Building From Rubble: How To House Internally Displaced Ukrainians

People stand outside of a destroyed apartment building in Ukraine

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On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in what would become an ongoing, lifetime-defining war, replete with thousands of egregious war crimes and immeasurable destruction. 

Where they were attacked with unimaginable horror, however, Ukrainians also found unimaginable support.

Refugees were met with open arms in a number of neighboring countries, while Ukrainians who chose to stay in their homeland uplifted each other — and continue to do so. 

Eight months after the initial attacks by the Russian military, however, Ukraine remains under siege.

In the midst of an enormous global geopolitical event, rife with countless atrocities, Ukraine is now facing another major humanitarian crisis within its own borders: over 8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). 

A destroyed building covered in paintings of sunflowers in Ukraine
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

Over 8 million displaced Ukrainians desperate to start anew

Internally displaced persons are people who have been forced to leave their homes but remain within their country’s borders. Although they experience many of the same challenges as refugees, they do not fall within the legal definitions of refugees, and as a result, lack many international resources in their journey to safety.

This war has caused the largest and fastest-growing displacement crisis in Europe since World War II, according to the New Humanitarian. More than 4.8 million people have been documented as refugees since February, and more than 8 million are estimated to be internally displaced inside Ukraine. 

This displacement stems from the need to evacuate out of dangerous war zones and becomes an even larger crisis as people's homes are destroyed in combat. Since the February invasion, over 110,000 individual houses and 12,000 apartment buildings have been destroyed or damaged, according to the Council of Europe.

Many IDPs have chosen to stay in Ukraine for any number of reasons — to join the resistance, to remain with family, or because they cannot leave due to disability or financial limitations. 
A destroyed single family brick home in Ukraine
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

Many IDPs have chosen to stay in Ukraine for any number of reasons — to join the resistance, to remain with family, or because they cannot leave due to disability or financial limitations. 

Intense fighting continues in the Eastern part of the country, but many have sought asylum in western Ukraine, where the war is less intense. This mass migration was exacerbated in the spring and summer of 2022, when thousands moved to avoid attack after direction from Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine.

An overwhelming number of current IDPs have returned to Ukraine since leaving the country earlier in 2022, as well. 

People stand outside of a destroyed apartment building in Ukraine
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

As many refugees who remain in other countries have found some level of support at the hands of major humanitarian missions, IDPs do not have the same legal classification as refugees and are left with little access to resources. 

The Red Cross has developed a small compensation program for Ukrainians who house their displaced neighbors, offering roughly the equivalent of $12 USD per month. The Council of Europe provides similarly small resources for Ukraine’s IDPs. 

Despite these modest efforts, displaced Ukrainians are uplifted primarily by their neighbors and local municipalities, which are overwhelmed with the need, lacking the infrastructure and money necessary to care for thousands more residents. 

Shell of a destroyed building in Ukraine
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

While the main hurdle to safety IDPs face is housing, folks who are displaced face a myriad of other challenges. Whether it’s finding work, accessing necessities, or even keeping warm in the upcoming harsh winter, the need for support is staggering. 

Dr. Eric Rasmussen, a global disaster resilience expert who also served in the U.S. Navy for 25 years, has seen the first-hand impact of displacement experienced by those in the throes of war.

"When you cross the border, you get all the weight of the UN and the international community to support you. That's not true if you're inside your borders as an IDP."

“When you cross the border, you get all the weight of the UN and the international community to support you. That’s not true if you’re inside your borders as an IDP,” Rasmussen says.

“A local village mayor in Ukraine received an unfunded mandate to support 1,500 families in this village. There’s no process for that. The money doesn’t exist. The labor doesn’t exist. The materials don’t exist. The design doesn’t exist.”

How do you house displaced people when you don’t even know what tomorrow will bring for your country?

Meet MoveUkraine

Patricia (Tuscia) Shmorhun Hawrylyshyn met her husband, John Shmorhun during his service as a pilot in the U.S. Navy. He was an American, and she was a Canadian hailing from Switzerland.

