Across the world, FCA’s local workers come face to face with catastrophes both in their work and in their personal lives
Karam woke up when the earth started to shake. Marianna fled a war. Susan skips workdays to fetch water. These FCA workers now tell us what it’s like to live in the middle of a catastrophe.
DID YOU KNOW that Finn Church Aid employs over 3 000 people? Or that 95 % of them are locally hired experts? Our local workers are the most crucial part of our relief work. For many people, catastrophes are a remote affair – for them, they’re a part of everyday life.
In this article we meet some FCA experts who have lived through the war in Ukraine, the drought in East Africa and a devastating earthquake in Syria. They don’t see their work as just a job. What is at stake for them is the future – for their families and for their countries.
Karam Sharouf from Syria has lived through a variety of catastrophes for his entire adult life. Still, he sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“It started with a bomb-like sound, just like what we have been hearing throughout the war. I thought we were under attack again. Eventually, I realized that the earth was shaking.
It was the morning of February 6, 2023. I was asleep in our home, on the fourth floor of a building, in the Syrian capital Damascus. In a state of shock, I grabbed my wife and child. Things were falling and breaking apart around us, but fortunately there were no injuries.
I am Syrian. I am 33 years old. I have lived my entire adult life surrounded by catastrophes: a decade of war, then the pandemic, now a devastating earthquake. Our country is going from a crisis to crisis, and many Syrians are just waiting for a chance to get out.
I have been working with FCA since 2019, when I became FCA’s first local worker in Syria. Even before that, however, I had ten years of experience in the organization. The earthquake has kept us extremely busy. In Syria, we have not had the opportunity to prepare for catastrophes like the earthquake and the pandemic, since we have dealing with bombs and attacks for the last decade. How to deal with something like an earthquake? We have had no idea.
Just before the quake, Finn Church Aid had expanded its reach to Aleppo, as well as Raqqa, often remembered as the capital of ISIS. People in these cities have been living under enormous pressure and, after all the bad things that have happened, all they have wanted is a moment of calm. What they did not need was another catastrophe, like this earthquake – causing many to lose their homes or families.
So, all things considered, it’s all very difficult, but I still see light at the end of the tunnel for us Syrians. That’s what keeps me going. After all, our mission is making people feel empowered.
The future of Syria depends first on us, the locals, even if the international community’s help is also necessary. When people work hard for their country, this creates a sense of togetherness and unity. What annoys me is how white people treat us Middle-Easterners. I’ve seen none of that while at FCA, even though we are in constant contact with Finland and our other countries of operation. Almost all of the staff at FCA’s Syria office are Syrian. That is quite exceptional and gets us a lot of positive feedback.
Marianna Zhurbenko, who has fled the war in Ukraine, would not hesitate to open her home to other refugees.
“I remember staring incredulously at the sky from the window of my home in Gostomel, west of Kiev. It was 24 February 2022, helicopters were flying overhead, and my phone kept ringing incessantly as my friends called in distress, telling me and my family to flee. All the sudden the war had started, and the front line was only 500 metres from our home. It felt like they were playing a movie just outside our window.
The artillery fire started in the evening. That’s when my husband and I decided to flee. We packed our 9-year-old son, our six-month-old baby, and our dog into the car. We fled first to Kyiv and then to western Ukraine.
I and my sons lived there for the next few months. I stayed awake, listened to my 9-year-old crying. Fortunately, the baby didn’t understand anything about the situation.
Unknown families took us in to live with them. We tried to offer them payment for water and electricity, and they refused to accept it. The war has united us Ukrainians like never before. I, too, would open the door to other families if they were facing such a situation.
My own values have also been changed by the war. Material goods no longer matter to me, while life, health, family, and love are vastly more important than before.
We were able to return home in May 2022. Kyiv was empty and our yard was full of mines and ammo fragments. The mines were cleared, and now our children can play there safely again.
Before the war, I was a supervisor in a sewing company. After we returned home, it soon became clear that this couldn’t continue. Although my workplace had not been destroyed in the fighting, all the workers had fled elsewhere and had no intention of returning.
I started in June as a planning coordinator at the Finn Church Aid. I’m in charge of obtaining aid and making sure that all aid going to FCA’s schools, for example, finds its way there.
