Coming in from the cold - Ukraine Red Cross responds to the big freeze
By Joe Lowry in Chernigiv, northern Ukraine
Northern Ukraine has recorded some of the lowest temperatures in the current cold snap affecting half of Europe which has killed hundreds of people, the majority of them homeless persons. This week, the mercury fell to minus 34, and Ukraine Red Cross ramped up its operations to bring relief to thousands of homeless, elderly and other vulnerable persons.
Over 100 drop-in centres are now functioning across the country, using resources allocated from the International Federation’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF). Ukraine is one of nine countries which has received financial assistance – totalling almost one million Euro – since the big freeze began two weeks ago.
Chernigiv, (population 290,000) is one of the most northerly cities in Ukraine and has been hard hit by the inclement weather. Even before the DREF allocation, the local Red Cross, led by Oksana Rubets, swung into action. “We put out radio announcements, had a ticker on local TV and started to collect used clothes, firewood, tea, biscuits and cash, in collaboration with local churches and the local authorities”, she said.
“We’ve also mobilised 400 volunteers across the region to look in yards, public transport hubs and elsewhere to find homeless people and let them know that we have opened centres where they can come and warm up, get meals and drinks, or clothes and blankets.”
Oksana reports than one man of 42 died in hospital in her town last week after being found asleep in the snow. “Alcohol is a factor putting homeless people at risk”, she noted, saying it dilates blood vessels making people more prone to frostbite and hypothermia.
One of the drop-in centres is housed in a large tent in a public park, close to where many homeless people sleep. Here we met Ludmilla Kostrikina (71) who has been sleeping in a doorway for eight months, ever since her passport was stolen and she was unable to collect her pension of about 100 Euro a month.
Originally from the Moscow region, this ethnic Russian lady ran away from her alcoholic husband 45 years ago, and spent her life working as a painter and construction worker. Asked how she has survived she smiled “We are tough people. As General Alexander Nevsky said ‘if you bring a sword to Russia you’ll die by the same sword’.”
She’s enjoying being able to escape from the bitter cold during the daytime, and is allowed to stay overnight in the centre if she needs to. “I go out for walks during the day because it’s a bit boring here. But soon this damn winter will be over and spring will return”.
Some of the homeless that we meet appear to have severe difficulties and bear the scars of a lifetime on the hard streets. Others have more recently fallen on hard times, like 52-year-old Alexander Semenyuk, half Ukrainian, half Greek, who hails from the southern port town of Mariupol, where he was, in his youth, lightweight boxing champion.
The boxing, and the ascetic lifestyle he adopted while training, has served him well. “I took regular cold water baths and made myself very strong,” he tells us. In the year since he had domestic difficulties and lost his family Alexander has picked up occasional work at a local monastery.
The nurses on duty at the drop-in centre say they have no problems with any of their clients. “No one drinks, no one causes problems”, says Nadezhda Golovach. “We’re even trying to get Alexander married to one of our female clients, but she says he’s too old for her. We all respect each other which means we all enjoy being here. We even give the men a shave if they want it.”
Chernigiv Red Cross is currently targeting 375 people for assistance, out of a total of 2,000 most vulnerable across the country. In total, DREF allocations will assist over 50,000 of those most affected by Europe’s cold wave.