Former army chaplain  Serhiy ‘Padre’ Dmytriev found it his calling to help women and children fleeing domestic violence and abuse.

‘Bukvy’ talked to father Serhiy about his everyday challenges in this work, ‘expansion’ plans of  his organization,  and people helping the battered women’s shelter.

How come you become a leader of this human rights initiative?

I served people in many places. I worked in Khershon, Sum, Chernyhiv, Crimea regions, ended up  in Poland. Yet I went back to Ukraine as it was God’s will.

Some time ago, former patriach Filaret offered me to oversee civil activities under the umbrella group ELEOS Ukraine, and now I chair the organization, we have 16 regional offices, charity canteens and over 100 workers.

 

Please, tell about the organization

 ELEOS Ukraine is an autonomous unit under social services department of Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Its leverage for community service work.  Since religious organizations are not allowed to seek grants from international funds and donors, we use our nongovernmental status to apply for grants abroad.

We work not only with our church but with other religious organizations for advocacy efforts, we teach priests who are public activists. Now we are leading the vaccine promotion campaign targeting religious groups opposing vaccination.

We act as a public networking group and we are rather secural. Putting to use resources of religious organizations and their motivation is what makes us unique. It is stability, internal fundraising and funding from religious organizations.

Where does your organization get funding from? Does Orthodox Church of Ukraine help?

 Sure, the church and our parish members are helping. Metropolitan Epifaniy has been paying  utility bills for  our shelter on his own dime for almost a year.

Starting May, we will try to apply for state funding by offering social services commissioned by local communities. The law allows us to enter bidding. Such bidding contests can be entered by both governmental and public establishments. The past experience shows that public sector groups provide services of better quality due to bigger motivation.

It is common international practice. Public organizations apply for state funds as providers of social services, and the next logical step is you put it on federal balance sheet or keep working with state agencies. When I worked in Poland, some catholic monasteries there provided social services for special needs children. They would get some state funding, and then would have this format when the church provides its premises while the state covers workers’ pay. We have the same objective. It is not about competing with the state agencies but rather help with quality services by fine-tuning the public initiative and the get it listed as the state liability.

Do you have any plans to grow and expand?

 We are set to establish crisis rooms in Lviv and Severodonets next year, while Dubno in Rivne region will get a shelter and a crisis room.  We are preparing documents and looking for some funding. In Kherson we are finishing renovation of a new crisis room for underage sexual abuse victims. I wish we could establish at least one shelter in each region. If I am not mistaken, Kyiv region has got some 6 shelters and 2 crisis rooms established by different charity groups. It is not enough.

When we had an influx of people, the shelter accommodated 14 women and 9 children, and we had to throw in extra beds. The same situation was in the Irpen shelter. We see there are these seasonal peak times when you can have 5 women coming in one day, and then for a month it is all quiet. We have got rough estimates which months will the busiest.

Some girls ‘checked out’ recently. Yesterday we had 5 women and 6 children living in our shelter. A month ago, we were fully packed.

How do decide on where to launch the same projects?

 Every region is in dire need of such places. We go to the places where we have out team members residing or where we could count on some help from local donors or funds from regional governments.

The crisis room in Kherson was established on the money of the German government grant program, they prioritized that region due to the statistics they fall back on. Besides, we have our team members in Kherson, listed as ELEOS Kherson.

We chose Dubno as we found premises available there. We could have established such shelter in Rivne as there are probably more domestic abuse victims there, but we understand that Rivne is a rather small town, and abusers would have no hard time finding the place.

How has Covid-19 changed your shelter operations?

 All new arrivals take rapid Covid, AIDS, hepatitis tests and get an X-ray screening. We have an working agreement with local family doctors – if people seeking our help, are not listed in state patients database, we help them to sign up with a doctor. We have regular medical examinations, quarantine phase. Our staff is vaccinated. We can arrange for voluntary vaccinations. There is a psychologist who visits the place.

