UCC appeal helps provide safe spaces for Ukraine women and children
Most refugees from the war in Ukraine are women with children whose husbands and fathers were required to stay behind to fight.
They arrive in Poland, Hungary and other neighboring countries exhausted and craving a safe place to rest. Tragically, it’s at this moment that they are at high risk of falling into the hands of people who want to exploit, not help them.
Women and girls, already susceptible to various forms of gender-based violence, particularly transactional sex, survival sex and sexual exploitation and abuse, are even more at risk of gender-based violence in situations of war and displacement.
Contributions to the United Church of Christ’s Ukraine Emergency Appeal are helping fund registration points at border crossings, where refugees can be referred for protection and psychosocial care and receive financial aid.
Where donations go
The UCC has wired an initial $50,000 to the ecumenical ACT Alliance for support of registration points and safe transitional shelters and to meet other urgent, “first wave” needs in what will be a protracted humanitarian emergency.
The appeal, launched days after Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, has raised nearly $643,000 from more than 2,900 donors as of March 24. Additional funds from the appeal will be released to meet subsequent waves of need, in line with good stewardship of resources, said Josh Baird, who leads the UCC’s Global H.O.P.E. team.
“We are a part of a collaborative humanitarian response,” said the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, associate general minister of Wider Church Ministries and Operations. “We are leveraging our resources for the greater good, contributing in a protracted way to ensure we are able to be present as additional needs emerge.
“Our $50,000 is added to resources from other partners to fund the larger effort. It is our intention that all donations reach those most in need in response to the Ukrainian crisis and we will continue to distribute resources in upcoming days to impact those fleeing the war.”
‘Exhausted, incredibly sad’
Firsthand witnesses to the situation along the Ukraine-Poland border include Rebekka Meissner, Lutheran World Federation‘s program executive for member church projects. She participated in a March 3-6 LWF fact-finding mission that included time at two of Poland’s seven border crossings.
More than 2 million refugees have crossed into Poland from Ukraine. That country is sheltering the majority of the estimated 3.6 million refugees who have traveled to neighboring countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates another 6.5 million people are displaced inside the war-torn country.
Meissner said she was deeply touched by the “long lines of very tired, exhausted and incredibly sad women, a few grandmothers but mostly mothers with young children.” Upon arrival in Poland, these refugees encountered the “well-meaning yet often chaotic” response of people offering help and hospitality to the refugees.
High risk of exploitation
“There is a high risk that some people who are opportunists, predators, see this as a real potential for them, because you have women-headed households who are extremely vulnerable, extremely tired and just want to be taken to somewhere safer,” said Meissner’s colleague, Chey Mattner, head of operations for LWF’s World Service arm.
Providing registered transport and finding safe spaces for them, through churches and other organizations, is a top priority in the country right now, he said.
This work in response to the risk of trafficking and exploitation is in close coordination with UNHCR.
Baird said, “Such proactive measures as safe transportation and shelter, cash cards and vetted volunteers reflect the church’s commitment to reduce gender-based violence by reducing the threats to women and children during their precarious journey to safety.”
UCC assistance is being coordinated through the ACT Alliance. Lutheran World Federation, Hungarian Interchurch Aid and Swiss Church Aid are key implementing partners.
Financial help is also is being extended through Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, the relief agency of the Reformed Church in Hungary. The UCC’s long-term relationship with the Reformed Church in Hungary is held through the Middle East and Europe Office of Global Ministries.
Goals of the ACT Alliance Ukraine Appeal include 10 women-safe spaces to support 500 lactating mothers and pregnant women and 15 child-safe spaces serving 2,000 children.
Partners on the ground are encouraging displaced women to lead community-based protection initiatives benefiting 1,000 refugee women.
For its part, HIA has established a child-friendly space at the Budapest airport, providing a trustworthy hub for displaced families to access information and basic goods as needed.
ACT Alliance partners also are held to strict protocols forbidding sexual exploitation and abuse in the provision of all humanitarian assistance.
Another immediate concern, Meissner says, is the number of people living with disabilities who are fleeing the fighting and require specialized support that may not be readily available in their host communities. As a first step in response, LWF is developing working relationships with organizations in the region who assist disabled people.
Baird affirmed that the UCC’s “humanitarian response includes a core commitment to being present with the most vulnerable. Flexibly responding to unique needs is essential to the church’s compassionate provision of welcome and relief.”
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