“People came here with nothing. Without assistance, there would be no accommodation for these pregnant women and little children"
Inside the Red Cross-supported centre for displaced mothers and children in Ukraine
Last updated 4 August 2023
“Every woman here has a difficult story to tell,” says Liliya. “Some came from territories that experienced heavy fighting, some lived in basements with their children, some were pregnant when they came here. Each story is special and memorable.”
Liliya is the head of mother and child services at the Unbroken Mothers centre in Lviv, western Ukraine.
The purpose-built centre can house up to 20 families, and was set up by local authorities in August 2022 following the escalation of conflict in the country.
“We provide accommodation for women who are internally displaced and come from territories of ongoing active fighting,” explains Liliya. “We also provide social services, like psychosocial support, as well as different activities for adults and children.”
Fleeing conflict accompanied by small children
The centre is spread across a pair of two-storey buildings, fitted with kitchens, shower blocks, laundry rooms and comfortable sleeping quarters, and was designed and built in three months. The Ukrainian Red Cross donated much of the furniture, appliances and non-food items used in the centre.
“We’ve received a lot of support while living at this centre,” says Olha, who is mother to 11-year-old Anastasiia, nine-year-old Maksym, seven-year-old Oleksandr and baby Daryna, who born in summer 2022.
“It’s good, we talk with the other mothers – everyone here has experienced the same, so we understand and support each other,” she says. “When the weather is nice, we go out for walks. If not, we stay in and cook, spend time together.”
When the conflict escalated in February 2022, Olha was forced into hiding in her basement with the children.
They lost electricity, then heating, and finally the water supply was cut off. But when they ran out of food and medicine, Olha – four months pregnant at the time – knew it was time to flee their hometown of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine.
The family has been living in accommodation at the centre since July 2022. Occasionally the peace and quiet of the area is broken by the sound of air raid sirens.
“My eldest finds it hard to cope with air raid sirens,” says Olha. “She cries, gets hysterical, thinks something bad will happen. I hug them, tell them everything will be OK. They think the same thing will happen here as what we witnessed in Lysychansk.”
Damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has meant that many regions across the country now have scheduled blackouts, which can last for a few hours. As a result, Olha and the other mothers tend to batch cook foods that will keep for a few days, like pasta.
“Anastasiia is my little helper, and when we have electricity she helps me,” she says. “If we cook sweet things, my other children want to help too.”
A place for mothers and children to heal
Pavlo’s entrance into the world was a difficult one. His mother, Margaryta, gave birth to him in a hospital in the Zaporizhzhia oblast as explosions sounded outside.
“Oh 5th March I was already in the early stages of labour,” says Margaryta. “On the morning of 6th March there was further shelling and I became even more scared, by which point I went into active labour. When I was still on the maternity ward, a rocket landed somewhere nearby.”
Once she and the baby were well enough, they fled the area, eventually arriving at the Unbroken Mothers centre.
“I felt relieved straight away,” says Margaryta, remembering arriving at the centre. “I realised this wasn’t a random sports hall or somewhere like that, it had everything my baby and I needed to feel comfortable – somewhere to cook, somewhere to sleep, and it was warm.”
Margaryta has thought about returning home, but doesn’t feel it would be safe. “I can’t say I feel 100 per cent safe, but it’s much better than sitting at home and hearing rockets flying overhead,” she says. “Here, we get visits from psychologists. Because of the stress, I’m not able to breastfeed, so I feed my baby formula. Everything I need for the baby is here – nappies, vitamins, and anything else I might need.”
Any parent knows of the daily sacrifices they make to ensure the health and wellbeing of their children, and Margaryta is no different. When she fled her home, she left her own clothes and only thought of Pavlo.
“The thought of leaving his things behind was too painful, so I took everything with me – the pram, a travel cot, some toys, clothes up to 12 months,” she says. “I asked for my own clothes to be sent to me later.”
Though every woman’s journey to the centre has been different, they are bonded by their experiences.
““They talk and support each other – in the mornings they come and make coffee, sit down for a chat," says Liliya. "People came here with nothing, just the bare minimum - everything came from the Red Cross. Without this assistance there would be no accommodation for those pregnant women and little children."
Liliya has no children of her own, but has found herself becoming the matriarch of the centre.
“We were united by one thing: the hardship in our country,” she says. “I just wanted to help people – now all the children here think of me as their second mum.”
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Since the escalation of conflict in Ukraine, we have reached more than 14.5 million people with vital support
Olena and her son fled Ukraine in March. Here, she tells the their story in her own words and photographs