“We will definitely win this battle.” How the Bilotserkivka municipality became a shelter for thousands of displaced people. An interview with the municipality head
The first internally displaced people began to arrive in the Bilotserkivka municipality in the Poltava region at the beginning of March, just a week after the full-scale invasion had started. This is how the municipality with a population of less than 10,000 became a refuge for hundreds of Ukrainians who left their homes because of the war.
Today, the number of officially registered IDPs in the municipality exceeds 10% of the total population. Some IDPs are here ‘in transit’, staying for a few days to recover and moving on.
But the majority are people who are ready to stay and start a new life in the municipality. They actively integrate into public life, get a job and work for the good of the community. All this is the result of coordinated work, dedication of local residents and the help of the U-LEAD with Europe Programme.
Ivan Leshchenko, Head of Bilotserkivka Village Council, shares the challenges that his municipality has faced since the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine, and talks about the support from the U-LEAD with Europe Programme, which helped organise comfortable conditions for the stay of IDPs.
Ivan Leshchenko, head of the Bilotserkivka municipality
The war became a challenge for our municipality
I believe that the full-scale invasion of Russian troops affected all Ukrainian families and communities. Our municipality wasn’t spared that either. It was a challenge for us, as we had to come together, calm people down, organise work and ensure the security of certain facilities. We had to use our best efforts to be able to continue the work we had already started and implement what we planned.
On the first day of the full-scale invasion, we gathered every official from local authorities to determine the strategic directions of our activities. Of course, many issues had to be identified and approached in a different way. It was quite unusual and specific to us as a local self-government body. But we managed: we divided the responsibilities and began to organise and facilitate all the necessary work.
The village of Bilotserkivka in the Poltava region
When there was a shortage of food, local residents and entrepreneurs came to the rescue
Our municipality consists of 29 settlements. Compared to others, it is quite small: its population is about 6,000. But with the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the number of people increased. From the first days of March, people began to arrive to us from regions where active hostilities were going on.
Today, we have officially registered about 770 internally displaced persons. About 170 of them are school- and preschool-age children. There are also quite a few elderly people who need some care and assistance.
We were certainly not fully prepared to receive the IDPs. We lacked necessary hygiene products and food. However, we tried to establish cooperation with internally displaced persons, to provide what help we could. In the first days of the war, there was no time for a full-fledged volunteer movement to appear, so many problems and requests had to be solved independently.
In particular, the residents of the municipality helped with the issue of providing IDPs with food. People brought everything they could to help. In addition, agricultural businesses answered the call. They immediately understood the severity of the problem and provided all the necessary assistance such as cereals, flour and other essential products.
New little residents of the Bilotserkivka municipality
We have received thousands of people from different cities and regions
In total, we managed to receive over a thousand people from different parts of the country. The exact number is constantly changing, so 770 is not a constant figure. Some people leave, move to other municipalities or regions, while others arrive at ours.
At the beginning of March, there were often periods when people stayed for just one or two days: to have some rest, wait out the curfew, recharge. Generally speaking, the influx of people was very large: approximately 50 people came to us daily.
The U-LEAD with Europe Programme helped us handle the reception of our fellow citizens. In fact, we were familiar with U-LEAD long before the Russian army invaded. It was U-LEAD that helped us during decentralisation and supported us in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. They provided disinfectants, personal hygiene products, etc.
Tent town for IDPs set up with the support of U-LEAD with Europe in the Bilotserkivka municipality
U-LEAD’s support facilitated the creation of a transit hub for IDPs
And since 24 February 2022, the U-LEAD with Europe Programme has once again come to the aid of our municipality. Initially, they provided support with applicable guidelines, advice on how to work during this period. That is, the representatives of the Programme gave us, as a local self-government body, guidance on working in wartime. Material aid was added later to the theoretical and advisory assistance.
In particular, we received the Shelter aid package aimed at improving the living conditions of IDPs. We are very grateful for this help as it allowed us to additionally accommodate up to 20 IDPs, gave them a chance for a respite, opportunity to adjust and decide on further plans.
In fact, we got a fully functional tent town, ready to use and host people. It has compact and high-quality beds, warm blankets and sleeping bags. We decided to place it next to the highway so that people on the road can rest and fully recover.
Thanks to U-LEAD, we also received aid kits that allow you to fully support yourself for several days or even weeks. These kits include everything you need, from toothpaste to camping food warmers.
And it really helped. After all, our municipality hosts a lot of transit IDPs. That is, there were many people who asked to stay here literally for a day or two. Yes, we also have municipal facilities that can receive people, which we certainly use. However, the mobility of the tent town allowed to quickly solve urgent problems.
Contents of U-LEAD’s Shelter package: tent, camping beds, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, blankets, water tank, generator, essentials and hygiene kits for IDPs
We are not abandoning our plans; we are just postponing them
Today, our municipality lives, works and, I am sure, will continue to work. Naturally, the war deprives us of many chances and opportunities and hinders our plans, which we wanted to implement already this year. But we will definitely implement them. We just have to postpone them. But everything that our municipality planned will be implemented.
The Bilotserkivka municipality is very open to the integration of internally displaced persons. There are many job opportunities and companies here, which ensure the stable functioning of the municipality and bring money to the local budget. Therefore, we invite all professionals. And not only today. Even before the full-scale war, we had about 500 people from other municipalities who commuted here for work.
And we already have many positive examples! Some villages hosted skilled workers: seamstresses, hairdressers, massage therapists. We gave them the opportunity to work in the municipality, provide their services to local residents and earn money. Everyone is satisfied, happy and ready to stay here. Moreover, some people simply have nowhere to return. But we welcome, support and help everyone who is ready to work for the good of our municipality.
New little residents of the municipality
Together we will overcome this challenge
We are currently submitting proposals to start housing development. We have suitable plots of land and all the possibilities for this. We also dream of creating an industrial park in the municipality, and we have already allocated land for it. We are doing everything in our power, everything we can do under these circumstances so that our municipality keeps living and growing.
I am optimistic and positive about the future of our country. We will definitely win. Yes, this victory will be difficult for us. But this is a trial that we will definitely pass. And we will rebuild everything, do everything. And we will also look at all the values that used to guide us before this in a completely different way. The main thing is to stay positive. Sometimes people are too pessimistic. But as I always say, believe in our victory. And make every effort to bring this victory closer.
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