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How does the UN Refugee Agency help Ukrainians rebuild their lives

Thursday, 20 June 2024, 12:00

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has been present in Ukraine for 30 years and during a third of this term has supported people whose lives were ravaged by Russia’s invasion and war. On World Refugee Day, we reflect on three turbulent decades of the Agency’s work to help people forced to flee find solutions and rebuild hope for a secure, dignified and prosperous future.  

Ukraine is home. I felt this way since the very first day when I arrived in Kyiv on 19 May 2021 to take up my new function as the Representative of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Ukraine. I am Swedish, and felt there was a lot in common, not only the colours of our national flags – blue and yellow. In Ukraine, they symbolize peaceful sky that embody hope and endless fields of wheat or homeland.

This year, UNHCR marks 30 years of its presence in Ukraine. Sadly, during the last decade, the sky over Ukraine has not been peaceful. But hope has endured. I saw this hope in the eyes of displaced women from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions who I met, only two weeks before the full-scale Russian invasion, at a community centre, supported by UNHCR in Avdiivka. They told me how after years of displacement, they had regained a sense of belonging to their new community. At that point, the war in eastern Ukraine had been raging for eight years, and UNHCR had supported many affected people through our work in communities close to the contact line and Sloviansk, Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk, Donetsk and Luhansk. I often think about and wonder where the women I met are now – if they are displaced for a second time, somewhere else in Ukraine, or if they were killed in the brutal attacks on Avdiivka.


It is now 848 days since the war escalated into the full-scale Russian invasion leaving no family untouched across the entire country. That community centre does not exist anymore. Some of the cities where UNHCR had offices and implemented projects, including Avdiivka and Mariupol, were completely destroyed or occupied. Over six million people were forced to flee Russia’s full-scale invasion and become refugees from war, and almost four million remain internally displaced, including many of my Ukrainian colleagues, some of which have had to flee their homes multiple times since 2014. Yet, amidst the largest displacement crisis in Europe since the Second World War, hope and resilience have prevailed.

I felt that hope and determination to recover and rebuild firsthand when UNHCR brought construction materials for house repairs to Kyiv, Sumy and Chernihiv regions after they were regained by the Ukrainian army and authorities in spring 2022. And when we delivered assistance with the inter-agency UN convoy to the city of Kherson on 14 November, only 72 hours after Ukrainian Armed Forces regained control there.

And while I feel enraged seeing people in despair and their homes destroyed in cities like Kharkiv and Odesa every day after horrendous air attacks, I simultaneously feel hope when witnessing how quickly the owners of these homes start working to repair and rebuild, with the support of the local authorities and partners, like UNHCR and the civil society organizations we work with. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, UNHCR and our NGO partners have responded hundreds of times following missile, drone and gliding bomb attacks against homes and civilian infrastructure  in Kharkiv, Dnipro, Kryvyi Rih, Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia and other locations, providing more than a quarter of a million people with emergency shelter kits, as well as supporting people with essential items, psychological first aid and legal assistance to help them cope with trauma and restore destroyed identity and property documents.

Some of the moments when I have felt the strongest sense of hope is when I have visited families who were able to return from displacement to their own homes. Several of them have said to me that moving back into a repaired and clean home felt like the first step to emotional recovery from the horrors of the war.

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, UNHCR has supported the repair of some 30,000 homes across war-affected areas of Ukraine. Home repairs is one of our key programs in Ukraine, which helps to restore not only physical structures but also supports the psychological recovery and the rebuilding of communities devastated by war.

"We are so happy to have our house repaired. But even if UNHCR did not help, we would have returned home anyway, just to be on our land," 72-year-old Leonid from the village Kukhari in the Kyiv region told me recently, when I visited him in his newly repaired home that was heavily damaged during the Russian occupation.

People who return to their homes is one of the groups that UNHCR has been mandated to support, globally and in Ukraine, alongside refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced and stateless people. Our latest surveys among close to 4,000 refugee households across Europe and 4,800 internally displaced families in Ukraine, indicate that the majority hope and intend to return home one day. We need to support them in making this possible, when they decide that it is safe and sustainable to do so.

As Russia’s full-scale invasion and war continues and destroys lives, homes and communities, it is not time to pressure forcibly displaced people to return, and UNHCR therefore calls on countries hosting refugees from Ukraine to continue providing protection and support to Ukrainians. While inside Ukraine – in close collaboration with the Government, regional and local authorities, other UN agencies and civil society partners – we contribute to creating the conditions that will enable people to sustain their hope in Ukraine and to return and rebuild. It is critical that people who take the decision to come back experience – upon return – that they could move back into a proper home, enroll their children into school, access health care, administrative and social services in or close to their communities and find a job that pays the daily bills. If people feel compelled to return before these basic conditions are in place, there is a risk that they will leave again with a sad sense of disappointment, that it’s not possible to rebuild a future in Ukraine.

It is symbolic that 30 years ago, when UNHCR started working in Ukraine, our main focus was to support returnees. In the 1990s, around 250,000 Crimean Tatars who were deported during World War II wanted to return to their Crimean homeland. Our office supported this process by providing housing to those who returned, as well as legal assistance with identity and civil documentation, and eventually, with setting up citizenship processing centres across Crimea. In 1998, Mustafa Dzhemilev, the Crimean Tatar activist then and now the leader of Crimean Tatars, received the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award for his commitment to the right of return of the Crimean Tatars.

In the decades that followed, UNHCR worked with the Government of Ukraine to build an asylum system in the country that enabled over 2,000 refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Iran or Syria find safety and at new home in Ukraine. In 2022, some of them joined volunteer groups and humanitarian organizations to support the people of Ukraine in their greatest hour of need.

For 30 years, UNHCR has strived to be a partner and play a supporting role – supporting and enabling the people of and in Ukraine to be the leading actors in their communities and in their protection and future – be it the Crimean Tatars, the refugees who fled to Ukraine to seek protection, and the millions of displaced and war-affected Ukrainians. Their strength and determination to lead their own lives and way forward is what motivates me every day. Their wish not to be assisted as vulnerable, but supported and enabled in true partnership. They include the strong women and men in their 80s and 90s I have met who are so connected to their homes and communities that they prefer to remain in their bombed villages as long as they can. The radiant displaced grandmothers who lost everything but still donate from their tiny pension to volunteers. The children I met in the metro underground school in Kharkiv. The heroic rescue workers and first responders. The volunteers, NGO partners and my colleagues who rush to work and to support others after sleepless nights of shelling and alerts. And the Government officials and representatives of regional and local authorities who work around the clock for a free, safe, prosperous and democratic Ukraine.

A lot of work lies ahead, and UNHCR will stay in Ukraine as long as our support is needed. To enable forcibly displaced and war-affected people access protection and assistance they need. To contribute to the recovery of communities and help pave the way for safe, dignified and sustainable returns. And help preserve hope and belief in Ukraine as a country to remain in, return to and build a home and future in. 

Carolina Lindholm Billing

Disclaimer: Articles reflect their author’s point of view and do not claim to be objective or to explore every aspect of the issues they discuss. The Ukrainska Pravda editorial board does not bear any responsibility for the accuracy of the information provided, or its interpretation, and acts solely as a publisher. The point of view of the Ukrainska Pravda editorial board may not coincide with the point of view of the article’s author.

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