She said he reminded her of a “Top Gun” Tom Cruise, and before they knew it, the two were married and had three children. 

In 1992, after a stint in Switzerland for John’s business education, he began working for energy company DuPont, and the Shmorhuns moved to Ukraine. John was in charge of operations in Russia, Ukraine, and other Commonwealth states in his role at DuPont before becoming CEO at AgroGeneration, a grain production corporation. 

Meanwhile, Tuscia spent those years in the NGO sector, creating a small nonprofit dental clinic and school, and co-founded a nonprofit, the Bohdan Hawrylyshyn Family Foundation, which works with young changemakers and UN delegates. 

Tuscia comforts a young girl in a home
Patricia (Tuscia) Shmorhun Hawrylyshyn / Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

After more than 20 years living in the region, the couple wholeheartedly call Ukraine home, and when tensions rose between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, they agreed they would not leave the country if war were to happen. 

So, they stayed — and in 2022, they continued to stay.

And they helped.

When they saw the dire need for housing of displaced Ukrainains, the duo — and their friend Andy Kuzich — founded their newest nonprofit endeavor: MoveUkraine. 

The MoveUkraine team meeting together
Andy Kuzich / Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

The mission of the organization? To execute rapid and innovative solutions to meet the needs of Ukraine’s displaced people.

And there are a lot of needs to be met. Of the 8 million internally displaced Ukrainians, they’ve estimated at least 1.5 million have absolutely no place to stay, no family to call, and are desperate for help.

MoveUkraine refurbishes and repurposes existing buildings to provide safe, secure, and dignified housing for as many displaced folks as possible. They also work with partners to provide food, medicine, childcare, and emotional and psychological support for families traumatized by war. 

Between Tuscia’s nonprofit connections, John’s far-reaching career in the region, and Andy’s financial and logistical smarts on job sites, the trio is at the helm of recovering and integrating IDPs into their new communities. 

"We want to build homes, not houses. Because when you're displaced, it's not just physical displacement. It's a mental displacement. We knew we would be quick and nimble. We're actually helping to pull it all together."
Members of the MoveUkraine team including John stand in a house being rebuilt
John Shmorhun (Center) Photo courtesy of MoveUkraine

“We want to build homes, not houses,” John says. “Because when you’re displaced, it’s not just physical displacement. It’s a mental displacement. We knew we would be quick and nimble. We’re actually helping to pull it all together.”

In June 2022, the team called upon donors big and small to forge ahead. 

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On mission to rise from the rubble

While MoveUkraine’s mission is centered around housing, it initially mobilized alongside legacy organizations (like the International Organization for Migration, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Ireland’s Siobhan’s Trust) to provide both short-term and ongoing resources to neighbors who needed food and other necessities. 

In one anecdote relayed by the team in an interview, the organization partnered with Siobhan’s Trust to distribute 1,000 pizzas in a day. 

"This country organized immediately. Grandmas would bake bread and bring it to the streets, kids would carry toys to humanitarian centers. Millions helped millions, and it's still happening today. It gives you the fire to keep treading."

“This country organized immediately,” Tuscia says. “Grandmas would bake bread and bring it to the streets, kids would carry toys to humanitarian centers. Millions helped millions, and it’s still happening today. It gives you the fire to keep treading.”

One of the organization’s first designated projects was to rebuild an old student dormitory in Stryi, housing 150 displaced Ukrainians. The team completed electric and plumbing work, developed classrooms for English language and skills training, and provided safe housing for its newly displaced residents.

A MoveUkraine team member stands in front of a destroyed building
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

Tuscia talks about one of the women MoveUkraine helped move into the dormitory: a young anesthesiologist who lost her home and livelihood, watched her husband leave to fight in the war, couldn’t speak English, and sought shelter for herself and her seven-day-old baby. She wanted to get help, so she could get back to work. 

