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DIRECT RELIEF: As War Nears One Year Mark, Mental Health Services Provided by – and for – Ukrainian Refugees

In March 2022, as Russian attacks intensified in Ukraine, Viktoria Mariniuk and her 13-year-old daughter fled Kharkiv and crossed the border into Slovakia, carrying only a suitcase between them. Weeks turned into months of conflict, and as they waited in Slovakia, Mariniuk was able to help other new arrivals from Ukraine. Formerly an ESL instructor in Kharkiv, she is now the program manager at the League for Mental Health, a Slovakian nonprofit started last spring to provide mental health support by Ukrainian refugees, for Ukrainian refugees. Currently, the number of Ukraine refugees in the country hovers around 105,000, according to the UNHCR. Since May of 2022, Direct Relief has provided the League for Mental Health with $3 million to fully fund a mental healthcare project they launched country-wide to help Ukrainian refugees who are living in Slovakia. The League currently has 112 Ukrainian refugees on staff as mental health specialists to help provide counseling, support groups, and other free psychosocial services to their fellow Ukrainians scattered throughout the country’s eight regions and the capital of Bratislava (for a total of nine teams). Though Slovakia currently provides emergency medical services to Ukrainian refugees free of charge, mental health is not covered, and the League is filling an essential gap in care and doing so with a team that shares the unique refugee experience of the people it serves. The League provides services to Ukrainian refugees living in refugee centers as well as those being hosted by local families. Last October, Direct Relief staff visited the League and spoke with several staff involved in the project. Most of the staff are women with children and share the experience of having to leave their homes and resettle in a new country like Mariniuk. Andrej Vršanský, the League for Mental Health executive director, met Mariniuk through a mutual friend, and her passion for the idea of helping other Ukrainians was immediate. After a 10-minute phone call and a meeting, she was hired the next day. Only later would he find out what Mariniuk and her daughter had been through just a few weeks prior, “how she got through the border with just a suitcase with her daughter, that she has two university degrees, that she in fact is a much better manager than I am. I cannot imagine we would have been able to kick off and run the project without her now,” he said. The League also takes care to protect the mental health of its own employees. Ukrainian staff members are given week-long holidays, provided with Slovak language classes, and regularly create and facilitate team-building activities. They also have conference days and knowledge-sharing sessions where different teams present on topics, like how teenagers are dealing with the situation and how best to support them, that are relevant to their work.