Photo: IOM 2024

Ukraine – “Missiles hit the perinatal centre, the maternity ward – everything,” remembers Maksym, a doctor from Mariupol. “They fired directly at the windows: we saw pieces of human bodies flying out.”

Immediately after the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Maksym began treating patients in the basement of a gymnasium that had been turned into a makeshift hospital catering to the needs of the 4,000 people sheltering there. For them, Maksym was a pediatrician, surgeon, nurse, and psychologist combined in one, working for 14 hours per day or more.

Maksym, a general practitioner and cardiologist from Mariupol, provided medical care for thousands of people sheltering in a gymnasium when the war escalated. Photo: IOM/Alisa Kyrpychova

Soon after escaping from Mariupol, which has been occupied by the Russian Federation since the spring of 2022, Maksym joined IOM mobile medical teams providing primary health-care services and mental health and psychological support to internally displaced persons and host communities.

“I could not sit idle carrying the burden of all the memories. It is better if I do my job and help those who need it.”

Oleksandra sits in the communal bedroom that she shares with other women in a collective centre for internally displaced persons. Photo: IOM/Raber Aziz

“I always thought, ‘I must hang in here just a little bit longer and everything will be OK.’ But the fighting crept closer and closer, and with it, all the destruction,” recalls Oleksandra, displaced from Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. “My own house was hit. The bombing was so intense, and this stressful and traumatic experience brought on all kinds of health complications for me, and all the doctors had left already.”

Oleksandra had not wanted to leave her home, but when the fighting reached her neighbourhood, she knew it was time.

With only a few personal belongings, Oleksandra arrived in Dnipro, where she found a safe haven in a collective centre established by women-led volunteer groups. The facility was refurbished and equipped with support from local and international organizations including IOM.

“This is not home. But we have a roof, a bed, safety, water and food. We have to cope with the fact that we lost our homes,” says Oleksandra. “We clean the building, everyone does something for the maintenance. And this is good to keep us busy. For a minute we can forget about war.”

Mykola and his wife Iryna run a colourful children's bookstore in Bucha which suffered extensive damage. Photo: IOM/Alisa Kyrpychova

“Puzzles and pieces of damaged shelves were everywhere. Many books did not survive,” says Mykola, owner of a children's bookstore in Bucha.

When Russian troops left Bucha in late March 2022, the world was shocked by the massacre of civilians there. Today, a local market is slowly trying to get back to business amidst somber remnants of the past. “Many of our regular customers have left, many are staying abroad,” says his wife, Iryna. “But those who return to Bucha, come to us. It is such a joy to meet again. Many of those who are abroad contact me [online], and I even ship them our books.”

As fighting continued, Mykola and Irina managed to escape to the European Union. They returned shortly after the Government of Ukraine regained control of Bucha in April 2022 and found their shop damaged by a shell. An IOM grant helped them to cover the costs for necessary equipment to reopen their shop and resume the free reading club for children.

“It might not be the most lucrative business, but it saved us. If it was not for our shop, I do not know how we would survive now. This is our soul,” Iryna explains.

Despite the war, Natalia is determined to help her community in Ukraine preserve and revive its cultural identity. Photo: IOM/Alisa Kyrpychova

“We had a violin from 1826 stored in a protective box, but it was consumed by fire. Only a scorched metal violin clef was found amidst the rubble,” Natalia, the head of Borodianka's culture department, says of the destruction of a local arts school. 

Of the town’s 26 cultural establishments, 18 were damaged or destroyed. Two years later, local artists, musicians and librarians aim to revive their beloved hometown.

Natalia and her colleagues have organized several public events since 2022. “We don’t use the word ‘concert,’ we say ‘a public gathering with musical performances.’ Concerts will be after our victory,” she explains, acknowledging that some people still might find such activities inappropriate. However, for hundreds of attendees and for those who organize them, it all has meaning.

“Many of our singers lost their relatives; many lost their homes. They could not sing for some time. Some needed two months, some needed three. They are singing now,” she says.

Natalia has a colleague who teaches piano and singing at a local school of arts. A year before the Russian invasion, she wrote a song dedicated to her mother, Halyna. In March 2022, Halyna did not manage to leave her home in the centre of Borodianka before a bomb hit it. Her body was never identified, so she is registered as a missing person. At one of the open-air concerts, Natalia’s colleague planned to sing that song.

“My mom would hear me,” she said. But she wasn’t able to: her voice was shaking and she burst into tears. It took her a month, yet at another concert, she did it.

The Borodianka cultural centre relies on grants from businesses and international organizations, including IOM, to restore the damage and bring its services to people in war-affected communities around the town.

Valentyna survived a deadly attack on Hroza village. Photo: IOM/Anastasiia Rudnieva

“I couldn’t leave the house until the wreckage was cleared. I just couldn't bear to face the place where my friends and neighbours died,” says Valentyna, who lives across from a cafe in Hroza, Kharkiv region, that became the site of a tragedy in October 2023 when a Russian rocket attack killed 60 people.

The blast severely damaged Valentyna's house. “I had no money to buy new windows. We boarded them up for two months from October to December.” IOM undertook all the necessary repairs of the 12 buildings that suffered damage in Hroza.

“I've almost forgotten what it's like to have windows in the house. Now, I have to get used to it all over again. Finally, I'm getting used to something good, not the opposite.”

Alla and Oleksii at a retreat for veterans’ families. Photo: IOM/Daria Dovzhenko

“It became very difficult after his injury. Dealing with emotions became challenging, and I'm always anxious of what may come next,” says Alla, a veteran’s wife.

In January 2023, her husband Oleksii suffered a brain injury and went into a coma, nearing death. The injury affected his self-control and emotional well-being; even seemingly insignificant events can provoke strong emotions in him. 

To support couples like Alla and Oleksii, IOM organizes veteran family retreats as part of its larger mental health and psychosocial support programming. Communication training and leisure activities help participants overcome emotional blocks. To resolve any communication issues, veterans and their spouses can also seek help from a family psychologist.

“I noticed a spark in Oleksii’s eyes. So, I'm convinced that everything will work out for us,” Alla said after the retreat.

IOM has been operating in Ukraine since 1996 and significantly scaled up its response following the full-scale invasion. Since February 2022, IOM staff have been tirelessly working to address urgent needs, build resilience, and enable recovery, reaching over 6.5 million people inside Ukraine and across 11 neighbouring countries with critical, and in many cases life-saving, support. For more information, read IOM's Two Years of Response Report for Ukraine and Neighbouring Countries (2022-2024).

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions