Deaf people in a war zone: how I help them

border line

Immigrants with hearing impairments began to flee abroad only in 2022

Why did you start learning sign language?

I have been working with hearing impaired people for 24 years. My grandmother's brother and sister were born deaf. I saw how they communicated in sign language with each other, with my grandmother, and I wanted to know this language as well. At the age of 14, I went to special courses that were open to anyone who wanted to learn sign language. And later she graduated from the university and received a diploma in the specialty "Sign Language Interpreter".

Were there any immigrants with hearing impairments in 2014, when Crimea and Donbas were occupied?

In 2014, deaf immigrants from Donbas and Crimea did not reach Volyn to cross the border, so the first wave of work and help for immigrants began on February 24, 2022.

The society of the deaf has ceased to exist, so only volunteers can take care of the deaf

Where did you meet February 24?

Home. I have a big family. I have my own 4 children and 4 children of my deceased sister. Officially, the guardian is my mother, who lives with us, but I mostly take care of all the children.

That day I woke up for work and started collecting the children for school. I looked at my phone as usual, and there was a message about the beginning of the war and the bombing of our cities. And then the teachers started writing so that the parents would not let the children go to school that day.

The first three days were very scary, because I was confused about how to act with 8 children in my arms, I couldn't gather my brains. And when the principal of the school invited parents through social networks to help weave nets for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and the school then informed that they would settle displaced persons, I decided to respond to this call for help. Because sitting at home was very difficult and scary. It was necessary to occupy myself and the children with something. I have a car, so I could pick people up from trains and take them to school and then transport them across the border. At the same time, another reception point in Kovel became a house of prayer, which became a place of meeting and communication after the closure of the center of the society of the deaf for many deaf people. Among them, many have an active attitude towards charity. And it was decided to send the deaf immigrants there, because the society of the deaf has already ceased to exist and there is no one to take care of them.

And already on February 25, 2022, we, activists and volunteers of the "Gesture of Support" NGO, began to receive the first resettlers. As a professional sign language interpreter, I immediately focused my attention on immigrants with hearing impairments. People arrived without documents, without clothes and shoes. Many had their hands and hair covered in sawdust from the bombing of their homes.

Hearing-impaired immigrants were met 24 hours a day at the station

At first, we brought people, fed them, clothed them, put them in shoes, dealt with documents, and then drove people in cars across the border and handed them over to foreign volunteers. And a Polish private company that provides Polish sign language services offered me a job, because many Ukrainians with hearing impairments went to Poland.

In Ukraine, they could at least write what they wanted on a piece of paper, but in Poland, even this is not salvation. And the Polish sign language is different. Thus, the company opened an additional line of translators of Ukrainian sign language. Then our emigrants moved around the EU countries, so there were already double interpreters there, for example, they were met in Copenhagen by Danish volunteers together with Ukrainians who have lived there for many years. Ukrainian volunteers from there translate for me what the Danes say there, and I already translate with sign language.

If I wasn't busy with hearing-impaired people, I was at school to drive people to the station at 2-3 in the morning when trains or buses were going abroad. They were driven in private cars and handed over to foreign volunteers. Many grandmothers took away children with hearing impairments. It was impossible to watch without tears as they came out to us in slippers on bare feet with children wrapped in blouses in their arms. We washed them, dressed them and immediately took them abroad in cars.

What decisions were on the verge of a foul?

When men were banned from traveling abroad, deaf people had additional problems because they traveled as families. Families refused to leave without their husbands and sons, because they were afraid to leave one alone, lest they get lost in Europe.

In order to start releasing such boys, I went with them to the medical commission at the military commissariat to give them permission to travel abroad. And then I took them abroad. And the next day, new deaf families arrived again. And it was a crazy round-the-clock wheel.

Did your wards have problems with the processing of documents?

They arose, and quite a lot. In Gostomel, for example, there was a specialized vocational and technical institution in which a whole group of students with hearing impairments studied. And when the bombing began, some were able to go to their parents, and the rest stayed in Gostomel and sat in the basement for two weeks. Then they were brought to Kovel by train, without going to the hostel or home. And already in Volyn it turned out that someone had a student's passport, someone had a passport. They managed to be taken abroad. One boy was completely undocumented. They began to look for opportunities to restore them. We called the mayor's office. And it also turned out that there was a mistake in the spelling of the last name in his birth certificate, and according to the law this guy allegedly did not exist. He worries, cries. All his friends left, and he was stuck. Family without contact. We are worried, we are all desperate. It is impossible to return him home, because the city is destroyed. He looked for some kind of driving license. We spent two weeks on the phone with Kyiv to get him permission to cross the border with this ID. And a miracle happened: there were people who put pressure on the border service. And I managed to take this young man abroad, because they actually put a seal on the certificate for the deaf.

A student from Gostomel is already on the Polish side of the border

Deaf parents were afraid that if they could not hear the automatic queues, they would put their children in danger when they came out of the basements

What did the people who escaped tell you about their lives during the occupation or shelling?

