‘I Just Can’t Stand Aside if I Know That I Can Help’

Disability rights activist Tetiana Barantsova escaped the war in Ukraine in a wheelchair.

Now she’s helping others with disabilities to do the same.

By Victoria Andrievska and Kristy Siegfried

Messages asking for help can appear on Tetiana Barantsova’s phone at any time of the day or night. This one comes via the messaging app Telegram from a bomb shelter in Sievierodonetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine that is under intense bombardment.

“It is cold here and we don’t have water, there are no beds or mattresses or blankets, the city is constantly bombarded,” reads the message. “Please, please can anybody help us get out of the city? I hope this SMS will reach you.”

The message is from Olha Chernozhukova, a 32-year-old woman with a spinal injury that confines her to a wheelchair.

Like many people with disabilities living in Ukraine, Olha had Tetiana’s number in her phone.

As soon as Tetiana received Olha’s message, she began working with local officials and NGOs. By the next day, Olha and her mother were on a train to Lviv in western Ukraine, where Tetiana had arranged for them to stay at a rehabilitation centre for people with disabilities.

Tetiana has been helping people with disabilities escape conflict areas and restart their lives in safety since 2014, when she was forced to flee her home city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. After escaping by road, Tetiana set about organizing the evacuations of other people with disabilities. She turned her phone number into a hotline for those trapped in conflict zones and helped some 5,000 people to safety.

Tetiana Talking with family
© UNHCR_Igor Karpenko

For her work in 2014, and as the founder of Ami-Skhid, a regional network of NGOs that helps Ukrainians with disabilities, she was chosen as the regional winner for Europe of the 2020 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award.
Since then, Tetiana has been advocating for more services and support for the estimated 6.6 million Ukrainians with disabilities. Her efforts were paying off, but by January of this year, she “sensed that something very bad is coming.”

“After my first displacement in 2014, I knew—we need to prepare.”

She began meeting with different ministries and state services to discuss how they would evacuate and support people with different types of disabilities in the event of an attack. “A person with hearing problems cannot hear the sound of sirens. A blind person cannot read the sign ‘Bomb Shelter’. All possible scenarios were thought of,” says Tetiana.

But the scale of the war that started on 24 February took everyone by surprise.

“We decided to leave immediately,” says Tetiana.

“We made calls to people with disabilities who were living close to us, and in half an hour there were 18 people who had no means to leave and needed help.”

She and her husband Oleksiy squeezed as many of them as they could into their specially adapted mini-van and drove west.

Tetiana then returned to Ukraine with Oleksiy to help transport others to safety. They made several trips back and forth, spending long hours on the road, until Oleksiy collapsed and had to be admitted to hospital in Latvia.

Tetiana talking with kids
© UNHCR_Igor Karpenko

Now Tetiana relies on her many contacts with local authorities, NGOs and volunteers all over Ukraine to help evacuate people with disabilities who call her via the 24-hour hotline she set up. The hotline, which has seven different numbers, receives dozens of calls every day.

Tetiana acknowledges the toll such work takes on her but describes it as a responsibility she cannot turn away from. “I don’t have a lot of strength,” she says. “But I just can’t stand aside if I know that I can help.”

This article first appeared on unhcr.org

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