I was an internally displaced person and I know how that makes people feel. It’s great to be able to help children, and I like what I’m doing here.”
Susan Abuba Jackson, living in a Kenyan refugee camp, is a teacher. Sometimes, however, she must spend a whole working day just fetching water.
“I am a teacher. The ongoing drought makes life hard for my students, but also for me. I have five children at home. Some days, instead of going to work, I must fetch water to keep my children from suffering. If I can’t feed myself, I don’t have the energy to teach. There are four of us teachers in the school. The class sizes are so huge that teaching while hungry and thirsty becomes impossible.
I came to Kenya from South Sudan in 2017, fleeing the war. I remember seeing one person shot I fled with my children here to Kenya while my husband stayed in South Sudan as a soldier.
I worked as a teacher in South Sudan for 12 years. Upon arrival here, I started as a primary school teacher. For the last two years, I have been working as a kindergarten teacher in a school run by Finn Church Aid in the Kalobeyei refugee camp.
I like working with children. They are flexible, they learn quickly and are very outspoken. Early education is also especially important for children. It is foundational to all sorts of learning.
The drought is currently our biggest problem. Normally we have 500 pupils, but many are dropping out of school because there is no water in the school, either. We can’t even offer them food if there is no water.
The children here have a lot of special needs. Many have seen war, have been traumatized. Their parents may have died, and they may be living alone with older siblings. It is up to us to look after these children and make sure they get a good education, but in a situation like this, that is very difficult.”
Ukraine: One year of a war that shattered lives and put millions in need
All photos unless indicated: Antti Yrjönen
On 24 February 2022 the world changed for Ukrainians. After Russia’s invasion, millions of people became refugees, displaced within and without the borders of their country. Children were especially affected with schooling interrupted and families often split up.
SINCE THE very start of the war, FCA has supported Ukrainians with humanitarian aid, working with our partners. Now, we are heading a multi-million euro project to make sure children can continue to access quality education safely, whether in Ukraine or elsewhere. This is the story of Ukraine and FCA in the past year.
Phase 1 – people on the move
After Russia invades Ukraine, many people are forced to flee their homes leaving most of their belongings behind. Most are women and children. Not knowing where they are going or for how long, and often forced to leave fathers, brothers and grandfathers behind, the stress on people is huge.
Alina, 10, holds 3-year-old Emilia in her arms at a refugee aid post in the village of Barabás, close to the Ukrainian-Hungarian border.
Escaping with nine children
A kindness of a friend meant Masha & her nine children could flee Zaporizhzhia, near the Crimean Peninsula.
The car they owned only had five seats, so her husband asked his friend for a minivan. His friend handed over the keys, no questions asked.
“As I was travelling I was crying. I was very upset. I was scared and afraid that something would happen on the way,” says Masha.
They packed pillows, blankets, documents & warm clothes as well as 3 violins for some of the musical children. One child had to leave their beloved piano behind.
When they finally arrived in Hungary Masha’s daughter, Alina (10) met a friend Emilia (3) at the aid post in Barabás where FCA’s partner, Hungarian Interchurch Aid distributed aid.
Alina brought one toy, her clothes and a colouring book with her. She gave the colouring book to another girl as they were on the journey, because the girl had no toys with her.
1 million euros within 4 days
Millions of Ukrainians are fleeing, often with nothing more than a small bag. FCA launches a fundraising campaign, raising 1 million euros within 4 days to provide refugees with emergency aid.
People give generously to help Ukrainian refugees during the first days of the war. Photo: Saara Mansikkamäki
In the first few days of the war, the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, estimates that over half a million people cross borders into countries neighbouring Ukraine.
The first wave of refugees are mostly women with children. Exhausted and scared, the first stage is to give them urgent items, like food, warm clothing and shelter and, in many cases, psychosocial support.
Fleeing Kyiv wasn’t Kristina’s first experience of escaping fighting. She had left the place of her birth, Luhansk, in 2014 for the safety of Ukraine’s capital. Now that was no longer safe.
“It wasn’t so simple to leave. It was so crowded, people couldn’t get into the train.”
Kristina & her cat, Lisa, managed to squeeze onto a train to the border with Hungary, where she received assistance.