We have a rigid medical procedure for those coming to the shelter as different people share kitchen, shower, and use children’s room. Currently, the shelter is closed for quarantine after two women got sick.

Sometimes, women knock on our door and they are either drunk or stoned for drugs. We can’t blame them as such things are usually prompted by their environment or their abusers. Such women are taken care of by our psychologists, lawyers, and we also help them with documents issues.

We have situations when a woman escapes home and show up at our place in slippers with not a hryvna on them. We are trying to help them find a job and go back to a normal life.

Do women have to be Othodox Christian to turn to You for help?

 We don’t go into religious issues, which make our place fully accessible. Our goal is to help every person no matter what confession he or she belongs to. We are content when people learn that help comes from a religious organization.

What other public groups or charities do you work with?

 We are actively involved in public sector. There is such group called Convictus Ukraine that advocates women’s rights. We have worked with ‘La Strada’, UNFPA, Center of Social services, police, ‘100%’ charity group, ‘Alliance of Public Health’ fund.

‘Renaissance’ fund made an exception for us and got us a house, though we covered repairs and refurbishing on our own.

It is important that we have got this property and there is no need to rent places. If the situation improves in Ukraine, we could probably renovate the house to turn it into an orphanage to keep work for a good course.

 

Do you face any trouble dealing with activists from other churches?

 Our contacts in the social sector are wide. For instance, we work with mufti Said Ismagilov, and others. We never bring up religious beliefs. We take it as a joint effort of Ukrainian religious communities working to help people.

There is this prejudice that religious groups are hostile to each others. Maydan events brought together people of different churches and they got on well there. Some people were shocked, while, in reality, it was that way long before as we had made friends much earlier.

Only Moscow Patriarchate Church has stayed away from it. We do have some communications with their medical chaplains but it is just personal connections.

 

The location of your shelter can’t be disclosed, but how can women reach out to you and find its place?

There is a hotline phone number. They can reach out to us through social services, police, or our Facebook account. We keep our location secret. We send a car to pick up a woman seeking help at some agreed-on place, we don’t reveal the address to women’s relatives either. We also provide the shelter lodgers with a different phone number for them not to be tracked down.

In Europe, women live in such shelters unattended with a social worker paying visits once a week. We have a different situation here. There was this lethal case when an abuser shot a social worker in Odesa, and it makes this work challenging. We have only female workers in our shelter meeting men can be a traumatizing experience for the women given their emotioinal state.

We had an accident when one of the abuser used private detectives to find our place. The cameras helped to spot a group of men hanging around our house and we called the police, and they arrived just in time to prevent confrontation.

 

When we were looking for a house, we made sure our neighbors had cameras as a back-up security option.

 

Who is helping Your shelter with furnishings and basic items?

 We got some furniture from Mormons, we also got a room furnished thanks to Amina Okuyeva’s mother – as their family has a Chechen background, the room got many Chechen-related items. There is a room that got furnished by Roman Catholics from Lithuania.

Overall, we have got four thematic rooms. Our donators keep helping with other small things, like bed sheets or small repairs.

We had some reservations about buying this house as it was in poor repair.  It was a rather adventurous move as we counted help would arrive. Thanks to our donators we did some initial repairwork and got a roof mended as it wouldn’t have lasted long. We are grateful to Ihor Kononenko who made a donation that covered the roof repairs.  It is great there are people who notice and find it possible to help to such small projects like ours.

Personally, I am okay about churches getting golden domes, but the roof over head that shelters  women suffering and left with no place to go comes as a real golden dome. The shelter remains anonymous. Our donators can’t tell friends ‘here is the women’s shelter I am helping and making donations for’, but they can always point to golden-domed churches and say ‘this is what I am guarding and taking care of’, and for me it is what make charitable acts genuine.

Kids in our shelter said they would love to draw a tree with names of our modest donators and helpers so that newcomers could know who is taking care of their refuge, which really makes it  precious for of all of us involved in this project.