The story of a young couple from the Kharkiv region is impressive. They have three children from one to four years old who are not hearing impaired. They hid for a week in the basement under the rubble of a destroyed high-rise building. The children were crying. The parents did not understand whether the occupiers were in the city or not. At the risk of their lives, they climbed out, ignoring the sirens and shelling, to find out the situation, find food and leave the city. I have never seen such frightened eyes in adults in my life. They were afraid that, not hearing the automatic queues, they would expose the children to danger when they came to the surface. They understood that soon there would be no food and the children would starve.

Ця сім’я нечуючих з трьома дітьми довгий час перебувала у підвалі. Коли їх привезли, то навіть речей з собою не було

Зараз я отримую купу фотографій, відео. У мене аж на душі спокійно, що малеча весела, рухлива, активна, що вони відчувають себе щасливими. Бо те, як виглядали ці діти, серце розривалось.

Один чоловік з Маріуполя  розповів, що бачив, що у перші дні війни люди метушаться, бігають, виїжджають. Він їх зупиняв, питав, що сталось. Ніхто навіть на аркуші не написав слова «війна». Він не чув сирени, а все зрозумів, коли побачив вибухи. Місяць він один ховався у підвалі заваленого будинку від окупантів. Коли він пішов шукати їжу до крамниці, то окупанти по ньому стріляли. А він свисту куль не чув, а просто бачив, що кулі повз нього пролітають та потрапляють у стіни. Він йшов та тільки молився, щоб не зрикошетило в нього. Взяв якісь продукти у розбитій вітрині та пішов назад до підвалу. Пізніше він побачив, як людей почали розстрілювати цілими будинками. І він виїхав, бо побачив колонну і просто вибіг до людей.

Хтось залишається з вами на Волині?

Люди похилого віку, яким за 80 років, залишаються на Волині. Спочатку вони у церкві жили, потім у студентському гуртожитку. Тепер ми знайшли їм квартири за доступною ціною. Тепер вони під нашою опікою і багато в чому допомагають.

Люди приїздили до нас хвилями – Київщина, Чернігівщина, Луганщина, Херсонщина, Одещина, пізніше – Дніпропетровщина, Харківщина, Запоріжжя. Зараз навіть глухі  волиняни почали їхати за кордон, бо відбуваються обстріли, а люди не чують сирени.

Чи вивозили волонтери з вадами слуху один одного?

Так. Ті, хто мав власний транспорт, створили власну мережу та гуртувались. Дуже важко було вивезти до матері в Італію із Запоріжжя дорослого сина, який мав шизофренію. Його треба було забрати та передати з рук в руки. Супроводжуючий теж був нечуючою людиною, а у хлопця відбулось загострення. Коли ми стояли в довжелезні черзі на кордоні  він постійно намагався вийти з машини і дуже нервував. Його пігулками прагнули заспокоїти. Він влаштовував істерики. Ледь довезли до матері.

З тими, хто за кордоном, ми працюємо через двох-трьох перекладачів усіма видами відеозв’язку

Чи є труднощі з розумінням жестової мови за кордоном?

Базова жестова мова в колишньому Радянському Союзі майже однакова. Винятками є лише окремі діалектні слова. А вже інші жестові мови – чеська, німецька та навіть польська – геть інша. Бо жестова мова – це розмова малюнками і образами. Ми працюємо через два-три перекладача усіма видами відеозв’язку, які є. Глухі українці за кордоном не розуміють, куди їм йти, які документи потрібні. Вони телефонують, а там українка-волонтерка з французької перекладає українською, а я вже — жестовою пояснюю, що їм треба зробити.

Наші переселенці розповідають, що вони фактично вивчають жестову заново. Зараз коли ми спілкуємось, вони починають навіть плутати жести, і я перепитую: а що це за слово? І вони виправляються: ой, тож німецькою.

Уявіть, як всі зраділи, коли дізналися, що дитина цілком здорова у родині, де успадковувалась глухота!

Якої ще допомоги потребували ваші підопічні?

Вони потребують супроводу у медичних закладах. Дуже багато людей мають загострення свого стану через стрес, застуди, бо приїздили голі та босі, і ми їх вкладаємо до лікарень, лікуємо, обстежуємо. Був один випадок, коли у родині було 4 нечуючі дорослі людини — батьки та бабуся з дідусем. Вони вивозили за кордон 4-річного хлопчика. І вони не розуміли: чи він чує, чи ні. Виявляється, дитина, яка з ними жила постійно, так звикла, спілкуватись жестовою, що не розмовляла, маючи стовідсотковий слух. Уявіть, як всі зраділи, коли дізнались, що дитина цілком здорова у родині, де успадковувалась глухота! Зараз хлопчик відвідує дитсадочок, а там багато дітей – наш малюк вже говорить, як соловейко, і українською, і іноземною!