“My husband, his family, my brother, my aunt, my uncle, they stay in Kyiv. Most of my friends are in Kyiv too. It’s terrible. We have just emotion and crying.”
Nadiya was at home when the first bombs hit near her house in Kharkiv, which is located near an army base. The attacks were loud & frightening. She doesn’t remember leaving.
“My kids just took me with them.”
Her family managed to reach the Chop railway station in western Ukraine. Now they’re waiting to cross into Hungary.
Nadiya’s biggest hope is that things will change for the better and the war will end. “Many children are suffering because of the war.”
FCA’s partner, HIA, sets up refugee points wherever there is a high concentration of people.
In Budapest airport, parents can take a rest, while children play in specially constructed play areas.
3 million refugees
flee to the surrounding countries during the first month of war, 1.5 million of them children.
Yelizaveta (5) hugs a soft toy. She and her sister Maryanna (10), mother Vironika, and grandmother Svetlana left their hometown of Odessa soon after Russia invaded Ukraine. At Budapest airport, they are thinking of heading to Bulgaria.
“I had a lot of friends in Odessa, but now my best friend is in Germany. But it’s a good idea to go to Bulgaria, because our Black Sea is there. There we’ll be close to Ukraine,” says Maryanna.
Eugene, Vitaly and their children were at hospital in Kharkiv when the bombings started. They were in the hospital because 10-month-old Ivor needs a heart operation. Now Ivor is in his father’s arms and cries out frequently.
Forced to leave the hospital in Kharkiv due to the increasingly intense bombings, their journey to Lviv took more than 24 hours. They came by train; children were sleeping at railway stations and on the floor of the train, they did not have anything to eat.
Phase 2 – sheltering
With fighting ongoing in the east with no sign of an end, Ukrainians often opt to shelter in the relative peace of the west. Locals open their homes and schools to their fellow countrymen, many volunteering long hours to welcome people, feed them, and make sure they have a safe, warm place to stay.
FCA SUPPORTS operations in Berehove and Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine, providing temporary shelters for those who want to stay as well as continuing to help people on their onward journeys. Meanwhile, children are still not attending school, although some teachers are trying to provide remote learning opportunities.
The IOM estimates that there are around 8 million displaced people within Ukraine with humanitarian needs.
Larysa, her husband, daughter and the cat Bella escaped from Kharkiv on March 1, 2022. Before fleeing, they spent four nights in the basement to escape the bombing raids.
“Everyone wanted to travel out of Kharkiv. There were a lot of people at the train station. The train ride was free of charge, but getting on the train was difficult because of the crowds,” Larysa says.
Larysa has cancer. She received treatment in Kharkiv, but the hospital was destroyed in the bombings. She hopes to get treatment for her illness in Hungary. Now Larysa and her family are staying in a refugee shelter in Berehove, western Ukraine.
“We are happy to have a place to sleep where it’s warm. We get food three times a day, we can wash and do our laundry, because there is also a washing machine here.”
Two weeks later FCA visited the same shelter and heard that Larysa was finally getting treatment in a Ukrainian hospital in the west of the country.
When Russia attacked Ukraine, English teacher Erika Pavliuksent her students home and started volunteering at the refugee shelter set up at the school.
She also provides her students with online lessons. Some of them stay at home, as their school is full of refugees, but some have also fled. Erika is visibly moved when talking about her students.
“They’re teenagers. We have our ups and downs, but we can always find a solution to our difficulties. I love them.”
Erika takes a deep breath and looks around in her own empty classroom, as we ask about her hopes for the future.
“To be able to teach normal classes. I want to write on that blackboard and…,” she hesitates for a moment and starts laughing tiredly, “…yell at my students for not having done their homework.”
Ivonna Kobypyavska manages a kitchen at a refugee shelter set up in a school. She’s worked in the same kitchen for 27 years already, but now she’s feeding refugees instead of school children.
Ivonna’s son went to fight in Kyiv, so she wanted to do something useful; hence, she continued to work in the kitchen without pay.
Ivonna volunteers from 6am to 11pm in the shelter in Berehove, western Ukraine, cooking 400 meals a day in a school kitchen designed for 40 kids.
