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10.04.2023

In Poland and Moldova, Ukraine’s Seniors Learn to Live in the Unknown

Galina, Viktor, and Tetiana’s lives have been upended by the war in Ukraine. Separated from their families, their homes destroyed, they are unsure when, if ever, they’ll be able to return to the way things were. Through local partners, Project HOPE is reaching them with mental health support.

By Emma Schwartz

At 69, Galina found herself in the midst of an unfathomable nightmare.

Galina is from Mariupol, one of the first Ukrainian cities to be taken under Russian siege in 2022. More than 90% of buildings in the city have been destroyed, including Galina’s home.

“I was living in an apartment on the ninth floor and my house was bombed,” Galina says. “Everything was destroyed. Everything is flattened now. There is no sign of any buildings that were there.”

She was allowed to leave because of her age, she says, but only had time to bring her handbag and documents with her when she left Mariupol. After passing through Russian checkpoints, she boarded a bus that took her into Russia, then traveled onward into Europe until finally settling in Chişinău, the capital of Moldova.

elderly woman in green dress standing among green trees
Galina, 69, fled Mariupol after her home was bombed. Her daughter and granddaughter are still there, living under occupation. “Everything was destroyed. Everything is flattened now. There is no sign of any buildings that were there,” she says. All photos by Marie Arago for Project HOPE, 2023.

Nearly 6 million Ukrainians have left their country since Russia’s invasion began in early 2022. Among them are untold numbers of seniors who were forced to leave everything behind — their children, grandchildren, and the homes they had lived in for decades.

It can be an excruciating separation. Galina’s daughter and granddaughter are still in Mariupol, living under occupation in Galina’s parents’ house, one of the few homes left standing. Under Russian occupation, the city has become unrecognizable as local Ukrainian culture and identity are erased: street names have been changed and Ukrainian replaced by Russian as the language. The school Galina’s granddaughter attends is now a Russian school.

Moldova, though small, hosts the most Ukrainian refugees per capita. In Chişinău, Galina was connected to a local organization Project HOPE supports called Casa Marioarei, which has provided mental health support to get her through her separation. In group therapy classes, Galina can share her pain, her fears, and her hopes for a future back home in a safe space with other women and men her age in similar circumstances.

Galina also takes classes at Casa Marioarei. The stitchwork stuffed animals she recently made will be sent home to her granddaughter, who just finished fifth grade.

“The first group therapy lessons were really hard,” Galina says, “but now it’s easier. I didn’t believe a war would start. I didn’t want to believe it. I wasn’t ready for this. [The psychologists] really helped me a lot. It’s helped me calm down.”

elderly woman with knitted animals
Galina holds the stitchwork stuffed animals she made at Casa Marioarei to send back to her daughter in Ukraine. “The first group therapy lessons were really hard, but now it’s easier,” she says.

Casa Marioarei, The Association Against Domestic Violence, is one of several local Moldovan partners Project HOPE supports as part of our regional refugee response to the crisis in Ukraine. In addition to group therapy, Casa Marioarei also organizes social activities to improve integration between Ukrainians and Moldovans and provides trainings on conflict de-escalation, gender-based violence prevention, and job skills to help Ukrainian refugees access the job market.

The center has become a place of refuge and close community. It’s where Galina met her friend Viktor, another refugee and veteran from Mykolaiv, a city east of Odesa in southern Ukraine.

Viktor also attends the group therapy sessions.

“It’s been helpful because they have a psychologist that’s been working with us,” he says. “It’s been positive. At first it was really hard for me to share. But the group was really warm and welcomed me.”

Viktor describes Mykolaiv, his hometown, as the first front line when fighting broke out.

“A house near mine was bombed,” Viktor says. “My windows were broken and smashed. I was going home. When I arrived I saw it.”

It was in that moment Viktor knew he had to leave. He fled Mykolaiv and crossed the border soon after. Two of Viktor’s four children — a son and daughter — are still in Ukraine. They can communicate, but it’s impossible to see each other.

elderly man smells leaves on tree
Viktor fled Mykolaiv when a house near his was bombed. At Casa Marioarei, he has been able to attend group therapy sessions with other refugees his age to help cope with the stress of being separated from his home and family.
An elderly white man and woman smile and touch heads in affection
Viktor and Galina outside Casa Marioarei. Though their community is small, Viktor says, they will be friends for life.

In Chişinău, Viktor feels the loneliness and isolation of being separated from his home and family, and he has only a small community, mostly through Casa Marioarei. In the year-and-a-half he’s been in Moldova, Viktor has only met six men his age — but the friends he has made, he says, will be friends for life.

