Information on L’Arche Lviv:
- 1 Respite care house, 4 daytime workshops and 1 separate day program
- 65 Community members including 50 with an intellectual disability
- 2 Internally Displaced families with intellectually disabled members are being accommodated and supported in the community’s Respite care house.
‘The best city on earth. That’s how the local people often called it,’ remembers Liudmila Fedas. Since March 2023 Liudmila has been living in the respite house of L’Arche Lviv, along with her son Dmytro, who has an intellectual disability. They are both Internally Displaced Persons and she is speaking of her beautiful hometown, Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, as it looked just before the war arrived in May 2022: ‘It was small, 85,000 people. But it was so beautiful, everything was in flower, in roses. 17 schools, 39 kindergartens.’ Like towns all over the world, Bakhmut was probably not perfect, but a place that encouraged life and hopeful dreams. Like towns all over the world, until…
On 17 May 2022, the first shell landed in Bakhmut. A toddler of two years old was among the 5 people killed. In the months that followed shell after shell burst often randomly in the town. They brought unimaginable fear to each family. Just one year later, in May 2023, President Zelenskyy described Liudmila’s ‘best city on earth’ in these words: ’There are no buildings. For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place.’ Tragically accurate. News reports often referred to the whole of the Bakhmut front as a ‘meat-grinder.’ This is the story of how Liudmila and Dmytro escaped from the ‘meat-grinder’ to find refuge, warmth and welcome with L’Arche in Lviv.
Dmytro, who is 38, is just one of around 261,000 people with intellectual disabilities registered in Ukraine. In all, according to figures supplied by two Brussels-based NGOs, the European Disability Forum and Inclusion Europe, it was estimated that about 2.7 million Ukrainians were living with disabilities. That was before the war. Article 11 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises that if you have a disability of any sort, you will always be disproportionately affected by wars or by natural disasters. It is well-known that disabled people face some specific challenges, such as accessing information and receiving equal treatment in the crisis response. Liudmila had two people with disabilities in her life: apart from Dmytro, her husband had been severely affected by a major stroke. However, for many years, Liudmila taught in a nearby school, during which time Dmytro liked to join his friends in his local church.
When the attacks on Bakhmut began, Liudmila knew intuitively that it was time to seek safety: More than 80% of the population had already fled, according to city officials. As so often, the ones who remained were often elderly, sick or disabled. In other words, these were the people with few other options except to stay and wait, hoping against hope for better days.
“When the war started, I was already preparing to leave. We already felt that we would have to leave…” But making a plan and then putting that plan into action was not easy, even at the level of sheer logistics, let alone morale: it takes money, contacts, transport, a place to live. But then, in Liudmila’s words, ‘it happened. No one could have thought, could have imagined even in a bad dream that it would happen…. But, but, but… it happened.”
The ‘it’ Liudmila refers to, was an explosion near their house. Unfortunately, at that very moment, Dmytro was outside, and was caught in the blast. Liudmyla explains: “His tracksuit pants were drying on the street. And he went out to get them. He opens the door and that’s it. An explosion.” Dmytro shows his scarred legs and back.
Hospital followed hospital, first in Konstantynivka, then Dnipro, then Lviv. One foot had suffered a broken toe. But the impact on the other was much worse: ‘His leg was left hanging on the skin. They were putting it together and ‘gluing’ it. In the end, we had 9 surgeries in those 9 months. One lasted 16 hours. Then it did not go well. Then, there was a second 5-hour operation, and then there were more, 3-4 hours each.” More operations were to follow.
Dmytro’s fractures are complex, and it will be only with great medical skill that he will walk again independently. For Liudmila, the one non-negotiable was finding accommodation near a hospital: “I have never been in conflict with people, but now I will not budge. If you discharge me from hospital, I will sit somewhere near the hospital. Maybe there will be some person who will take us into her home.”
After a long search, the family’s social workers put her in contact with L’Arche in Lviv. They came for their first visit. The L’Arche respite house was already adapted for people who use wheelchairs, and had welcomed internally displaced persons from the start of the war. Thankfully, the hospital was not far. Dmytro immediately approved: ‘ Mum… it’s so good here.’ Finally, they had arrived in a place of safety.
But life can never be about mere survival: survival for what, after all? However one responds to that question, the community in Lviv – like L’Arche across the world- knows that celebrating together has to be part of the answer. Come what may, each person’s birthday is marked with fun, warmth, song, presents, cake and candles: a joyful act of solidarity together – time out from the hardships of war. And in April, it was Dmytro’s birthday: his turn to hear that everyone was glad that he was alive, that his presence in the community is a real gift; that even though he had come through so much, the fact that he was still able to smile was bringing hope to others in tough times. ‘The girls sang so beautifully for him’ recalls Liudmila. ‘He was very happy. It was very important to Dmytro.’
No-one knows how long the war will continue. Liudmila finishes with these words: ‘For now, we live in paradise. That’s how it is.’
Photo credits: Gregg Brekke