By Olena Levchuk with Vincent Lyn
We are from Ukraine.
My son, a child with a disability, and I rented a small room in the Agape House, which is owned by a family in Derby Vermont. Upon arrival there were 30 other people from Ukraine living with us.
The war burst into our lives suddenly from the first minutes of the full-scale invasion. It was hard to survive and hard to lose everything. It was even harder to start a new life.
My city, Gostomel, was captured in the first days of the war and subsequently occupied, as were other adjacent territories of the Kyiv region. My house was located two kilometers from the airport where the Mriya plane was stationed.
We were caught in a fiery trap. Everything around us immediately began to resemble Armageddon. A prolonged air battle with Russian helicopters, air raids, constant mortar attacks, kilometer long enemy tank columns…It was the battle for the Gostomel airport. The most difficult thing was to be in the epicenter of crossfire from heavy artillery and to survive the air bombardment. On the second day of the war, the Russian military broke into our apartments and Chechen militants were stationed nearby.
We were hiding in the basements. The cold and total darkness reigned there. Constant shelling, sir strikes, and bombing deprived us of water, food, electricity, and medicine and prevented us from receiving humanitarian aid and evacuating the city.
Later, we got a tiny chance to leave.
We were going nowhere. It was hard to get through the veil of uncertainty where it was not clear from which direction to expect a mine or bullet; since the fighting was already going on both in front of us and behind us within a radius of tens of kilometers. We drove first, where at least some cross-country roads were open. We were turned back but we kept going anyway. It was impossible to predict and plan the route. The endless checkpoints, curfews on the roads and kilometer-long gas lines for gasoline, which gave us only 20 liters per car, made it difficult. We managed to avoid the nighttime landing of the Russian landing force and leave before the tanks finally destroyed our main road. It took us three days to get to a safer place in Ukraine.
Our refugee journey began in Germany. Due to their bureaucratic red tape and mistakes my son, who has a severe form of Cerebral Palsy, was unable to receive proper medical care and attend school. I decided to continue to fight for his right to receive the necessary treatment, given the traumatic experience I had and the complications of the health condition in general.
With this story of my experience, I want to show you the price of our journey here. Especially when you are neglected by the very people who promised professional help.
This experienced as emotional violence, bordering on legal violence, i.e. a violation of human rights; inadequate care and support, ignoring the difficulties of adaptation; capitalizing on the vulnerability of good citizens and manipulating the emotional state of a person who becomes a tool in the hands of people with a self-serving agenda.
The Agape House is not a temporary shelter; it is a home for long-term living. I will write about our life here. I would like to note that my son was the only child from Ukraine there who had physical disabilities there in the house. The other children who are “included” in our group for the purposes of manipulative advertising are Americans; twin children of co-founders, who are fully supported by the state and have their needs fully met and are able to move independently.
The house turned out to be unsuitable for children with severe disabilities, which my son has, and even the presence of a wheelchair ramp does not make the house handicap accessible. We lived together in one room without a shower. This makes it impossible to have the basic level of comfort, especially for my son. He does not move or sit up on his own and we use diapers for his care. Therefore, public bathrooms were difficult to access for us, and maintaining basic hygiene required excessive physical activity.
The local beauty and a breath of fresh air were not available to us because there is no possibility to be free and independent in your choice to move. There is nowhere to move, the road there is not designed for pedestrian movement, including in a wheelchair. Winter had completely paralyzed us. A wheelchair cannot drive in the snow. And it was also difficult to go anywhere. Because this area does not have sidewalks which can be reached without transport with such a physical disability. My son and I spent the entire winter vacation in our room, feeling desperate and isolated there.
The house rules and regulations were also strange. For example, it was forbidden to open windows for ventilation. There was a strange prohibition to take your mail out of the box, only the Agape Ministry directors should do it, and then it was selectively distributed to those who lived there. Although, in the negotiations before we moved there, a co-founder spoke from the perspective of caring for everyone and ensuring individual comfort.
The longer I stayed there the more I felt a loss of personal dignity. Informational deprivation also added to it. Documents were usually not translated before being given to us. I also accidentally found out about a lease agreement that I did not sign, an agreement that received my “electronic signature” without my participation. There was no way to integrate into American society here, no way to get a job. And the time allotted for adaptation into the country was constantly running out.
Why am I writing all of this? I realize that this is my pain. It is sad that I brought my son here and trusted these people. We were often told that their (Agape Ministries) mission for now is to serve us Ukrainians. But, give the way it is organized, and the way things actually happen, it was becoming more and more obvious that WE were serving to raise funds from decent citizens.
I would like to inform you that we live on funds we receive on a card from the federal government. This allows us to receive cash and buy food, hygiene products, etc. Also, each member of the Ukrainian families living in Agape House pays rent for living here from the humanitarian asylum program, which is part of the US humanitarian aid to Ukrainian citizens. So, that is, we do not benefit directly from donations from citizens raised at charity events.
And most importantly, my son almost lost the opportunity for treatment and rehabilitation in the United States. I came to the United States for him to receive specialized cerebral palsy treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital. I was assured this would happen prior to agreeing to move here. We were provided with Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center is not a specialized hospital for him. And for a long time it seemed impossible to move to another state to clinics that are ready to accept us because of the lack of funds to pay rent.
I also understand that the government’s support program, United for Ukraine (U4U), is failing and discrediting American democratic principles.
For all of you, Agape House is seen as a home for Ukrainians, but in reality it is a reservation. I hope that I was able to lift the veil of some of the truth.
Of the core group of people who believed that our needs would be met at the Agape House and moved in during the summer of 2022, one family left the house and moved to another state. Another family returned to Europe in the face of all of these unacceptable circumstances and violations of humanitarian principles. One family and one individual have relocated in the immediate area.
Recently, with great difficulty, I managed to move from there. What awaits us ahead is not yet well known. The only thing is, thanks to the people who were not indifferent to my son’s fate, we will be able to get the first appointment at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia. But I still don’t understand what shall I do with all this and what will become of us.
CEO & Founder of We Can Save Children
Deputy Ambassador of International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations (ECOSOC)
Editor-in-Chief at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts