KIEV — Suffering knows no borders. The military showdown in Donbas has forced hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to leave their homes. We have mostly heard about what life is like for the estimated 500,000 to 800,000 refugees who have fled from eastern Ukraine into Russia. But the more than half million who fled in the opposite direction, winding up in western points in their own country, don't have it easy either.

They are desperately looking for any kind of work, renting tiny spaces, staying with relatives or are housed in temporary shelters. Of these internal refugees, 35,000 families have fled to Kiev. We went to see what it's like to be internally displaced by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. 

Basement couch

A year ago, 58-year-old retiree Andrei Avramenko made extra money by working as a Santa Claus during the holiday season and doing some security shifts at the airport near his hometown of Donetsk. Now he has no work, or any place to call home. Still, he's not complaining.

"I actually set myself up pretty well," he says. "I live in the center of Kiev, and some people I know got me a basement apartment. I've made friends with the local bums. One of them is a former police officer, like me. There's a couch in the basement, and it's warm under two blankets. I've already memorized all the places where they give out free food." 

Poverty in Kiev — Photo: Senia L

And that's where we found him — at the Assistance Center for Refugees from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, where volunteers distribute chicken soup and tea and most of the visitors eat in silence. Avramenko, who is more talkative than the others, reached out his plastic cup a third time, asking for more tea.

"Here they never say no," he says. "They even let you take some home. Regardless, I don't have anywhere else to go to warm up. I go to protests, I go to church, even though I'm not a believer. I've overstayed my time in Kiev. I had planned to go to western Ukraine as soon as I had money, but I didn't get my pension in Kiev and don't have any money."

The native of Donetsk left his home on June 2, first staying with a friend in a small town. But Avramenko calls himself a "big-city person," and he got bored and decided to head to Kiev. He is not, however, planning to return home.

"Of course, it's too bad about my apartment," he says. "I'd like to return home, but no one is there waiting for me. I've been divorced for a long time, and my kids are grown. I called my daughter once and tried to explain to her that she is Ukrainian. She got angry and called herself a 'citizen.' I participated in all of the Maidan protests. And I'm a pacifist. I don't know what I would do if I had to fight." 

Come for a visit

"The government? Do you know what that word means?" Lesya Litvinova asks her 1-year-old daughter, after I inquire whether the government helps at the volunteer center. The 38-year-old mother of four organized a collection center in her apartment when the first wave of refugees arrived in Kiev in May. When the fighting started in Donbas, the operation needed a larger space, and Litvinova and others rented an old school uniform factory, which become a local assistance center for refugees. 

Anyone with identification showing that their address is in Crimea or the "anti-terrorist operation" regions, and has paperwork showing they are refugees, can come here for help. 

In Kiev's Maidan Square — Photo: Helpukraine

"There are 90 to 100 families who come here every day," Litvinova says. "There are massive lines in the morning and on weekends. The first time someone comes here, he or she stands in line for the food and items we give out. For the next time, we give him or a her an appointment for when to return."

She says people come here for clothing, food, medical assistance and help finding work. There is also psychological assistance. "We only give out diapers and food for the first 45 days that someone is here," Litvinova explains. "First of all, we don't have the resources to keep feeding everyone indefinitely. Secondly, a month and a half is enough time to get pensions, parental assistance and to find a job. We're just here to help people start out." 

A couple dozen volunteers manage the deluge of refugees. Many of them have given up their jobs to help the refugees. Litvinova put her own career as an office manager on hold. She feeds her daughter soup prepared by volunteers, reaching out with her other hand to answer the phone, which rings incessantly. Many people want to know how they can help and what the refugees need. 

"We don't have any days off," Litvinova says. "The center is closed on Fridays, but we use the time to sort through a mountain of packages. We also see the psychologists ourselves, because we're all going crazy. We haven't asked the government for anything. No, that's a lie. We asked for New Year's presents for the kids, and we got between 1,500 and 3,000 of them. We are planning a big holiday for the kids; everyone is participating. We have Santa Clauses standing in the lines anyway. Stop by for a visit." 

One day to the next

Having arrived in Kiev from Crimea, 60-year-old Lyudmila doesn't want her last name used for fear that it would cause problems for family members who stayed behind. "The refugees from Donbas don't understand us," she says. "We're told, 'Everything is safe in Crimea. Why are you complaining?' Yes, people from Donbas fled a war. They saved their skin, and we saved our soul. For us, there is no road back, because we stayed loyal to our country: Ukraine."

Begging in Kiev — Photo: Ilya

Lyudmila has been living on the edge of Kiev since March, with 110 other Crimeans and 35 refugees from Donbas. You could say that they're lucky. The rooms are heated and have bathrooms, and they are fed every day. More importantly, the accommodations are free, though no one knows how long that will last. Lowering her voice, the retiree adds, "We are living day to day. We hope the government doesn't abandon us. Otherwise, it's scary to think about what would happen. You can't live in Kiev on the pension we get."

I spoke with Lyudmila and other residents in a small room filled with clothes, which serves as both a collection and distribution humanitarian aid center. The refugees are especially happy to have warm clothes and shoes. Lyudmila collected items here for the 140 people she lives with. The woman at the registration desk was outraged, saying that because Lyudmila was from Crimea, she was a traitor. When Lyudmila started sobbing, the young woman wasn't moved. "Oh, I've seen so many tears here, and now grandmothers cry too," she said coldly.

The room where the refugees are going to celebrate New Year's is already decorated with patriotic Ukrainian symbols. Plans include a lecture by a Thai monk. There must be something to say about uprooted souls.