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“Problems of refugees are solved at the volunteer level.” How refugees from Ukraine are getting help.

Warm clothes, medicine, wheelchairs and suitcases. Helping two million refugees from Ukraine in Russia fell on the shoulders of volunteer organizations and local residents, although the authorities constantly report on assisting. The Sever.Realii correspondent found out how volunteers collect millions of rubles to help those who fled the war and why law enforcement agencies pressure activists.

Refugees Parting. Archive Photo.

After the Russian military invasion began, thousands of Ukraine citizens were forced to leave or voluntarily left for Russia’s territory. The authorities of the Russian Federation promised to help them. Still, in reality, it turns out that volunteers take on most of the responsibilities for working with refugees within the country: they take them from temporary accommodation points to hospitals and MFCs, help them find housing, and sometimes even help them find jobs. All this happens virtually without the participation of the authorities: it is easier for volunteers to resolve issues themselves than to apply to state structures formally.

Volunteers are reluctant to communicate with the press and try to remain anonymous: they are afraid that publicity will cost them their freedom or that law enforcement agencies and the authorities will prevent them from communicating with refugees.

– I was mentally prepared that they would come for me because there were several stories when the police pressured volunteers who were collecting help for Ukrainian men and women. A blogger, N. was one of the first to start collecting donations on Twitter (according to social network users, she collected about 1 million rubles for medical assistance to residents of the occupied territories who suffered from shelling. – SR). She had problems due to transfers from abroad. There are volunteers Nadya and Olena (the “Armiya Krasotok” movement) who carry humanitarian aid to Ukraine from Belgorod. – SR). They were also paid a visit. We understand that we are not doing anything illegal, but apparently, we are undermining the state’s authority with our help. The state helps refugees, but clearly, it’s not enough,” Evgeniya tells Sever.Realii. She’s a volunteer from “POM”, a grassroots organization in Ekaterinburg.

In August, their movement raised 300,000 rubles on social networks for dozens of families in temporary accommodation centres (TACs). A third of the funds were spent on medicine, the same amount on one-time payments and tickets for those leaving temporary accommodation centres. They spent the rest on shoes, clothes and underwear. Volunteers agreed with a local sponsor to supply refugees with personal hygiene products worth 160,000 rubles.

– Refugees receive a certain amount of hygiene products upon arrival, but they run out quickly. There aren’t enough toothbrushes, shampoo, or shaving products. Many accept payments of 10 000 rubles, but this does not happen fast, as this is additional paperwork, – notes Evgeniya.

In the Leningrad region, based on a sanatorium in Tikhvin, the regional authorities opened a temporary accommodation centre, where volunteers from St. Petersburg and other cities bring necessities daily: laptops, food, clothes, baby food, medicines. One of the curators of the volunteer movement anonymously told Sever. Realii that in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region, “there is no pressure from the police or the authorities,” but the volunteers are in no hurry to turn to government agencies for help.

– All problems of refugees are solved at the volunteer level. We have no actual relationship with the authorities. People adhere to the idea that it is better to steer away and not aggravate government structures. Volunteers distance themselves as much as possible from any officials and any parties. We handle everything ourselves and are used to solving all issues this way. If we can solve a problem ourselves or ask a friendly business to give a hand, then thank God. We once asked the authorities to help: there were lice in the TAC, and we asked them to help get rid of them. They came, looked at the rooms with lice and said there were no lice,” says the volunteer.

Transit through Russia

Nastya and Vitaly are waiting at the veterinary station in the centre of St. Petersburg. Nastya is a volunteer, and Vitalik is a welder from Mariupol. He left the bombed-out city in July 2022 by the safest route possible, across the border with Russia. The bald cat Max came with him.

– There was an airstrike. And then my apartment building caught fire. We went down faster, people and animals were pulled out, and we took food first because there was no food anywhere. I had a “stronghold” there in a rented apartment: I took my mother from the outskirts, and while there were no hostilities in the centre, the outskirts were shelled first. People came and went and spent the night there. Someone was always in and out. Neighbours temporarily asked us to look after two cats because there were allergic people in the shelter where they were hiding – this is how Vitaly describes his acquaintance with the bald Max.

Max is sitting in a picnic basket. Vitalik plans to take him to Germany, where his neighbours managed to go. They lost contact because of the constant shelling and a collapsed cellular connection in Mariupol.