“This could be any of us,” Tuscia says. “Really, it could.” 

Another project took a former school in Mostysche and turned it into a communal home for nearly 30 people. The new residents, made up of a director and children from an orphanage, a foster family, and mothers with disabled children, were worried about being separated after enduring such unimaginable traumas together.

Families live in a converted home
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

Although the MoveUkraine team does not typically place displaced Ukrainians in new homes (that’s usually a job for other professionals), this particular project was different. 

“We just said, you know, ‘we have to do this. We have to keep them together,’” Tuscia says. “I think when you look for good, you find good. And we found so much good.” 

A Ukrainian mother poses with her children in a converted school
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

John and Tuscia say it’s important for their work to extend beyond a dignified home, working to ensure that people have the resources they need to thrive in jobs, build communities, and access mental healthcare. 

“If you put people together under these types of circumstances and you don’t provide those services, everything that’s needed to help them reintegrate, you create ghettos in the worst sense,” John says. 

"All these people who did not know each other before went through all these phases of trauma, having to leave under missiles, having lost everything, having lost friends, teachers, finding themselves going through the stages of emotional and cultural adaptation together.

People need to live a normal life — displaced and non-displaced."

“This is a huge country,” Tuscia says. “All these people who did not know each other before went through all these phases of trauma, having to leave under missiles, having lost everything, having lost friends, teachers, finding themselves going through the stages of emotional and cultural adaptation together. People need to live a normal life — displaced and non-displaced.”  

A new normal. That’s what MoveUkraine seeks to create. 

Other projects, all solicited by regional governments and organizations, ask for MoveUkraine’s help to get all the logistics in place. 

“The help we have received from MoveUkraine is very much needed and appreciated,” Lviv Mayor Andriy Nayda says. “We all understand that our community cannot afford investments in repairs, furniture, etc. MoveUkraine is providing a lot of help and inspiring the local communities to want to help their new IDP neighbors.”

They retrofit schools, factories, and bus stations to keep families together, with privacy, heat, food, care, and essential services — especially as a harsh winter becomes even more imminent. 

"It's a form of resistance to say:
'You destroy. We build.'"
Volunteers work on a construction project
Construction efforts underway / Photo courtesy of MoveUkraine

“It’s a form of resistance to say: ‘You destroy. We build,’” Tuscia says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in those war movies and there’s this horror we’re confronted with every day, but at the same time, there are people who have this incredible energy, who are so determined to keep the economy going, to work in whatever capacity they can. We need them here.” 

They also need the funds to do this work, and to do it quickly. Thanks to their myriad of friends, former colleagues, and fellow nonprofits across the globe, the MoveUkraine team has been able to fundraise with lightning speed.

John, Andy, and Tuscia’s friends from university donate monthly, a Canadian beer company sends a portion of profits to MoveUkraine every month, and major initial funds have contributed to these first projects. 

A volunteer working in a new building
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

But the need is ongoing, and as winter approaches (in Ukraine, temperatures can hit freezing by October 1), more support is needed now than ever. Tuscia is proud to share that 90% of all donations go directly to help Ukraine’s IDPs, to give them safe, dignified places to live.

“Every dollar counts and every dollar is stretched. Every dollar changes a life for sure,” Tuscia says. “We send pictures to our donors. We go weekly to our projects. We know the people we work for. We meet the refugees that live there. We’re going to go back and back so people can have a direct connection.”

Rebuilding with help from around the world

Remember Rasmussen? On the other side of the planet, he’s been hard at work garnering support for these housing efforts, too. His nonprofit, the Applied Hope Foundation, has used a process called “forward grant making” to take his foundation’s U.S. donations, meet federal tax requirements through the IRS, and then pass that money along to MoveUkraine.

His financial support hasn’t been the only help, though. Rasmussen has been working with local contractors in Washington state to add an additional layer to support Ukraine’s IDPs. 

