Olena Abaveya knew her autistic son would struggle after they fled their conflict-torn home in eastern Ukraine. With treatment facilities limited, the teacher and psychologist decided to take action herself.
"I believe that no matter how difficult a situation is, things can be resolved with hard work and a positive approach," she says. "But I would not have achieved anything only by myself. I believe that we only can achieve great things together with other people. Every meeting, every acquaintance, a telephone conversation or just an occasional meeting mattered."
By the end of 2014, Olena, 38, had opened a treatment centre for special needs children in the internally displaced and local communities. It helped children to learn, communicate with peers and independently manage their everyday lives.
"When we first met Olena two years ago, my five-year-old son could not walk properly or feed himself," says Oleksandra, the mother of a child who regularly visits the centre. "I had to use a wheelchair to transport him. Today, he walks by himself. I am very happy to see how fast he's developed."
By June 2017, six child psychologists, speech therapists and other health professionals were working at the centre. Demand was high and a new, bigger location became necessary.
Olena turned to Sumy's local council for help. To her relief, they provided a new site, but it was in poor condition and needed renovation. Work went ahead with the help of the NGO CrimeaSOS, a partner of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
"When I learned about the decision of the local council, I felt so happy," recalls Olena. "I was almost running home to tell my family. A few days later, we had a meeting where we informed the team. It was a very happy moment!"
A psychologist works with six-year-old Vlad at the center. © UNHCR/Anatoliy Rabizo Olena and her family at the centre, which opened in Sumy with the help of UNHCR. © UNHCR/Anatoliy Rabizo Staff help children with special needs to learn and communicate. © UNHCR/Artem Rudenko
'World of Happy Children' now has space to accommodate 15 children per day. Children from socially vulnerable families can attend free. Olena has seen for herself how life-changing it can be.
"My son has a very difficult diagnosis. His condition can never be fully treated. But I know that at least with all the great work we did for him, he has realized his potential."
Since 2014, when conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine, UNHCR has been supporting about 1.6 million internally displaced people (IDPs), with the help of partners, government and civil society. Almost 65,000 IDPs in Ukraine live with disabilities.
As part of the UN's global commitment to promote equal rights and raise awareness of the skills and capacities of people with disabilities, UNHCR is striving to support IDPs with disabilities in Ukraine through cash grants, repairs to homes and improvements to living conditions.
See also: Life is a daily battle for families in Ukraine conflict zone
"At UNHCR, we often see that social integration projects are only possible when there is close cooperation between local authorities, donors, NGOs and civil society," says Pablo Mateu, UNHCR representative in Ukraine. "One of the principles underpinning the work of the United Nations is that of leaving no one behind. This ensures better integration and protection of affected populations, and works towards a more inclusive society."
Olena is determined that her centre and the children she helps will be a part of that.
"We help children to become more confident with their families and peers," she says. "But they grow up and will soon face many difficulties. So now we are thinking how to prepare them better for it. Maybe we will open a center for teenagers, which will provide them with the opportunity to integrate into wider society, learn new skills and professions."