Wed 22/11/2023 - 08:42

Karolina Lindholm Billing is UNHCR´s Representative in Ukraine. She started her assignment there 2,5 years ago – not knowing that the situation would escalate as it did last year. Now, the people in Ukraine face another winter. The cold temperatures will be a big challenge: A lot of Ukrainians have no roof over their head anymore. They urgently need your help, as Karolina Lindholm states in the interview.

Karolina, you spent two winters in Ukraine now. What’s been your impression?

Karolina Lindholm Billing: Well, the winters in Ukraine are normally very cold and temperatures can drop as low as minus 20 or 25 degrees Celsius. Last winter, many say it was quite mild and it's true. But in the eastern part of Ukraine, where the impact of the hostilities and war is the strongest, there it was still minus 10, sometimes up to minus 15 degrees. And if you don't have a roof, if you don't have windows in your house, that's freezing cold still. So many people even had to live without electricity, because Russia had specifically targeted energy infrastructure.

Has power supply been restored in most places?

KLB: The Ukrainian authorities were extremely efficient in repairing and restoring the electricity supply with a lot of help from the international community, from their partners. So now it's regularly restored, except in frontline communities that are still under attack and subjected to shelling. But many of us expect and fear that attacks on energy sources will start more systematically again during this winter.

UNHCR supplied a number of generators last winter to various communities. Can you give us an idea of how important that intervention was? 

KLB: During UNHCR’s winterisation response, we supported over 1.5 million people in total with different types of winter support. This included cash assistance to help people pay for additional costs of utilities and heating in their homes. It included solid fuel stoves and thermal blankets. And then one of the very important projects was the house repairs and insulation, so people could stay warm in their own house. One specific activity was generators. We provided more than 150 generators to something called invincibility points that the government of Ukraine and the local authorities had set up in around 5000 locations across Ukraine: People who couldn't access electricity and heating in their own homes could come there, warm up, have something warm to drink and eat, charge their phones, call their loved ones and feel together in the community.

And for this winter, what are your priorities?

KLB: So, our priority will be to support people living in the frontline areas of the east and the south of the country, where the fighting is most intense. And there, it includes support, again with cash assistance, repairs and insulation of houses and some non-food items. We also have a contingency for generators, if that will be needed this year. 

In terms of last year, are there any lessons you learned? 

KLB: One of the things that we learned is that people prefer usually cash assistance over items, especially people who live where the markets are fully functioning. Because if you get cash assistance, you can choose whether you need a blanket or a solar lamp or a thermos. Because the needs differ for every person and family. So, this year we will be having a higher target on cash assistance and reduce the target on items that are already provided.

Taking you back to 24 February 2022. Can you remember how you found out that war had begun?

KLB: Yeah. At 5:15 or so in the morning, I was woken up by a call from our security advisor, Nika. And I will never forget that call. She said: “Hello, good morning. It's Nika. This is a call I hope I would never have to make. They have started.” And then I heard, even without opening the windows, I heard the explosions. I was living in the centre of Kyiv, and I think it was really a feeling of shock, but at the same time, then you become very focused. We just started to work and try to piece together what was actually happening across the country.


How often do you get the chance to go out to the field to visit colleagues on the ground and to meet internally displaced people?  

KLB: I do this very often, at least every second week. I go out to the field because for me, in order for me to do my job as a representative well, it's key that I meet directly with the people we serve, and I see the communities in which they live. I meet with the mayors, the governors there and I meet with our colleagues working there in the field every day, so that I can really speak from own self experience about how the war is impacting on the people. And how our programmes directly serve to address protection needs, humanitarian needs and help people recover from the horrors of the war.

What would you say are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job? 

KLB: I would say that the most challenging aspect of the job for me is to determine, when the risk is too high for our staff and including myself to visit an area close to the front line. When the risk is extremely high but still acceptable, we take that risk in order to reach the people we serve.

The most rewarding part of the job I find is to meet with people we have supported. So to meet with a family whose house was maybe damaged or destroyed who have now had the roof or their windows repaired. They have received psychosocial support to help recover from the trauma of what they have experienced and witnessed.

Can you give us your impressions of how people are coping in terms of their spirit, their resilience?

KLB: The overall impression I get is one of anger and despair over the losses they have experienced. Many have lost loved ones or been injured and now have a prosthesis or no eyesight and so on.

But at the same time, in parallel with that, an incredible strength and determination and resilience, which is really remarkable. I'll give you an example: When I was in Zaporizhzhia quite recently, I met with a woman, Raisa, 88 years old, and she had lived in the apartment building in the centre that was attacked by a missile at the beginning of March this year. Rescue workers from the state emergency service pulled her out, saving her from the rubble. She's now living in a collective centre there where UNHCR and our partners are supporting the residents, and when she spoke with me, she cried and broke down. She said: “What I am wearing is everything I have left, my whole life, my whole apartment, everything I owned is destroyed.” But at the same time, she smiled and said, “I'm going to move back there one day. I'm not giving up.” So that kind of combination.

Do you have a message for everybody who has given money to support UNHCR’s work in Ukraine. What could you tell them about the impact they're having?

KLB: I would like to warmly thank every individual who has supported UNHCR's work during the past year and a half in Ukraine. And reassure you that the resources, the money you have provided has helped people. It's reached people. And I can say that we see this every single day, how the funds provided are used for programmes to provide free legal aid to help people recover their lost documents, their ID documents, their birth certificates, death certificates or to have a new roof over their head or new windows in their home. It does help people directly recover and stay protected, stay dignified and safe in their own homes.

In 2022, we supported more than 4.3 million people through our protection, housing and emergency shelter programme and cash and in-kind assistance. And so far in 2023, more than 2.35 million people have been reached through these different programmes and the work continues every single day.

So many of the people I meet and my colleagues meet across Ukraine say that, for them to know that people around the world give of their own money to help war affected people in Ukraine means so much for their hope, their resilience, their strength to continue, despite the daily attacks and threats that they are living under.