In addition to retrofitting old buildings, MoveUkraine hopes to be able to provide the tools to build more transitional housing options for displaced residents.

Rasmussen and the MoveUkraine team called up a few housing savvy friends, Dan Kenney and Aaron Sauerhoff, and began working on a number of designs for small homes in Ukraine. They were subsequently discarded, as the limited access to and supply of building materials was an insurmountable hurdle. 

Back to the drawing board, the team turned to a very specific document. Kenney found a resource created after World War II, titled the Plans of Farm Buildings For Northeastern States. This was a project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and developed by the University of Wisconsin to help develop simple-to-build housing and farm buildings. 

Booklet Cover: Technical Note Number 261 - U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service - Segmental Rafters For Gothic-Roofed Farm Buildings
The front cover of a 1958 resource from the U.S. Department of Agriculture / Archival document

“You will see these architectures in any rural area throughout America, as they allowed farmers and ranchers, with the help of friends and family, to build their structures using these simple and practical plans,” Kenney says. 

Simple-to-build housing, requiring few building materials, constructed by friends and family, is exactly the tool displaced Ukrainians need. 

Considering this World War II-era document a case study on what could be done to house Ukrainians, Kenney knew these concepts were from the 1950s and 60s and are not currently engineering-approved for use in the U.S. 

He and his fellow engineers would have to get crafty. 

The group of innovators jumped head-first into developing a game plan for small, highly insulated homes that can be built locally and used for transitional housing in Ukraine.

"We're saying 'here's how you build with rubble: If all you have is broken sticks and broken bricks, here is how you put together a shelter to get through the winter."

“We’re saying ‘here’s how you build with rubble,’” Rasmussen says. “If all you have is broken sticks and broken bricks, here is how you put together a shelter to get through the winter.” 

These designs are the blueprints for simplified small homes that are rugged, insulated, and easy to construct. Planned to be about 12 feet by 20 feet, and created with concrete and foam (easy-to-source materials that are accessible even in a war zone), they’re about as DIY as it gets.

The designs are an adaptation of a homeless mitigation site in Olympia, Washington, where Sauerhoff’s company, Earth Homes built 60 shelters. The design has been simplified to be a larger stressed skin cement and foam structure, based on available resources in Ukraine. 

Document outlining details for a gembrel shelter
One page of a gambrel-style shelter / Graphic courtesy of Daniel E. Kenney (CC BY 4.0)

These super simplified gambrel-style shelters eliminate the need for complex construction work, all while maintaining structural and insulating integrity.

Right now, the designs are in the process of being approved by local Ukrainian governments and have been brought to the International Organization for Migration. 

MoveUkraine is in several discussions with local authorities to locate land suitable for building — that’s also close enough to schools to be accessible for families.

While this element of MoveUkraine’s work is in its infancy, the organization has all the skills and resources to get started once approvals are granted. Rasmussen is confident that widespread dissemination and adoption of these small home building plans is possible.

“We have the attention of an organization capable of disseminating these templates to the places they need to be. We also have the ability to source the building and teaching materials that are required to help people who are all out there by themselves build a home that will keep them safe through the winter — and probably last three to five years,” Rasmussen says. “Here we have something that will help us save lives.” 

What comes next?

MoveUkraine still has a long way to go, and a lot of hard work to do, before many of its goals are met. 

But housing isn’t the only thing displaced folks need. While this work is vital, all infrastructure that helps keep communities healthy and thriving must be in working order for IDPs to realize their full dignity and personhood. 

Folks need transportation, roads, electricity, clean water, and so much more beyond immediate shelter. When the homes are built, can Ukraine keep its people safe?

John says city administrators need to manage new displaced residents as they move in and out of various areas in the country. IDPs also need guaranteed access to food, schooling, and support for regular expenses. This is an ongoing logistical project of enormous proportions. 

