Q&A: From the front lines of Plan’s Ukraine response

March 16, 2023
By Catherine Rolfe
March 16, 2023
~8 min read

Colleen Fitzgerald is a child protection in emergencies specialist at Plan International USA. From June through August 2022, she led Plan’s child protection response for Ukrainian refugees in Romania. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the conflict, she describes how Plan is working with local organizations to keep children and their families safe.

Colleen is leaning over a wooden table holding one of 10 or so white canvas bags with the Plan logo on them. She is smiling at a little girl, who is wearing a pink and white dress and has her dark blonde hair French braided.
Colleen, left, chats with a young girl while distributing relief items in Romania.

Q: In the year since the war began, how has Plan been working with families from Ukraine who fled to Romania?

A: I think it’s important to emphasize that Plan was doing 100% implementation with local partner organizations … this is a really important approach that we had taken … We were working primarily with two partner organizations and, between the two, we probably had about six to eight different locations where activities were ongoing. Mostly, they were close to the border with Ukraine, because there were many different entry points and different locations where people were crossing. Primarily, what we were doing was helping those local organizations be a support to children and families, and that was mostly children and mothers, because, as you know, that was the primary population that was able to flee from Ukraine.

So what we were doing was really establishing safe spaces for children. And that included activities for children, to psychosocial support activities or some language classes to help them learn a little bit of Romanian. And just to give children that sense of stability and structure … from what we know in humanitarian emergencies, things are chaotic. And one of the most important things for children is to regain that sense of stability and structure — to feel a sense of safety.

One of the other most important things is to really support caregivers, and so that was the other focus that we had, and so we were working with mothers. We had parenting support. We also had psychologists in many of the different locations and social workers who were providing individualized emotional support both for mothers and also for some of the teenagers who were also having a really difficult time, so that was a really significant part of the activities.

“One of the most important things for children is to regain that sense of stability and structure, to feel a sense of safety.”

And then also, related to the child protection programming, we had cash and voucher assistance, which was providing some small amounts of financial support to help people meet their basic needs. And that’s really great that we can give the flexibility of cash or vouchers, so people can really decide for themselves how they want to spend their money, rather than just doing these blanket distributions which might not be what they really need. So, really acknowledging the dignity of individuals that they can make those decisions for themselves.

Q: Great. I’m interested in what you said about working with local organizations. Why is it important that we work in partnership with the people we are helping, instead of coming in and prescribing all aspects of a response?

A: Actually, you know, an individual comes to my mind when you ask that question. There was this woman who I worked really closely with. Her name is Cristina, and she is actually an orthodontist by training — but she is 100% a humanitarian.

So she was working with this [Romanian] organization called ADRA from the very first day of the influx of refugees. She was at the train station helping connect people. You know, when people were arriving on the trains, it was chaos, and the refugees were not sure who to trust and, what was available. … So she was really there, like truly, from the very, very beginning, providing that essential safety and support to people.

It’s people like her who are already there, who are doing the work, that we want to support, because Cristina will continue doing that work. She went from that role in a train station to then helping to run a few shelters for Ukrainian refugees. … She’s a person who has an intimate understanding of the emergency of the needs of the refugees, really those trusting relationships that she was able to build, but then also understanding how to make things work in Romania. … So I think this is also the great asset that comes with working with local organizations and individuals who are already those natural helpers, natural humanitarians, [asking], if these are the needs right now, how can we make it work?

Cristina sits cross-legged on the floor wearing a white collared short-sleeved shirt and holding up a small red instrument high over her head in one hand. Five children sit on the floor in a circle around her, each with their own small musical instrument.
Cristina, second from right, leads a music activity with refugee children.

She was a person that I was meeting with regularly who was saying, “You know, Colleen, [it’s] great that we’re doing this work in shelters, but I’m getting phone calls from people who are living in individual accommodations, and we need to send our social workers to go visit those families.” So she was constantly telling me, “This is how the situation is evolving. This is how we should be responding. Can we do that?”

