According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, before the escalation in Ukraine, the country reported 2.7 million people with disabilities. Though times of conflict and crisis pose extreme difficulties for any individual, people with disabilities face increased vulnerabilities. Apart from facing barriers in undertaking long journeys to escape conflict-affected areas, evacuation plans do not typically take into account the needs of people with impediments and most shelters are inaccessible for those using wheelchairs, among other issues. People with disabilities also face high risks of experiencing violence, abandonment and separation from their support systems. The niche work of organizations that specifically aid people with disabilities is critical during these times of crisis. During a recent trip to Poland, marking the one-year anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the President of The Borgen Project, Clint Borgen, met with the Mudita Association. In an interview with The Borgen Project, the Mudita Association offers insight into its efforts to provide crucial assistance to Ukrainian refugees with disabilities as the conflict persists.
When was your organization founded and what does it aim to achieve?
The Mudita Association was founded in 2020 in Poland to support families and relatives of people with disabilities, mainly by providing them with respite, social, psychological and information support. We believe that rest and time for oneself is a human right that is limited for those who in their daily lives constantly care for others: parents and families of kids and adults with disabilities. “Mudita” is a Sanskrit word that means “joy” — specifically the joy that comes from delighting in the well-being of others. In a video, staff members at the Mudita Association highlight the moments in which they experience “mudita” while carrying out the organization’s objectives.
When did your organization begin helping refugees and displaced Ukrainians?
Since the very first day of the escalation in Ukraine. On the evening of February 24, 2022, Mudita joined the Open Krakow Coalition. Since February 2022, we have worked to provide complex care for refugees with disabilities. At the moment, we stand as one of the largest NGOs in Poland with a specific focus on the care of refugees with disabilities and special needs. At the onset of the escalation, we worked by ourselves 24/7 considering that we were a really small organization at the time. However, we soon saw the necessity to expand and scale up, and this is how our projects began.
What programs were you primarily focused on at the onset of the war?
We started with a helpline run in two languages and supporting people in need with information about the social system, health care, accommodation possibilities and other essential information. In March 2022, we organized an evacuation of 12 people with disabilities and their families from Odesa, Ukraine. This was a significant success for us as a 10-person NGO with hardly any experience in humanitarian aid at that time.
Then, when we came to the realization that we were struggling to provide quick and safe accommodation for everybody in need, we opened two reception points that were accessible and adapted for various disabilities, one in Krakow and another one in Warsaw. Both of these reception points offered Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland temporary shelter, initially for two weeks and then up to one month. The reception points also offered daily meals (with consideration for special dietary requirements), psychological support, information about possibilities of applying for social benefits, basic rehabilitation, medical assistance and more.
The Mudita Association also helped with booking visits to doctors or physiotherapists and employed mobile assistants to accompany individuals during visits to public offices, hospitals and other service providers. These assistants would help with transportation, translation and any other necessary assistance. Moreover, our staff helped to organize long-term stays by searching for different options for accommodation. Even though accommodation may be available, a very small percentage of these accommodations are accessible for people with disabilities.
In both the Krakow and Warsaw reception points, we provided basic Polish language lessons, taking into account the special needs of our beneficiaries and their families. This means that we centered the language lessons around vocabulary concerning health, rehabilitation and specific bureaucracy.
The Mudita Association also started online support groups for Ukrainian people with disabilities and their families. Now, we are developing the respite assistants network, expanding access to the program to include Ukrainian families in addition to Polish families. In the program, we connect families with assistants who volunteer on a regular basis to spend time with a child or an adult with a disability, typically once weekly for two or three hours. Thanks to the presence of an assistant, other family members can rest, take care of themselves or handle other priorities. We also started a newsletter specifically dedicated to Ukrainians with disabilities and their relatives.
How have humanitarian needs changed one year on and what resources are needed in order for the Mudita Association to continue its work?
We observed the rate of migration decreasing and decided to modify the Warsaw reception point into the Daily Activity Center — a place dedicated to integrating Polish and Ukrainian families with disabilities. We are currently preparing the center for opening. The center will be a place for various events, workshops, daycare and more. However, the rest of our projects will continue — the Polish language lessons, mobile assistance, respite assistance, the hotline and newsletter. The place in Krakow will remain a reception point providing emergency shelter. We are aware that the humanitarian situation can rapidly change, so we also consider that the need for two emergency reception points may suddenly emerge again. The most needed resource for refugee families with disabilities at the moment is definitely accommodation. Currently, there is a significant need for long-term accessible accommodation options for refugees with disabilities.
What is the best example you’ve seen of your organization’s work making a difference?
Behind every letter and story from our reception points, there is a story of people in need who found a safe shelter and support for complex needs thanks to our projects. We hosted a girl with a disability who experienced sexual violence and our reception point turned out to be the first safe space for her.
We are also still in touch with some of the people we evacuated a year ago and it is absolutely comforting and gratifying to know that they are safe as they establish their lives in Poland.
What message would you like to send to advocates in the U.S. and U.K. who are passionate about supporting humanitarian work like yours in Poland?
We rely on fundraising and the support of donors and other organizations to continue doing our niche humanitarian work. Marginalized populations, such as people with disabilities, are disproportionately affected by the impacts of conflict and war. Yet, many relief efforts overlook the needs of the most vulnerable people. The needs of people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups must stand at the forefront of aid efforts and relief plans. Any measures or plans to help Ukrainians must be inclusive of persons with disabilities. It is critical for the international community to incorporate inclusion and accessibility into humanitarian responses to uphold the rights of the most disadvantaged persons as the crisis continues to develop.
– Saiesha Singh
Photos: Courtesy of the Mudita Association