"If you are not helping or serving, you are being helped."
Volunteers talk to each other during construction
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

“If you are not helping or serving, you are being helped,” John says. “Displaced Ukrainians must be integrated into their new communities. They need to find jobs, be treated for PTSD.”

Much of this work is already being facilitated by MoveUkraine and its many partners, which include: Ukrainian Education Platform, UNICEF, Siobhan’s Trust, Franklin Covey Ukraine, Help Us Help, and even U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur and her work with Medwish and United Ukrainian Organizations of Ohio

But above all, the war must end.

“Russia’s invasion is an existential threat to the existence of Ukraine,” John says. “The people know this.” 

Unimaginable loss calls for unimaginable community

Despite the unknown that comes with each day, and the devastation people can barely even begin to sift through as they must mobilize in droves — life does, somehow, go on.

Tuscia speaks highly of a new sushi restaurant that opened in their neighborhood during the war. She mentions a bridge that had been rebuilt just a month after catastrophic bombings in Kyiv. 

"I think this war has given a lot of people a chance to do good again, to do something that's impactful, that helps your fellow person."

“There is this kind of weird new reality of normalcy,” she says. “I think this war has given a lot of people a chance to do good again, to do something that’s impactful, that helps your fellow person.”

Rasmussen’s work in humanitarian aid calls upon this grassroots approach to crisis. He’s quite literally a scholar in it, recently publishing an article in the Journal of Health and Human Experience about the cultural history of humanitarian assistance, or as he calls it: “applied hope.”

“I have had a chance to revisit what ordinary humans have done over the past 2,000 years to get better and better at responding to natural and manmade disasters,” Rasmussen says. “There’s this volunteer spirit that has, over time, infused society with the kind of ethos that says: ‘You’re supposed to help.’” 

This contradicts what we have so long believed to be the evolution of humankind to protect one’s family and tribe against any threat — and perhaps do everything in our power to impede caring for others. But, Rasmussen posits, partly in thanks to grassroots movements, that we live in a time of a different philosophy. 

It aligns with the increase of civilian casualties in war, he says. 

“Over the course of the 20th century, more and more civilians became a fraction of the casualties, and eventually became a deliberate fraction of the casualties,” Rasmussen says. 

A member of the Ukrainian military stands in front of a destroyed apartment building
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

He refers back to his time in the military.

“I watched the humanitarian impact because that eventually became my job. I was shifted away from taking care of injured soldiers and given to the Humanitarian Operations Center in Iraq as the medical director,” Rasmussen says. “So I had an opportunity to see just what a toll was being taken on civilians deliberately targeted for the psychological impact of reducing resistance. As a consequence, the civilians who are being harmed are being cared for by the civilians that are near them.”

He details some of the atrocities occurring now in Ukraine — like undetectable land mines in crop fields that make them impossible to harvest, depleting food and financial sources for civilians.

It’s bleak. And it calls for resilience and kinship like nothing else. 

“You keep fighting,” Rasmussen says. “You don’t let the bad guys win. We need to find a little titanium here. Until you are crushed to nothing but jelly, you don’t let the bad guys win.” 

With a place to stay to survive the winter, Ukrainians won’t back down.

“The first responders in an emergency are the people standing next to you; your neighbors and friends,” Rasmussen says. “This is a story about people rising to the occasion. This is what’s happening with MoveUkraine.”

Tuscia embraces a young girl, with Ukrainian flags behind her
Photo by Lorenzo Moscia, courtesy of MoveUkraine

It’s not even a question of bravery, of finding the courage to confront a problem that seems so unscalable. They do it because they have to, and they do it one person, one family, at a time.

"We're not going anywhere. This is our home. We're going to rebuild, because this is our home."

“We’re not going anywhere,” Tuscia says, astounded that there could even be an alternative. “This is our home. We’re going to rebuild, because this is our home.”

A version of this article was first published in the Goodnewspaper — Good Good Good’s monthly print newspaper filled with good news and ways to make a difference.

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October 13, 2022 5:00 AM
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