She was like my guide in so many ways, because she really had her finger on the pulse, and also was really able to guide us about how we could be most supportive. That was just a very powerful experience that I had working directly with her, and I really feel like we were so lucky to identify someone like that that we could work with, because that was really meeting the rapidly changing needs of the refugee community.

Q: Absolutely, and I love thinking about Plan’s work as amplifying the work of people like her. Okay, next question: Knowing that we’re approaching the one-year anniversary of this conflict, what do you think are the biggest protection concerns for children who are in Romania?

A: The biggest issue that we were concerned about was really around like psychosocial impacts of the conflict. A lot of families were talking to us about like their concerns, especially around adolescents who were really showing some signs of distress … not really being able to resume that sense of normalcy, and really struggling with being able to attend school, and the constant barrage of media that’s available, and watching the traumatic images that are coming out of Ukraine constantly. I think that was something that a lot of parents were very, very worried about.

And, a lot of these kids were separated from their fathers, and that definitely was something that was a huge source of stress … you know, being a young person and just having your life interrupted at this level and just having like, no sense of certainty. And, a lot of families were like, “Oh, we’re going to go back next week, we’re going to go back.” Some of them were understandably in constant denial, which causes a sense of anxiety and uncertainty for young people.

Cristina sits on a wooden bench outdoors wearing a white collared short-sleeved shirt with the ADRA logo, holding a stack of the vouchers, which look like small check-like rectangles of paper with barcodes on them. Across the wooden table from her are a man and a woman with their backs to the camera.
Cristina, from Plan partner organization ADRA, distributes cash vouchers to refugees from Ukraine.

And, now that it’s winter, who knows what will happen. In the current state of the conflict, will all of these generous donors continue to give? And if they don’t, then we know, when economic strains are put on families, that also leads to more potential risks for children. And so, are all these shelters still going to be operating? Are they still going to get some cash and voucher assistance? And if not, then what happens and what difficult decisions are families going to have to make? So I think there are still a lot of concerns at this stage … And it’s really hard to know and really hard to get your team ready in case of different scenarios.

Q: Right. So that actually brings us to my last question, which was, now that’s been a while since you left Romania, what do you remember most about your time there?

A: I’m a relationship person, so I think what I remember the most is those relationships that I was able to build. … Something that also stands out is some of the activities that we did actually were like kind of like summer camp activities, which we did with Ukrainian families. And so one of my most significant memories is — this is kind of silly — we organized a talent show, and it was like a mix between like Ukrainians and Romanians. And what was so fun was that we set it up to like to be kind of like one of these TV competition shows with scoring and judges, and I was one of the judges. It was a really beautiful thing to see Ukrainian families, like mothers with their children, just having fun.

So, they like did a whole thing where they sang the song “Baby Shark,” and you know, they were fully in costume, because we were like, “Creativity is really important!” So they had goggles, and they had sun hats, and they had the little floaties and everything, and sunglasses, and they were singing and laughing. It was like, they really, really got into it, and everyone else is cheering for them. And then, there was like a group of Ukrainian boys who were doing a hip-hop thing and they were trying to breakdance.

I think what really moved me about that is, what a privilege it is to be in these moments where you’re not just seeing people as victims, as we often do in the media, but also to see their resilience, and the joy and the love that they have for their families and within their communities. And that was something that I feel like not a lot of people get those opportunities to see: the full story of suffering, but also joy and hope and resilience.

One year since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, girls and their families are still facing a humanitarian crisis each day. Focusing first on responding to refugees in Moldova, Poland and Romania, Plan International is now also working inside Ukraine with local partners. We’re protecting girls from gender-based violence, providing shelter for refugees during freezing winter weather, helping children access inclusive and quality education, and providing psychosocial support, like art therapy. And, we are among the few organizations supporting girls’ menstrual health, providing thousands with period products and health kits. Make your gift today to provide girls and their families with the care and essentials they need.