– After a while, we got in touch: they first left for Krasnodar on an evacuation bus and then went on to Europe. I began to take people out of Mariupol in my car, one family, another, and a third. Finally, I was taking my mother out with the cats. In the “LPR”, a border guard flatly refused to let us pass. He asked, “Where are you going?” We said we were in transit to Estonia. “Yeah, you’re going to leave; why don’t you like Russia?” I said we were running from the war. “Stay in Russia and work,” he replied. He started checking where I worked and where my mother worked. “He was hung up on this topic”, Vitalik recalls. “We lost one of the cats in Russia: it jumped out of the car at a gas station. We posted an ad and found out that it spent six days in the forest and later returned to the gas station. Local volunteers are now figuring out a way to send it to us.

Vitalik has not decided where he will go after Germany. “They say that in the north of Russia, they pay well. In Scandinavia, there are also high salaries,” he argues.

Nastya called border control to find out if the animal would be allowed into Estonia without quarantine after being vaccinated against rabies. She also brought Vitalik a thermos of tea and a bag of sandwiches for the road. On weekends, she takes on tasks that appear in the telegram channel “Piter proezdom” (rus. for “Passing through St.Petersburg”).

– It’s little things like picking up sneakers in one part of the city and taking them to another. Meeting someone, getting stuff to someone – she explains to Sever.Realii.

The telegram channel has more than 11 thousand members. This is one of the dozens of movements in Russia that help refugees. Most requests for help are resolved on the same day. They find clothes, household appliances, car drivers willing to take families abroad, and school supplies for kids.

“I’m running around the city in search of things,” says Alena, a Petersburger who took patronage over a young mother from Mariupol, who left for a small village in Finland. Her ward said she could not afford to buy winter clothes, even thrift stores. Literally in a day, Petersburgers collected a suitcase of clothes, toys, and shoes for the baby and bought a kettle and a blender for her mother.

According to the “Civil Action” Committee, there are from 1 to 2 million Ukrainian refugees in Russia. As of June 2022, a lump sum payment of 10 thousand rubles was paid to 301 thousand people who were forced to leave the territory of Ukraine and the self-proclaimed “LPR” and “DPR”. Temporary asylum, which gives the right to live in temporary accommodation facilities, was only issued to 55 thousand people, as follows from the report of the Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova. The rest look for housing on their own and get a job as foreigners: on provisional patents, and often illegally.

“Volunteers helped with clothes for the child and medical care for the mother. My child almost forgot what happened to her, how we sat in the basement and were fired at from mortars. I try not to talk about it in front of her. At first, she blinked very rapidly and nodded a lot. It passed, thank God! Otherwise, we would also need to look for psychologists,” Oksana told Sever.Realii.

Oksana came to the Leningrad region from the city of Rubizhne in the Luhansk region, together with her 5-year-old daughter and elderly mother. They fled mid-March when neighbouring cottages were set on fire from shelling by Russian “Grads”.

– Every day, a bus came and took people to Dnipro city. We left at 5 in the morning; everything was on fire, and the yard was on fire… Buses brought refugees to a hostel, where they were given two days to recover. Imagine you had everything: things, money, and then you are left only with what you have on, covered in soot, Oksana recalls. We did everything without thinking much: we boarded the bus when they told us to and walked when asked to. There are checkpoints everywhere in Dnipro, giant banners over the bridges saying “Russian ship go f*ck yourself”, anti-tank hedgehogs, and gasoline for 100 hryvnias. There were few products in the store. You could only get two loaves of bread per person. They bombed us there, and they bombed us here, so we decided to leave the country.

Oksana’s family managed to settle in an apartment of a school friend in the village of Bugry. Volunteers immediately got involved: they collected warm clothes for them and about 30 thousand rubles for a consultation with a neurosurgeon and an MRI scan for Oksana’s mother. Because of the older woman’s illness, they decided to stay in Russia and not go to Estonia, as planned initially.

In Rubizhne, Oksana worked in a budgetary organization with a salary of about $200. Now she earns roughly the same, working illegally in the commercial sector in Bugry. Local nine-story buildings, squares and schools remind Oksana of her hometown. At the same time, she does not plan to receive a Russian passport and dreams of returning to Ukraine. The woman does not dare to tell her relatives in Ukraine that she left for the aggressor country.

“I had relatives in Kyiv, we could go there in theory, but we couldn’t get there because of the heavy fighting, and now I’m ashamed to say that we left for Russia,” she says. – Once, a doctor asked me here: “Since you are from Ukraine, tell me, were you glad to see the Russians?” I said yes, I was very “happy”. She didn’t understand my sarcasm.