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With help from Philly, disabled Ukrainians seek escape from war

For disabled Ukrainians escaping the war in their home, a Philadelphia couple offers aid.

Yuliia Sachuk (center), director of the Ukrainian disabled advocacy group Fight For Right, shortly after arriving in Denmark from her home country with her son, Taras (left) and sister, Olena.
Yuliia Sachuk (center), director of the Ukrainian disabled advocacy group Fight For Right, shortly after arriving in Denmark from her home country with her son, Taras (left) and sister, Olena.Read morephoto provided by Yuliia Sachuk

In Ukraine, the bomb shelters aren’t wheelchair accessible.

It’s one of the bleak realities that weighed on Tanya Herasymova, who uses a wheelchair, as Russian forces descended near her home city of Kamianske, in eastern Ukraine. Another was the prospect of Russian occupation. Herasymova, a 31-year-old disability-rights activist, couldn’t tolerate that.

“I can’t keep silent, to be under this state,” she said. “I don’t imagine how I could live under occupation.”

On the second day of the invasion, she and her mother decided they had to leave Kamianske. They tackled an exodus that is even more fraught for the estimated 2.7 million Ukrainians with disabilities, according to the European Disability Forum. Inaccessible transportation and shelter are among the obstacles they face, and the people trying to help know too well that in war and other catastrophes, people with disabilities are more likely to get left behind.

“For people with disabilities, it’s like double the danger because you can’t do what people without disabilities can do,” said Yuliia Sachuk, 39, who has vision impairment and evacuated from Kyiv to Denmark with her 17-year-old son.

Help from Philadelphia

Deaths among those with disabilities tend to be two to four times those among the overall population during conflict or catastrophe, the United Nations has reported, a pattern seen during the 2011 earthquake in Japan and Hurricane Katrina. People with disabilities are also more likely to be left behind during emergency responses and humanitarian relief efforts, the U.N. says, cut off from help by physical, environmental, or social barriers.

“Our contacts in the country have confirmed that the situation for persons with disabilities is appalling,” a Feb. 24 letter from the European Disability Forum stated. “People with disabilities are forced to stay at home, not knowing where they can go to be safe.”

Sachuk is director of Fight for Right, a women-led, Ukrainian disability-rights nonprofit building an international network to help people escape the war, or at least give them a better chance of surviving it. That growing network extends across the Atlantic to a Juniata apartment where a pair of Philadelphia disability-rights activists are assisting with logistics and coordination. Germán Parodi and Shaylin Sluzalis, co-executive directors of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, have been consumed by the work, the couple said, volunteering five to 10 hours a day on the task. They often work well past midnight because of the time difference between here and Europe.

“It is the top priority,” Sluzalis said. “We live and breathe this right now.”

Despite support from the disabled community worldwide, the need for help is overwhelming, and the effort to assist is stymied by inaccessible infrastructure and what Sachuk described as a lack of commitment from larger relief organizations. Meanwhile, the Russian grip on parts of Ukraine grows tighter. About 12 million people are trapped by the war, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported last week, unable to leave and lacking resources to keep themselves safe. Since the invasion began about a month ago, Fight for Right has been able to help evacuate about 400 people and provide them with support after their relocation.

“My fear is that ... we can’t help everyone with disabilities in Ukraine,” said Sachuk. “If the international community would be more responsive we would be able to help more people.”

Finding a route out of Ukraine means locating volunteers and resources across the entire evacuation path. For people with hearing impairments, they have sought volunteers who know sign language. For people with blindness, they need people who can act as guides. They also seek post-evacuation support in countries where the culture and language may be unfamiliar.

For people who can’t get out of the country or won’t leave, the international relief effort is attempting to get them food, water, medicine, equipment, and psychological or financial support.

Parodi, who uses a wheelchair, advocated for the United States to provide better care during the pandemic for those with disabilities. Now he has an additional focus.

“Nobody else is doing this,” he said. “If you cannot get yourself to a safe zone, no one is coming to help you.”

A winding escape

Herasymova’s journey began Feb. 24 when she woke at 7 a.m. to her mother telling her war had started. Her mother suggested she stay with a friend living on a ground floor, but Herasymova quickly made a different decision.

“I said, ‘Mom, you need to go to the train station and buy tickets to Lviv,’” she said.

The two women traveled to a relative’s home, and the next day boarded a train for Lviv, in western Ukraine. Train platforms in Ukraine typically aren’t flush with the trains, so Herasymova had to have her chair — with her in it — lifted up by rail workers.

“This is always very scary because it is dangerous,” she said of entrusting her safety to “three men who you see for the first time in your life.”

The trip from Kamianske to Lviv typically takes 17 hours. Their train took 22. Four people sat on each bed in the sleeper cars, Herasymova said. Some had no seats at all. The train crawled along the rails in total darkness to avoid the attention of Russian aircraft overhead.

She recalled a conductor saying, “We need to move slowly and be like a ghost and these airplanes won’t be able to see us.”

About a fifth of Ukraine’s 44 million people have been displaced or fled the country, the New York Times reported.

In Lviv, the travelers met one of Herasymova’s coworkers, and got right in their car to continue the journey.

“No time for rest,” Herasymova said. “I decided we should go on this day, today or never.”

The line of cars stopped at the Polish border stretched about 12 miles, she said, and her mother despaired at being able to walk that distance. They found a ride with someone who used a winding route through back roads and small villages to get within nearly 550 yards of the border.

“I was ready to go two days to the border,” she said. “This was magic.”

For more than a week, the two women journeyed from Jaroslaw, Poland, to Krakow, then Warsaw, where they rested for a night, and then to Berlin. From there, people drove them in a minibus to Hamburg, and then other friends drove them to Denmark, where the women are staying now, though Herasymova did not want to name exactly where.

Amid war, she said, she found generous people along her journey who made her escape possible. Now she is doing casework and media outreach for Fight for Right, hoping to help others do the same.

“Without all our international partners, I don’t know if I would have been able to cross the border,” she said.

What’s left behind

On Friday, Herasymova received news her home city was not faring well.

“I think a lot about my friends, people who I know who use a wheelchair or have different types of disabilities and stayed in my city or others and I know that people just go into a hallway or corridor and sit in there,” she said. “It’s the only possibility to be a little bit safe.”

Grateful as she is to be in a safe place, she can’t help but miss the life she left behind.

“My life was normal,” Herasymova said. “I had a plan for travel, for vacation. I had a plan for work. We had a strategy. ... Now all what we have, it’s our backpacks.”

From Denmark, Sachuk explained the agonizing choice she faced in Ukraine.

If she fled, she would leave behind her home and her husband, who volunteered to serve in the military. If she stayed, though, she worried that her need for extra support due to her disability might make the situation more difficult for her loved ones.

“I understood this is not like some occasional bombing and that Russia bombed not only military infrastructure but also civilians,” she said. “I understood in this situation, when I also need support, it would be more difficult to organize.”

The work of helping people evacuate is difficult, Sachuk said, all the better as a distraction from what is happening at home. Sachuk paused when asked about her husband, then she said she hears from him, “not very often.”

“We continue to live in Ukraine,” Sachuk said. “Not our bodies, but in our souls, we are in Ukraine.”