“It’s not a big deal,” she shrugs. “Routine, routine…”
A warm welcome
In the outskirts of Lviv, Viktoria (14), Maria (9) and Ivan (3) have just arrived at a shelter with mother Katerina and grandmother Svetlana.
Maria will have her 9th birthday in two days. The family left their hometown of Malyn because of the war. When the war started, the family waited, thinking it might finish soon. But when they started to hear bombs, they packed their bags and left their home.
The family was told that there were buses that could take them to Lviv and Poland. However, they did not want to cross the border to Poland and decided to stay in Lviv instead.
“We are incredibly happy and thankful to be here. We were welcomed in the shelter,” says Katerina.
They left the rest of the family behind, so they want to get back to their home as soon as possible. Both Katerina’s and Svetlana’s husbands are fighting in the war.
8 million displaced people
within Ukraine with humanitarian needs.
676 metric tons
of assistance delivered by summer 2022.
reached by our operations.
A sports hall serves as a temporary community shelter for displaced people in Lviv, Ukraine. Photo: Melany Markham/FCA
Phase 3 – coming back
While fighting continues in the south and east of the country, some places are safe enough to return. Many buildings are destroyed and electricity is unstable. The threat of air raids still looms. FCA’s operations evolve into the next stage – bringing teachers and children back to school and restoring a sense of normality after a long period of upheaval and trauma. With EU funding, we lead a €14 million consortium to restore formal education to 45,299 children.
“I see there’s a gap in understanding how to approach certain categories of people and provide them with qualified psychosocial support.
Now, a large number of citizens from other regions are coming to stay in Chernihiv, while at the same time, the city is doing its best to get back to the normal state of things.”
Oleh Halepa, Psychologist-Volunteer at Chernihiv Joint Volunteer Center. Photo: Iryna Dasiuk / FCA
Oleh participated in FCA supported psychosocial support training to be able to support traumatised children.
“The coach impressed me a lot. He’s a very active, vivid person. The amount, structure and style of presentation of the information that we’ve learned during the training is something worth learning to apply in our future work.”
A taste of normality
In the summer of 2022, FCA organises several summer clubs for children, where they could play together and take part in activities. For kids and parents, it’s a small taste of normality.
Tanya Slautina and her husband Andzey are from Chernihiv where 60 per cent of the city’s 285,000 inhabitants fled to other parts of Ukraine.
“War has touched every aspect of our lives. The worst months in Chernihiv we were isolated in our home. Fear, explosions and panic were our daily companions. Fortunately our children did not see anyone dying, but they were quiet and sullen. All we could think about was survival.
Our home is OK, but others were not so lucky. We organised a collection of clothes and other necessary items to help other families. Before the attack I worked as a bank clerk, but I left my job to be able to help my children and our community. The stress and fear brought us closer together.
We all need help with our children, and the summer clubs are a huge relief for us parents, too. Our children Anastasiya, 6, Valeziya, 10, and Maksim, 12, have been going to FCA’s summer clubs for six weeks.”
“The best thing about summer clubs was seeing my classmates and friends. Nothing has been completely normal for a long time. First we had to study at home a lot because of the coronavirus pandemic, and then the war began.”
“During the attacks, we just wanted to go somewhere and hide. I’ve noticed that I feel much better now that we do things together. Working together and talking with others about how we feel and what we think has been extremely helpful.”
Sophia (14), FCA summer club participant.
Teachers play an important role
FCA’s education response for Ukraine emphasises teacher training and support. Without quality teachers, there is no quality education.
In a context like Ukraine, where war is ongoing, teachers need special training and mentoring to be able to assist their students, but also to cope with their own needs.
“Many have lost trust in the world”
Zhanna Kudina is a psychologist and teacher in Chernihiv.
“The war has caused a great deal of stress in children and young people. Some have had to endure exhausting journeys to escape, others have lost loved ones or seen things children should never have to see. The most typical symptoms include lack of appetite, sleep disorders and difficulty concentrating.
In summer clubs, we have used various therapeutic tools, such as arts and crafts. At first, drawings were very dark-coloured, with soldiers, guns and missiles. Over the weeks, more colour, sunshine and flowers began to appear. Many have lost trust in the world, and with the clubs we try to provide them with a place where they can feel safe.