How will your volunteer project develop within the NGO "Gesture of Help"?

Since a lot of deaf people came to Volyn, it is difficult to accompany everyone. Yes, deaf people are very eager to help. Those who visited the same TsNAP began to help the new arrivals, but people left abroad. And that's why we offered to conduct basic sign language training in Kovel for workers of social institutions and psychologists who provide services to displaced persons.

And after the fire in Lutsk, when it was difficult for rescuers to communicate with deaf people who were trapped in the fire, there was a need to hold such courses for rescuers as well. They were joined by medical workers from the "ambulance", police officers - that is, the circle of specialists to whom we turn in extreme cases.

Sign language courses in the city of Kovel

And there are already successes. Now our deaf people can go to TsNAP even without an interpreter. And imagine their surprise when they are met by a specialist who knows sign language.

Another direction is the transportation of bedridden people abroad. We had such transportation from Kharkiv to Germany. And it is clear that among the family members of many of our wards there are military personnel, so we are still collecting packages with the most necessary not only for military personnel, but also for residents of the de-occupied territories. We send cars with cargo all the time.

In principle, we did not freeze any project

Are there projects that you have frozen because of the war?

There is none. Before the war, we had such a format as 7-10-day camps for people with disabilities with various diagnoses, because communication in nature is important for them. Blind people, in wheelchairs... Such a tradition has existed in our country for many years. We doubted in the summer of 2022 whether it is worth it now, during active shelling, but people are asking, so we did not give it up. And so many young people came - we were amazed. There were only 70 deaf people!It was something extraordinary.

Recreation for people with hearing impairments

We also participate in one-day events that take place twice a year, where people with hearing impairments come from different cities of our country to communicate, find comfort and support. And our deaf volunteer went to Estonia for a convention of hearing-impaired people to communicate. A total of two cars traveled from Ukraine.

Which healthy people were most impressed, both positively and negatively?

Before the war, I only worked as a sign language interpreter, and I did not visit government institutions. And when I first came with deaf boys to the military commissariat for a medical examination to get permission to cross the border, there were a lot of men standing there in queues. I am one woman. People came for two or three days. Everyone is on their nerves, quarreling. After all, the commission worked for only 3-4 hours. I am shocked: how can I pass the medical board with my deaf people so that they can be released abroad? And the first time I stood in line, and then at the commission everyone already knew me and the deaf and let me pass. And we managed to pass them all in half a day. And imagine, healthy men quarrel with each other in line, and I am let through with our wards with hearing impairments without any comments at all.

At the Military Commissariat, documents were drawn up for hearing-impaired men to cross the border with their families

There are such crazy influxes of people to the City Hall, TsNAPs, social security, because there are problems with documents. I brought my people - and no questions.

They had a negative impact on the border. Every day something new is invented for departure. Once a deaf man was asked for a certificate, which is provided at the place of residence. I couldn't stand it anymore: "Dear, are you mocking me? He ran away from Mariupol!" And then the border guard caught me with that certificate so that I took passengers through another border crossing point. Imagine my surprise when we calmly crossed the border there. And on the Polish side, the volunteers greeted us very warmly. When I was already returning to Ukraine, every time the Poles gave me packages of food. I refused, explained that I was going to Ukraine, and they told me: "Take it, don't eat it yourself, give it to someone who needs it!" And so it was every time.

Each person's story is so poignant that I don't feel depressed

Have you experienced depression, burnout, or the effects of stress?

The process of communicating with people who are deaf is very difficult. Deaf people are extremely emotional! They start at half speed, they wave their hands, they don't hear me. Especially after the basements, being under the occupiers, the emotions are running high. But the story of each person is so poignant that no matter how tired I am, they call, tell - and that's it! Lets me go. I sometimes think, when I send someone: I should turn off the phone, even if I want to sleep. And then the call: new arrivals - come. And I'm going Sometimes they call from abroad in the middle of the night because he has no one to talk to. On holidays, I receive a lot of photos, drawings, pictures of donated rollers and bicycles for children, from some holidays in kindergartens. Their parents shoot a video at their new job, in the provided housing - they show and tell everything. They are already doing volunteer work there themselves little by little.

Have you already developed your own system for supporting psychological balance?

So! We have regular occasions for holidays: volunteers get married, children are born to both those who stayed in Ukraine and those who left. I also observed births that took place in different countries of the world. And I saw them immediately after the babies were born, because at first there were a lot of pregnant women.

The authorities never offered help, only faced the fact: look for an apartment!

And the central bodies of the society of the deaf call you or ask what kind of help you need?

They called. "Katya, we're all packed!" We are sending you 5 deaf people. Look for an apartment. We have already bought train tickets!" And Katya is looking. And yes, to offer help, this has never happened. But I have very cool helpers — my children and nephews. They help me, support me. I joke that my children grew up among deaf people, and they really dream of helping them, learning sign language.