When conflict broke out in Ukraine, wheelchair user Tetiana Baransova escaped by road from Luhansk with her son Pavlo, who was then eight years old, and her husband, Oleksiy Soroka, who also uses a wheelchair.
Tetiana Baransova has been a wheelchair user since she was ten years old after she fell and broke her spine while doing gymnastics at school.
Since then, she has steadfastly refused to let her injuries limit her life – and has become a powerful advocate for others with disabilities in her native Ukraine. Back in 2002, she set up Ami-Skhid, a non-governmental organisation to help young Ukranians, women and families overcome disabilities through advocacy, services and counselling. It has since grown into a regional network of NGOs. In April 2020, she was also named the government’s representative for people with disabilities.
“My mission is to help others, so I have to do this,” says Tetiana, who is now 46.
For her work, she was chosen as the 2020 regional winner for Europe of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award, a prestigious annual prize that honours those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to support forcibly displaced and stateless people.
Her leadership and quiet natural authority came to the fore in 2014 when conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine.
Tetiana still recalls the sound of sirens and how her young son Pavlo cried during an artillery attack after refusing to take shelter in a basement without his parents. Neither Tetiana nor her husband Oleksiy could enter the basement with their wheelchairs.
People with disabilities in her home city of Luhansk and the region – which straddles the contact line – were particularly vulnerable, so Tetiana stepped in.
After fleeing with her family and reaching safety, she set about organising evacuation for many others. She created a hotline and was personally answering phone calls from people with disabilities stuck in the conflict zone. This hotline helped some 5,000 people with relocation, cash assistance, as well as legal and psychological support. Her leadership combined decisiveness and empathy.
“My life story allows me to understand the people I work with,” Tetiana says.
By February 2020, Ukraine’s government said it had registered more than 1.6 million people as internally displaced and affected by the conflict. Of these, 416,000 have a disability although there are few dedicated services and provisions for them.
One of those Tetiana helped is Kateryna Ryazantseva. The 40-year-old left Luhansk in 2014 with a newborn daughter and 22-year-old son, Dmytro, who has an intellectual disability.
In the capital, Kateryna struggled to find an affordable apartment, get registered and pay for living expenses and treatment for her son. Tetiana helped her with her national ID. She also persuaded municipal authorities to start delivering free toiletries for Dmytro and other internally displaced people with disabilities.
“Tetiana is my guardian angel,” Kateryna said. “She is my closest friend in Kyiv.”
Tetiana Baransova (left), the Nansen Refugee Award Regional Winner for Europe, talks to her colleague Valentyna Uvarova (centre) and Dmytro Ryazantsev, at a families event in Shevchenko Park, Kyiv. Dmytro has intellectual disabilities and is internally displaced, having fled Luhansk with his family. © UNHCR/Anastasia Vlasova
Tetiana Baransova poses for a picture with her husband Oleksiy Soroka and son Pavlo, at Pavlo's birthday party in Natalka Park, Kyiv, Ukraine.© UNHCR/Anastasia Vlasova
Tetiana went further, setting up an online school for the many internally displaced children struggling to cope with a transition that was particularly hard for those with disabilities.
The school functioned via Skype for two years starting in 2014 and taught around 1,000 children. Many teachers donated their time for free and Tetiana, who has degrees in sociology and art and is doing further postgraduate research, taught drawing.
Valentyna – whose son Nazar has a debilitating kidney disease and attended the school – became a traveling companion for Tetiana as she journeyed through eastern Ukraine to support people with disabilities living near the conflict line. She also helps Tetiana in her new role as government representative on disabilities.
Tetiana’s activism extends beyond her NGO. While teaching at a university in Luhansk, she persuaded the university to make the campus wheelchair accessible.
At a recent cabinet meeting in her capacity as government commissioner for the rights of people with disabilities, she argued that rescue workers needed special training to help people with disabilities in the event of natural disasters.
Tetiana said she does not work for honours or recognition, but hopes her regional Nansen Refugee Award will provide “more opportunities to be heard” in her life’s work of advocating on behalf of people who have disabilities.
“We should do everything to make this life better, because life is very difficult as it is,” she said.
This article is abridged from an original by Oksana Grytsenko in Kyiv.