As a psychologist, I know that support should be offered urgently after a traumatic event. The longer children and young people have to wait, the more difficult it becomes to deal with the mental scars. But I am hopeful, because I am here now, doing something for them, and because we have received a huge amount of support from Finn Church Aid. We are deeply grateful for that.”
Psychosocial support to 4,590 children
FCA leads a project to provide children with psychosocial support services.
Training for 905 teachers
to provide specialist support to children suffering from trauma.
participated and benefitted from FCA’s summer club activities.
Phase 4 – preparing for the winter
The war enters a new phase, where attacks on critical infrastructure are common. The lack of heating makes learning in schools already difficult, and that’s coupled with the almost daily air raid alerts.
THE FREQUENT power cuts also make it hard for students to learn remotely, either at home or in different cities. FCA and partners respond by providing winterisation kits to families and starting work to make mandatory bomb shelters in schools suitable to continue learning in, even during an air raid alert.
We went back to see Ruslana, a teacher in Chernihiv, Ukraine who received psychosocial training from us during the summer.
“Everyday is a challenge. The war has had an influence on every aspect of our lives, our daily routines. Now we are planning how we could organize the teaching in shelters as we spend quite a lot of time there depending on the week.”
Children seem to be quite flexible when it comes to psychosocial wellbeing. However, you never know what triggers them. It might be an air raid, the sound of a siren. Some of them start crying. Some of them just stay still. Of course, some of the students stay positive, but some of them are really pessimistic and in despair.
The new methods and psychosocial support skills we learnt have supported us during this autumn. Many of our teachers are using those methods on a regular basis here at school.”
“This has been a life lesson”
We also revisit Zhanna, who explains that, after so many months of war, she and her colleagues are doing their best to overcome the anxiety syndrome and stress many children are currently experiencing.
According to Zhanna, approximately 30 % of students show signs of stress syndrome. They show symptoms like anxiety, loss of appetite, bad sleeping, and screaming while having nightmares.
She explains that during the Russian military presence in the region, three students of her school lost their lives. Some students experienced violence and oppression.
One of the school shelters has been organized as a psychosocial hub for children. It is a safe place where children participate for example in art therapy and learn relaxing breathing techniques.
When asked about her thoughts on the future, Kudina says that she hopes for the best and peace. “This all has been a kind of a lesson to us by life. It has developed our survival skills, the skills with which we can live this over. We should somehow try to program ourselves for the best. Positive thinking will bring a positive future.”
Power outages or “blackouts” are frequent in Chernihiv and across Ukraine. Sometimes cities only have a few hours of electricity a day.
FCA supports the installation of generators in schools to cope with the loss of electricity.
Children spend Christmas without their fathers
Many families will spend this year with fathers, brothers and uncles at the frontline or never coming back from the war. FCA supports 71 children in Chernihiv with Christmas gifts and activities.
Oleh (11) and Polina (13) both lost their fathers in the war. Both students are learning online, despite power cuts.
Says Polina, “I love drawing and have been doing arts for eight years. I like online learning, because it’s safer and the teacher can give you specific attention.”
“My family is the best family in the world. We have some Christmas traditions, such as decorating the Christmas tree on the 24th of December. This year it will just be me, my mother, grandmother and my brother.”
Schools, as well as hospitals and critical infrastructure have all suffered intense damage. For Ukraine’s young people, it’s been a disorientating and distressing year.
Since September 2022, the 1,200 students of Lyceum Number 25 in Zhytomyr have been studying in temporary learning spaces.
Kateryna Tkachenko is a 9th grader at Lyceum Number 25 in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. The school was destroyed by a missile strike on March 4, 2022.
“In spring 2022, we had to take a two-month study break, and then we continued with online lessons. I felt so lucky when I was able to start my 9th grade offline. I prefer offline learning because of better communication.”
“The war has caused a lot of problems in Ukraine. Thanks to my parents, friends and teacher, I have coped with all challenges. I miss everything in my destroyed school: the building, classrooms and atmosphere. It was very important to me.
I want to finish school with excellent grades and go to university. I want to travel the world and have a good life.”
3,098 education institutions
have suffered bombing, FCA will support the rehabilitation of 147 schools.
in Chernihiv supported by FCA in 2022 with Christmas gifts and activities.
