second year, Karen is concerned for what the future may hold.

“The only thing that is keeping a lot of Ukrainians alive is external support. Knowing that we are there is actually really important.”

One of my worries is what will happen when people stop paying attention?” Karen added.

But from what Karen has seen during her time spent in Ukraine, she still has cause for optimism.

“That people like Zhenia and Olga exist is just the most hopeful thing in the world. Because I don’t think they have the ability to give up.”