Far from home – but not alone 

When Olga and her family fled bombing in Kharkiv, she found support, new friendships and a welcoming community at the Vona Hub in western Ukraine – a centre supported by UNHCR and its partner Neemia. 


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© UK for UNHCR/Mark Macdonald

It’s a wintry Tuesday night in the city of Uzhhorod, Ukraine. But inside the Vona Hub centre, the atmosphere couldn’t be warmer as a local support group for displaced older people (60+) gets underway. A dozen or so participants are gathered – some still in their hats and scarves, yet already deep in conversation. Stories are shared, tea is poured. Someone has brought homemade pastries and they’re passed round.  

Tonight is a poetry night – one of many such get-togethers in the Vona Hub’s busy calendar. It’s a chance for people to express their creativity, recite something they’ve written and lose themselves in words for a while. But most of all, it’s a way of connecting – of sharing experiences, finding psychological support when needed, and making new friends far from home. 

“We talk about everything,” says 72-year-old Olga, a regular participant at the community group. “We talk about our life, our journey to this place, where we’re from and what we used to do. It’s a kind of relief for those who still think about their old home and worry about their relatives.” 

© UK for UNHCR/Mark Macdonald

The centre is one of many initiatives supported by UNHCR that provide hope away from home for people displaced by ongoing conflict in Ukraine. As these community support groups, participants can also collect additional relief items. On this particular evening, UNHCR solar powered lamps are distributed, to help everyone amidst the constant power cuts. 

Olga led a happy life in Kharkiv before the war broke out. She lived with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson Andriiko, and loved growing roses in her small back garden. But everything changed in spring 2022, when Kharkiv was bombed heavily. The family spent a fortnight hiding in their basement, before deciding to flee for safety.  

They travelled for two long days, not knowing where they were going or what would happen when they got there. But eventually, they made their way to Uzhhorod, 800 miles to the east of Kharkiv, where they managed to find a place to stay and were supported with food, clothing and other essentials by UNHCR’s local partners.  

“People here are very friendly,” says Olga. “They welcomed us with warmth and provided us with all the help we needed. We’re very grateful and I’ve become used to living here.” 

With her family safe and settled, and Andriiko studying remotely at his old school in Kharkiv – Olga is throwing herself into the friendly community she’s found at the Vona Hub. As well as poetry nights, there are cookery classes and plenty of other gatherings, where people can connect over a cup of tea, a game of cards or a shared interest.  

A group session for older IDPs (aged 60+), with a poetry therapy session. © UK for UNHCR/Mark Macdonald

“We make friends, we drink tea, we laugh,” says Olga. “I take along something tasty, something homemade, so that people feel like they’re supported.”  

As well as social meet-ups, the centre also provides much-needed psychological support – including art therapy groups and sharing sessions, led by volunteer Lyudmila. She works with displaced people across the region, helping them deal with and recover from gender-based violence. There’s a huge demand for help and the groups run at the Vona Hub are always very busy. 

Liudmyla works with displaced people across Zakarpattia, helping them deal with and recover from gender-based violence. © UK for UNHCR/Mark Macdonald

For Lyudmila, it’s all about bringing people together and encouraging them to support one another. “In today’s group, we did two activities,” she tells us. “First, we did a psychological exercise with threads of three different colours. We asked people to tell each other their wishes and something about their family while passing each ball of thread. The idea is to unite people.  

“As for this tree…” she gestures behind her, where a collage of handprints is arranged like leafy branches. “The idea occurred to me because our group is a kind of family. These hands symbolise us as the leaves of a tree and this helps people realise they’re not alone. Even though their families are far away, we can be around and take care of them – just the way family members would.”  

A group session for older IDPs (aged 60+), with a poetry therapy session. © UK for UNHCR/Mark Macdonald

It’s this sense of family that keeps people coming back to the Vona Hub and helps them feel at home in an unfamiliar city. Yet despite everything, Olga and her friends at the poetry group can’t help thinking of their old lives and longing to return. “We’re very grateful for all this assistance,” she says. “But home is home, you know – I’ll definitely go back.”  

Olga and Ludymila were interviewed in Uzhhorod in 2023. As we approach the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, more than 3.7 million people remain displaced across the country. To support UNHCR’s relief efforts and help families, please visit Ukraine Emergency | UK Support For Ukraine | UK for UNHCR (unrefugees.org.uk) 

Mark Macdonald / Hannah Mathie 

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