This week, the 24th of August marks six months since the start of the war in Ukraine. When the war began, refugees were soon crossing the borders en masse with minimal possessions and no plan of where or how to find housing and supplies; more than six million refugees have left Ukraine to date, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Since the conflict began, Habitat for Humanity has worked closely with government officials and key partners to provide shelter and rebuild families, security, and self-reliance. For refugees fleeing conflict, crossing the border marks the end of suffering, and at the same time they face a daunting new set of challenges.
Habitat has supported more than 10,000+ refugees with shelter services at the border and continues its work to build stability in housing for those who have fled from war. Around 2,800 emergency travel kits have been distributed by Habitat Romania that include power banks, backpacks, and charging cables to maintain vital lines of communication with family members who stayed home, as well as access to up-to-date information. In mobile aid camps, 120 heaters have also been donated.
Shelter consultations have been provided to thousands of families on the move at Habitat Poland’s train station and border kiosks in Warsaw. These consultations match refugees with viable short-term accommodation options and can cover hotel stays for those transiting, with around 1,000 hotel vouchers provided to date.
As well as assisting with the immediate housing needs, Habitat’s commitment to improving lives long-term is on-going in response to the crisis.
Habitat is also helping thousands of displaced persons gain access to mid to long-term housing. So far, 496 families have benefited from medium term existing apartments. We have grown key civil society partnerships to support the future of current refugees and any future waves that may be forced to flee.
“Habitat for Ukraine” is a programme run by the Habitat for Humanity Poland Foundation that finds and finances flats to help tenants find a sense of safety and stability in the new reality, as well as a job that would allow them to gradually take over the rental costs.
This assistance is vital as the UNHCR reports, “any who have moved back [to Ukraine] have found their homes severely damaged and struggled to find jobs — as the war continues to have a devastating economic impact — and had no choice but to leave again.” Fostering self-reliance through shelter in the face of crisis is one of the ways Habitat ensures a lasting impact.
As well as existing apartments, over 700 refugees have also benefitted from previously vacant or refurbished spaces, facilitated by Habitat and partners, to attempt to curb the overwhelming disparity between large numbers of refugees and limited available housing. Dormitory rooms at the Technical Construction University in Bucharest, Romania, had sat empty for five years when the war in Ukraine broke out. Realising the potential for these empty spaces to become decent housing, the University partnered with Habitat, with support from the Municipality of Bucharest, to refurbish, insulate, and install kitchens to now house over 200 refugees, including over 70 young children.
Since Ukrainians fled with almost nothing, over 14,000 people have been provided with furniture and household items through the Warsaw ReStore to bring practicality and warmth to their spaces. We cannot replace their familiarity of home, but we can offer stability until, if they choose to return, their own homes are safe once again.
Empowering Through Shelter
For Yana, her mother Lily, and her daughter Martha, fleeing to a factory that doubled as a bomb shelter in Cherkasy, Ukraine, became their new normal. The sounds of sirens blaring were soon followed by their family’s footsteps hurrying to safety. “The rule was that when the sirens stopped, we could go home. Sometimes we had barely taken off our shoes when they would blare again,” explains Lily.
The shelter was damp, and in the winter, it was very cold. Martha was diagnosed with autism just a month and a half before the Russian invasion. Worried about their safety, and with Martha’s condition deteriorating due to the war, the family decided to flee their home. Grandma Lily explains that they first travelled to Lviv, Ukraine, but were unable to stay because they could not afford a decent place to live.
“Your house is your home,” says Yana, with a sad look in her eyes. It is palpable how hard it was for the family to leave Ukraine.
After considerable hardship, Yana’s family’s safe shelter story began at a Habitat housing help kiosk at Warsaw’s train station.
“They took us to an apartment – just for us! I was in shock,” says Yana. “We were so desperate; we would have been glad to share a bed between the three of us. But the volunteers made us so happy! They brought us pots and pans, dishes, blankets, and personal hygiene products. They even brought me a new mattress!”
While the family hopes to one day return to Ukraine, for now they feel safe and supported.
Habitat has addressed shelter needs in Central and Eastern Europe since 1992, working in Poland since 1992 and in Romania and Hungary since 1996. Habitat’s regional offices for Europe and the Middle East are based in Slovakia.