In their own words: From one frontline to another in eastern UkrainePublished: Aug 13, 2020 Reading time: 4 minutes
In 2015, as fighting raged in eastern Ukraine, Mikhail, a psychologist from Donetsk, lost his job as a family psychologist at a centre for youth and children in Donbas. Soon, Mikhail began volunteering to support people affected by the armed conflict, and five years later, this work has brought Mikhail full circle.
Mikhail is again working as a psychologist, now for People in Need (PIN). When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Ukraine, he was working with PIN on a project funded by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), which provided psychological support to children and adults in frontline locations in Donbas. The pandemic forced Mikhail and his colleagues into quarantine and required them to develop alternative means of psychological support for people in the region, including online counselling and trainings, and self-help videos.
When the quarantine restrictions were eventually eased, Mikhail returned to the work he is passionate about, while taking steps to protect staff and beneficiaries from COVID-19.
How did you become a humanitarian worker? Why did you choose this career?
I became a humanitarian worker during the phase of active fighting in Donbas. I first worked as a volunteer in Donetsk [in the heart of Donbas] and then I became an aid worker. I’ve worked with PIN for more than five years. I can’t say that I chose this job; rather, the job chose me. While volunteering, I was approached by a PIN colleague and she offered me a job with PIN’s team of psychologists. I agreed without hesitating and I’m happy about my job.
What does an average day in the field look like for you, and what issues do you face?
In frontline locations I provide group support sessions for adults and children. I also provide individual counselling. In the morning, going to the field, I must always be in a good mood because I go to support people. I can’t be sad, weak, or [upset]. People should trust me, so we need to establish a friendly rapport.
As for the issues, the main thing for me is the fact that normally, people are not very well informed about psychological support and it takes time to build trust. In the beginning of the conflict, during the active fighting, people supported each other by joining together to solve problems. But the conflict in eastern Ukraine is now more than six years old. People have changed a lot. Besides, when COVID-19 quarantine restrictions were imposed, people were cut off from receiving [in-person] psychological support. Our PIN psychological team didn’t go to the field and we started online counselling. It was a good alternative, but this can’t substitute for face-to-face meetings. I’m happy that now we have the opportunity to go to the field again. Of course, we are taking all the necessary measures to protect the people we support – and ourselves – in the field.
What other ways has your job changed because of COVID-19?
In the very beginning, we cancelled all field trips. I worked mostly from home conducting online sessions. We also began an online project recording short [self-help] videos from PIN psychologists; this project continues, even though we have restarted our field visits. During our visits now, we maintain social distancing and follow COVID-19 prevention measures.
How has COVID-19 affected you personally?
In terms of the frequency of field visits, we are operating normally now. But people face additional stresses related to the pandemic, and this means more work and effort from my side. For instance, I can’t afford to meet beneficiaries in a bad mood. But I’m human, and I have my own feelings, too – personal worries and problems – which I must hide deep inside during working hours. Only when I come home can I be myself.
Have you learned any new lessons during the pandemic?
I’ve learned that I can’t go to the field as before, I changed a lot because the format of my work changed. Supervision – when psychologists share case details with a supervisor – is very important in our line of work and is very helpful for us now.
Is it difficult to combine your work as an aid worker with your family life?
Yes. For the last five years, my family has lived in Donetsk while I live and work in Sloviansk. We are separated by 100 kilometres and the line of contact, which divides government- and non-government-controlled areas. Of course, I regularly visit my family and my wife comes to see me, though it is complicated by the fact that we need to cross the check point and that takes a lot of time. With the quarantine it is practically impossible. I haven’t seen my family for a while.
Has your job as an aid worker changed you? How?
Yes. I’ve become more patient and developed my skills. PIN provides good opportunities in terms of training, so I have grown professionally. Also, I have become more empathetic. Finally, my emotions are not as strong as they were before and I’m not taking all the stories people are sharing with me personally, which is important in my life of work.