UNHCR – Volunteer cyclists bring aid to isolated communities in eastern Ukraine
By Victoria Andrievska in Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine | September 30, 2021
Yevdokia Chepel looks like many old people in rural eastern Ukraine. She suffers from health problems as the seven-year conflict in the region and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated her sense of isolation.
For decades she worked in a factory, but at 77 she is retired and widowed. Her son died last year and she rarely sees her daughter and granddaughter who live in Luhansk, the second largest city in Ukraine, across the line of contact between government territory and not government.
“I feel very isolated and alone. It’s hard to live alone, ”she said, crying.
But since last year, help has come in an unexpected form: on three wheels.
“She takes care of me and helps me.”
Every few days, Tetiana Vasiukova loads her electric tricycle with supplies in a village in the Luhansk region. She then visits local communities to provide assistance and companionship to isolated residents.
Most of the people she visits are displaced by the conflict and others, like Yevdokia, are at risk of being forced from their homes.
“I am very grateful that Tetiana visits me regularly,” said Ievdokia. “She takes care of me and helps me. It makes me feel a lot better.
Tetiana, 68, worked as a deputy director of a bank in Luhansk, but has been committed to helping those affected by the conflict since her retirement. As a local, she understands the problems faced by other residents, many of whom live on small plots of land where they grow their own vegetables.
“Almost every day, I take my electric bike and go to a store or pharmacy to do groceries for the elderly who reside in our community,” she said.
Tetiana and other volunteers delivered food and medicine by bus or taxi, but last year UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, used funds from the European Union to provide medical and social workers 228 bicycles and 35 electric tricycles.
Pedal transport reduces costs for volunteers and it also makes some accommodations more accessible, given the sometimes difficult roads. Bicycles and tricycles are equipped with baskets and can travel up to 40 km / h with a range of 40 km before needing to be recharged.
“With an electric bicycle, I am not attached to anyone. I just go there when I need to and don’t have to worry about carrying heavy bags, ”said Tetiana.
The pandemic has exacerbated humanitarian needs in eastern Ukraine where conflict has already left 3.4 million people in need of protection and assistance.
They include an estimated 340,000 people forced to flee their homes and who now face hardship in the east and other areas. The elderly, people with disabilities and houses headed by women are among the most vulnerable.
The network of bicycles and tricycles is just an innovation that helps these populations.
Technology also plays a role in an area where infrastructure such as medical facilities, banks and post offices are sometimes lacking.
UNHCR and its NGO partner Proliska launched an electric car service in the Luhansk region in 2019 at the Stanytsia Luhanska pedestrian checkpoint on the contact line, where people have to exit vehicles and cross on foot for security reasons.
The service can carry 400 people per day and prioritizes pregnant women and children, people with disabilities and those over 75.
In another development, aid groups including the US Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration and EU Emergency Preparedness and Humanitarian Aid, as well as UNHCR and Proliska, have set up two bus stations in Stanytsia Luhanska equipped with solar panels and sockets to charge smartphones and tablets. Charging points and Wi-Fi installed earlier are especially useful during the pandemic when anyone crossing the contact line must use an app for contact tracing.
Technology and the willingness of volunteers mean that even in the face of hardship, there is hope.
“A lot of people can’t come and take care of their plots, houses are slowly collapsing and every other plot is weed. But every morning I turn on my electric tricycle and I feel better because I know I can make this place better by helping people, ”said Tetiana.
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