31,100 learner kits
will be distributed to children in need in the project locations.
Phase 5 – looking to the future
As the country reaches one year at war, Ukraine’s children must return to school. FCA leads a multi-million euro set of programmes to make sure teachers and students have everything they need to learn safely, in comfort and flexibly.
The New Year’s celebrations at this family’s house are a moment of joy. Mother Oksana was injured in a rocket attack at the start of the war and daughter, Maria, is still shaken by witnessing her mother’s plight.
15 year old Kyryl plays chess with his father, Mykola, who is home from the war during New Year.
In Ukraine, the new year is celebrated by children going door to door and singing for candy.
The New Year brings families back together
In Ukraine, the New Year is celebrated between the 13th and 14th of January. Many families celebrate, with some male family members being able to return for a few days to join their families.
After months of online learning, often interrupted by power outages, children have the chance to come back to the classroom.
With EU-funded FCA support, schools are rehabilitated with improved facilities, like reinforced windows and specially equipped bomb shelters, where kids can continue learning even during air raid alerts.
FCA also works to develop school curriculums, in order to make learning as flexible as possible, so that children can have access to education wherever they are.
School number 21 was completely demolished during the fighting in Chernihiv, Ukraine in spring 2022.
FCA works with rehabilitating schools and arranging temporary learning spaces.
”I do not like to learn from home. The best thing at school is to spend time with my friends”, says Daryna Khomenko.
Daryna is now excited to return to the classroom after the rehabilitation of her school has been finalised in early 2023. She’s also received learning materials through the project funded by EU Humanitarian Aid (ECHO).
Ukrainians join FCA Staff
There are now over 20 professionals working in FCA’s Ukraine country office and most of them are locals like Marianna Zhurbenko.
Marianna remembers how on February 24, 2022 she stared in disbelief at the sky from the window of her own home in Gostomel, west of Kyiv.
Helicopters buzzed in the sky and the phone rang non-stop. Friends called in distress and told Marianna and her family to flee. The war had started suddenly, and the front line was only 500 meters from Marianna’s home.
In the evening, the uproar of artillery fire began, and that’s when Marianna and her husband decided to leave. They packed the family’s 9-year-old son, a six-month-old baby and a dog into the car and set off first for Kiev and then for western Ukraine. Marianna and the boys lived there for the next months.
Marianna stayed awake a lot and listened to her elder son’s crying at night. Fortunately, the youngest didn’t understand anything about the situation.
“Random families took us in to live with them. We tried to offer them payment for the water and electricity we used, but they refused to accept it,” says Marianna and describes how the war has united Ukrainians. She would also open the door to foreign families if such a situation came up again.
“The war has changed my own values. I realized that material don’t matter. Life, health, family relationships and love became important values for me.”
In May, it became clear that although her former workplace had not been destroyed in the war, all the workers had fled elsewhere and were not going to return.
In June 2022, Marianna started as a logistics coordinator at Finn Church Aid. She is responsible for procurement and that supplies going to FCA-supported schools find their destination.
“I was an IDP, and I know how people feel. I love being able to help children. I like myself doing this job,” says Marianna.
Kyiv, Chernihiv and Zhytomyr.
operations and support.
Head office in Kyiv, field office in Chernihiv.
Learning continues in bomb shelters
Nowadays, a functioning Ukrainian school must have a functioning bomb shelter, because there can sometimes be several air raid alerts per day.
FCA equips school bomb shelters so that everyday life can continue in them as normally as possible even during an air raid alert.
FCA will stay in Ukraine, providing quality education for all through curriculum development, training and reconstruction.
“There are a lot of challenges in Ukraine, but FCA with its Ukrainian partners sees that education is a real investment in the future. It’s not always something that you can see immediately. You know, if somebody is hungry and you give them food, you can see immediately that the need is satisfied, but education is more of a long-term investment.”
“We have students who need some hope for the future. And without the ability to learn and to create opportunities for themselves in terms of future learning, future employment, all those other basic needs are not enough.”
FCA Ukraine Country Director, Patricia Maruschak
The future of children and youth cannot be put on hold
Although fighting continues, children can’t wait to go back to school.