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Refugee women turn Red Cross volunteers in support of fellow refugees

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Helena Laatio/ Finnish Red Cross

There is a steady whirring of a half a dozen of sewing machines. Women, some of them refugees from Ukraine, are sewing bed sheets meant for other refugees from their country. Most of them have fled from their homes in the middle of the war with nothing but the clothes they were wearing in the day of their escape.

The sewing class is held on the premises of the Regional Red Cross Office in Belgorod, a Russian city near the Ukrainian border. Here the women have already produced heaps of towels, pillows and pillow cases, blankets, to satisfy the very basic needs of the refugees.

They are taught sewing skills by Margarita Pak, herself a refugee from Ukraine. “I am actually a shoe engineer and shoe designer by profession. Fortunately my mother taught me how to sew when I was a child, now I can work as a teacher at the Red Cross”, says Pak.

Those refugees who attend the class have also now become Red Cross volunteers. Everything they sew is given to vulnerable people in Belgorod, refugees, the elderly, the disabled, families with many children, the poor.

Immediate and abundant response

Belgorod has received an influx of refugees from Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict that started early last year. The local Red Cross has been involved in the relief work in cooperation with local authorities from the very start. The first task was to organize shelter, food, clothes and other basic necessities to the refugees. “June 2014 was very difficult for us and we worked around the clock. Refugees came in a huge influx”, says Nina Ushakova, the chairwoman of the Belgorod Regional Red Cross.

The Belgorod branch contacted the media and made known to them the needs of the refugees. The response was immediate and abundant. “Sometimes there were more people willing to help than those who sought assistance”, says Ushakova. “We have a lot of Red Cross volunteers, who went to the temporary shelters where refugees stayed and compiled lists of people’s urgent needs”, she remembers. Many local people contacted the Red Cross and offered housing and accommodation to the refugees. The addresses were then distributed by the Red Cross to those seeking shelter.

Some of the refugees have been accommodated to the main building of a former youth camp on the outskirts of Belgorod. The local Red Cross provides them with supplies on a regular basis. “The assistance has been excellent, we are very happy”, says Anna Perepelenko, who is carrying a young child in her arms. She has just picked up a bag full of washing powder, shampoo and other hygiene products which has been delivered by the Red Cross.

The Belgorod Red Cross has recently worked out a shopping system tailored for refugees in the form of cash vouchers. These enable people to choose clothing and hygiene products from the shop and the individually allocated vouchers can be used as payment. Transport to the shopping centre is also provided.

“We are very happy for everything, because we have nothing at the moment. Summer is coming and we only have these winter clothes in which we came over here. Thank you for helping us”, says Olga Aksyonova who is examining and choosing clothes for children. When asked if she would consider becoming a Red Cross volunteer, Askyonova answers:

“Of course, we have been helped, why shouldn’t we help others in turn when the situation calms down.”