Mariupol refugees from the Russian war take care of their own in Odessa

ODESA, Ukraine – The staff of the ‘Me Mariupol’ refugee center know what it’s like for the survivors of one of the cities most devastated by Russia’s assault on Ukraine – they’re all from there too .

“The main thing is not just to provide practical assistance and help, such as groceries, but to help Mariupol feel comfortable in Odessa, to connect with them as former neighbors and to show them around and make them feel at home,” said Serhii Marchuk, the chef. center and himself an internally displaced person (IDP) from Mariupol.

Marchuk, 40, evacuated from Mariupol in April, traveled through Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, then returned to Ukraine, traveling with his wife and two children, aged 8 and 3.

It took nine days and 5,000 kilometres, he told The Hill through an interpreter last week.

Children are afraid of thunderstorms, he says – it reminds them of the bombing.

In his previous life, he worked in Mariupol under the mayor, Vadym Boychenko, and his current position as head of the Odessa center is an extension of that work.

Dispersed in their own country

The center, one of 11 across Ukraine that hosts and employs almost exclusively IDPs from Mariupol, opened about a month ago.

Marchuk said he chose to settle in Odessa because its position along the Black Sea reminded him of his hometown, which is on the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov.

The Odessa center, an initiative of Boychenko, according to Marchuk, is housed in what was once a school.

NGOs and aid agencies that help support it are listed on a notice board at the entrance – including the Ukrainian government, Save the Children, World Central Kitchen, the Danish Refugee Council and local businesses from Odessa.

The building is clean and bright, sparsely decorated with a poster explaining the admissions process to the center, including registration, medical exams and psychological evaluations, short-term childcare, and help finding a home. housing, employment, groceries and other household items.

Marchuk said he managed to register around 1,700 refugees from Mariupol, including 300 children under the age of 18. He estimates that there are around 6,000 more refugees in the city of Odessa and another 3,500 in the greater region.

A Russian soldier walks past the damaged Metallurgical Combine Azovstal factory in Mariupol, Ukraine. Thousands of refugees from the besieged city have made relatively peaceful Odessa their home. (AP picture)

Sambina, a woman from Mariupol who arrived at the center on Thursday and gave only her first name, said she saw it advertised on a Telegram channel. She called the center relief, saying it provided assistance so she could find longer-term accommodation for her family, including her husband, her husband’s brother and seven children aged between 3 and 13. .

“The bottom line is that we need help buying or renting a property,” Sambina says through a translator. “Everything else we can do on our own.”

“Children are the most important thing in my life,” she adds, emphasizing the need to find stable housing.

She left Mariupol in March after spending two weeks in a basement shelter to survive the Russian onslaught.

“We were very scared. The most important thing was to save the children. We saw a lot of deaths,” Sambina said.

Facing a new reality

Marchuk said the biggest problem they face is people who haven’t yet faced the reality that they have to start their lives over.

“The biggest psychological problem is that they are still living there,” he said. “They are distraught, they have lost their property, their jobs, their savings and their families. In this centre, we want to help them start over, but it’s hard for these people.

The center hall displays “Before and After” images of Mariupol that show the city as it is now, completely destroyed by the Russian siege, and images showing a hopeful future of rebuilding it if Ukrainian forces succeed. to end the occupation of the city.

“When the center opened, people came here and they started crying when they saw these pictures because it hurt them so much,” Marchuk said, adding that “everyone who comes from Mariupol understands the name of our problem…. His name is [Russian President Vladimir] Cheese fries ; he is diabolical and he causes us a lot of trouble.

Still, Marchuk said people were optimistic.

“Everyone still believes that victory will be on our side and they will return to Mariupol, rebuild it and make it Ukrainian.”

In the meantime, he hopes the center, which is currently funded until December, can provide a sense of community to the displaced.

“The first and most important thing, when people from Mariupol come here, they feel normal. Because they see people who are also from Mariupol. They lived in the same city, they shopped in the same places – they can understand each other, they speak one language,” he said.

“Sometimes people come here, and they don’t even need anything, they just come here, maybe just looking for a connection, a community. A woman, she came here and she sat there for over an hour. I came over and asked her, ‘Maybe I can help you, do you need anything?’ And she said, “No, I’m just waiting – maybe somebody I know will come here.”

Laura Kelly of The Hill is on assignment in Ukraine.

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