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

Over 100 refugees are providing psychosocial support to others in Slovakia as they navigate a new culture, and watch the conflict continue in their home country.


Ukraine Relief

A Ukrainian psychologist hired by the League for Mental Health works with a girl at Gabčíkovo Asylum Seeker Accommodation Centre in Slovakia. (Photo Courtesy of The League for Mental Health)

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.

Anxieties of Two Worlds

League for Mental Health staff facilitates a craft activity for a group of kids at Gabčíkovo Asylum Seeker Accommodation Centre in Slovakia. (Photo Courtesy of The League for Mental Health)

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.

Direct Relief also spoke with Svitlana Muravska, the chief of the expert board, a sub-group of hired psychologists that provides supervision, training, and HR support across the regional teams. She described the unique challenges the group faces as refugees, (oftentimes) mothers, and mental health providers to fellow refugees all at once.

With a son and daughter still in Ukraine, she feels pulled in opposite directions by the anxieties of her two worlds, the old and the new. She must put aside her personal situation to help the community in front of her. “I feel like someone who is trying to start a car that won’t start, and then someone tells me, ‘Let’s go– you can start the car later,’” she 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.

Creating Bright Spaces

League for Mental Health staff works with a group of kids at Gabčíkovo Asylum Seeker Accommodation Centre in Slovakia. (Photo Courtesy of The League for Mental Health)

One of the League’s psychologist teams is based at Gabčíkovo Asylum Seeker Accommodation Centre, a refugee center 40 minutes from the capital city of Bratislava. The center currently hosts about 1,000 Ukrainian refugees, more than a third of whom are children.

The League has four different meeting rooms at the location, decorated by yellow and blue paper sunflowers and eye-catching coloring pages, a bright contrast to the rest of the building. In these rooms and the common areas, the League’s staff facilitated film and shadow theater clubs for senior citizens, a large variety of group activities for kids, evening concerts and poetry readings, and individual counseling services for anyone who calls in. The League’s 24-hour helpline was clearly visible at each doorway, along with the schedule, an anonymous question/comment slip, and other helpful information in Ukrainian.

A cooking class proved helpful for an elderly man who was a professional chef back at home. He had been very depressed and never left his room before this, Mariniuk said but was filled with joy and pride as he was able to serve the porridge the class had made. Even though there is a small kitchen area in each unit, power is not available for the refrigerators and other appliances, so residents cannot cook for themselves. The UN delivers boxed meals daily so everyone is able to eat.

Mariniuk said that all their activities were implemented with a psychosocial framework tailored to each group served. When some of the children first arrived, they were completely silent and unwilling to interact with their peers. With the patient care of the League’s staff, they were making friends and participating in games and crafts. The staff is documenting their progress and finds it encouraging. “Every day, the ladies write what has been done, and every month there is this general report of activities,” she shared. “They are also writing the daily needs of the children. And this way, we can see what’s going on – where they started and where they’re moving.”

As the conflict nears the one-year mark, Mariniuk, Muravska, and the entire team are invested in the mental health and well-being of the group. “This is part of the lived experience the team members share with their clients,” said Vršanský. “They have been through the same experiences, and they prove themselves that no matter how hard the situation may be, it is worth any effort.”

Since the start of the war, Direct Relief has provided 2.3 million pounds of medical aid and $23.9 million in financial support to meet the health needs of people living in Ukraine and those forced to flee elsewhere.

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