Galina and Viktor’s experiences are two stories of millions. Every story of the war in Ukraine is unique, but the impacts on mental health are common threads. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health disorders are common among refugee and migrant populations, and there are significant gaps in access to mental health services across the region.

Inside Ukraine and in neighboring countries, Project HOPE and partners have been working to close those gaps by providing mental health support to thousands of people whose lives have been upended by war. In Poland, that includes the organization Accessible World Foundation, which addresses physical health needs through physical therapy and rehabilitation in addition to meeting mental health needs through psychosocial programming like art therapy, yoga, language classes, and group activities.

The services are free of charge, and many of the refugees who access them learn about the services through referrals or word of mouth. Natalia, who brought her son Gennaidy to Accessible World for physical therapy, fled Odesa when the bombings started last year. She is her son’s sole caregiver and the services provided by Accessible World came at the perfect time.

“My son is disabled and cannot live on his own,” she said. “I’m not young and need help too. We have had huge support and love and we really needed it. We got it right at the time we needed it.”

elderly mother kisses the cheek of her son
Natalia and her son Gennaidy fled Odesa when the bombing started. In Poland, Project HOPE partner’s Accessible World Foundation has provided free physical therapy and psychosocial support for both of them. “We are very happy that such organizations exist and that they don’t leave us on our own,” Natalia says.
group of people in medical outfits posing with two patients
Serhii, second from left, fled Odesa while undergoing chemotherapy treatments for blood cancer. Regina Pacis, Project HOPE partner’s in Moldova, connected him to medical care so he could continue treatment. “It was a place that helped me a lot at a moment when I was so anxious, so alone, and a stranger here,” he says.
elderly woman holds hands to heart with
Ilena lives in Kraków and was able to find work playing piano at a restaurant near the shelter where she lives. Once a week, Project HOPE partner’s Zustricz Foundation sends a psychologist to the shelter to provide one-on-one therapy sessions.

In the urban rush of Kraków, Poland, 73-year-old Tetiana lives in a small shelter for refugees called Wolno Nam (“we are allowed” in Polish). Her home in Kharkiv was bombed, forcing her to flee and leave her family behind. One of Tetiana’s sons is a lieutenant in the Ukrainian army and cannot tell her where he is. Her other son is back in Kharkiv taking care of her husband, who is disabled.

“I had been living there for 73 years,” she says. “I had built my life, and then they just bombed everything.”

Wolno Nam is home to 150 people, including 50 children. Many of the people in the shelter are over 65 and have lived there for more than a year. Project HOPE’s partner, Zustricz Foundation, sends a psychologist to the shelter each week for one-on-one therapy sessions with residents. Many of Zustricz’s psychologists are refugees themselves.

Tetiana has been able to open up and share her fears with her psychologist, Natalia, who visits her each week.

“My son serves in the army as a pilot,” Tetiana says. “I am very worried about him. He keeps telling me that until the war is over, I shouldn’t go anywhere. I shouldn’t go back to Ukraine. I am extremely worried about my son.

“My relationship with Natalia has helped a lot. We communicate a lot and she helps me.”

woman sits at table smiling towards light
Tetiana lives alone in Poland while her son serves in the army and her other son cares for her husband in Kharkiv. “I had been living there for 73 years. I had built my life, and then they just bombed everything. My relationship with Natalia has helped a lot. We communicate a lot and she helps me.”
Woman sitting with her psychiatrist
Natalya, a Ukrainian psychologist who works with the the Zustricz Foundation and Tetiana, one of the women she works with at Wolno Nam, a shelter for Ukrainian refugees.

Project HOPE continues to operate a wide-ranging response to the Ukraine crisis that supports health workers, provides mental health and protection services, and restores access to essential primary health services. Since Russia’s invasion in 2022, this work has now reached more than 1 million people inside Ukraine and tens of thousands of refugees across the region. Our partners focus on reaching the populations facing the greatest need, including children exposed to scenes of war and seniors who have lived through decades of conflict.

Many of them, like Galina, Viktor, and Tetiana, have now been displaced for over a year, which has had a profound impact on their mental health.

Galina does not know when she will see her daughter and granddaughter again. In the meantime, in the indefinite liminal space, she will be leaning on therapy and new friends like Viktor to help protect her peace of mind. Despite the devastation in Mariupol, despite losing her home, she is still determined to return to her home country.

“It’s still home,” she says.

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