Amid war and hardship, I’ve seen so much resilience: Pact’s Ukraine country director reflects

May 18, 2022
Pact partner Spring of Hope provides humanitarian aid to displaced Ukrainians in Vinnytsia. Credit: Alla Studilko/Spring of Hope

I was asleep when the phone rang around 5 a.m. on Feb. 24. “It’s started,” I heard my son’s voice say. I knew immediately what he meant. The United States and the UK had been warning for months that Russia was planning a war in Ukraine much bigger than the one that had been simmering on our eastern border for eight years. Still, I went numb.

It can’t be a full-scale war, I thought. We’ll wait this out in our apartment here in Kyiv, my husband and I decided. For the first few days, we stayed in our apartment’s hallway during Russia’s assaults to be away from the windows. Soon the bombing and shooting became unbearably loud, so we’d run to the building’s bomb shelter seven or eight times a day, sleeping between strikes, whether day or night.

After a week that was a complete blur, we decided we had to leave Kyiv. The next morning at 7 a.m., as soon as the martial law curfew had lifted for the day, my husband, my son and I were in the car speeding away from the explosions. Kyiv looked like a ghost city. We made it to a small town in Ternopil and stayed there for a week with the family of my son’s friend. Next we found a safe place in Ivano Frankivsk, where we lived for the next two months.

In the photo on the left, Alyona Gerasimova (right) takes shelter in her apartment's bomb shelter with a neighbor. In the photo on the right, Gerasimova's taped windows to protect from broken glass.

Through it all, like many of my Pact Ukraine colleagues, I never stopped working. Miraculously, internet and phones remained functional, and I was essentially online 24/7, doing all that I could with Pact’s local staff and partners to help our fellow Ukrainians amid a war that in many ways still seems unbelievable.

In the decade that I’ve worked for Pact – the last five and a half years as Pact Ukraine country director – I’ve always appreciated the organization’s dedication to its local staff around the world, and the safety of me and my colleagues was Pact’s top priority when the bombing began. We had a contingency plan in place even before the war and had already let our Ukrainian staff of about 60 people know that they could relocate out of Kyiv if they chose. The morning that the strikes began, I sent an email encouraging everyone to get out if they could. I was in touch daily with the staff and with Pact’s senior management team. Our planning horizon was basically one day ahead, as the situation was changing so rapidly. Only a handful of our staff decided to remain in Kyiv, and I worried about them so much. I called them regularly, and just hearing their voices was a huge relief. On the whole, our staff supported each other tremendously, and it has made such a difference.

As a team, our focus, of course, was doing whatever we could to meet what we knew would be a huge emerging need for humanitarian assistance across Ukraine. Pact implements several large development projects in Ukraine, including two supporting women’s rights and empowerment that are funded by Global Affairs Canada. Under those projects, we work with dozens of local partners – women’s rights organizations across the country, whose capacity Pact works to strengthen. We knew our networks were a powerful tool for quickly providing humanitarian assistance, and we had to make the most of it.

We reached out to our partners immediately to make sure they were safe and to coordinate next steps. Global Affairs Canada was one of the first donors to respond to the rapidly growing humanitarian crisis, and they allowed us flexibility to provide aid. UN agencies whose mandate is to provide humanitarian assistance were not able to respond promptly; we were because of our partner organizations on the ground, both in areas of hostilities and in regions where people fled looking for safety. We worked hand in hand with our partners procuring and delivering life-saving humanitarian aid to women and families. This was our emergency response in the first four weeks of the war, and gradually, together with partner organizations, we began to assess the needs of internally displaced women to support them in the longer-term. Some needs we were able to meet under our current programs, but some newly emerged needs required additional funding, so we started looking for it.

The fact that we were able to pivot and that our partners provided support to more than 17,000 people in two months is just more evidence that women and girls can do anything. A big lesson for me has been that women and women’s organizations are extremely capable and resilient – even more than I’d realized.

I’ve seen Pact’s team do such meaningful work under the most difficult of circumstances, and that is what has kept me going.

Displaced women at a shelter run by a Pact partner in Lviv, Ukraine. Credit: Centre Women's Perspectives

I’ve seen so much resilience over the past few months. I’ve seen people come together in the best way. I’ve seen such courage and faith in our victory. I’ve seen volunteers unite and businesses step up to support Ukraine’s incredible army. I’ve seen Pact’s team do such meaningful work under the most difficult of circumstances, and that is what has kept me going. All those hard moments, the fear, seem to fade away.

I’ve seen that Ukraine and Ukrainians can change the world by doing amazing things and making the impossible a reality – maybe because we don’t know that it’s not possible, so we just try. I am still thinking about Ukraine’s secret for resilience, and I haven’t been able to come up with a short answer. It’s very multifaceted.

It’s for this reason – even amid so much loss and hardship – that I have great hope for Ukraine’s future. I believe that a peaceful, prosperous Ukraine is on the horizon, one that serves as a model for countries across the globe. A Ukraine where Pact has no work left to do because Ukrainians are equipped to take good care of themselves, and where one reason why is because women are engaged in decision making, with their voices heard and their skills and capabilities contributing abundantly to Ukraine’s development.