Shelter.Lviv started on Instagram. It's now helped house 4,000 women and children
Updated May 17, 2022 at 8:15 AM ET
Olga Zabzaliuk is the director of a progressive, private preschool in an upscale part of Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine. A few days after Russia invaded, she saw a post by Nika Huk, a stylist and influencer she follows on Instagram.
"She was saying, 'who wants to do something about people who need help?' " she said.
The two women had never met before, but Zabzaliuk reached out, and within 15 minutes they had decided to convert the preschool into a shelter.
About 4,000 women and children have spent at least one night here since the start of the war — half of them in the first few weeks, as many streamed out of the country to Poland and elsewhere in Europe.
Shelter.Lviv has offered legal help for those who need it, psychological counseling, education and games for the children.
Now there are fewer than 100 people left.
One of them is an 11-year-old boy named Gleb Zapragin. His blond hair is shaved on the left, sweeping down on the right and tinted blue.
"It's just the style," he explains.
"Progressive youth," jokes his mother, Valeria Zapragina.
Gleb is a vegetarian who loves hip-hop dancing and playing the ukelele.
They came from Kharkiv. They spent six weeks sleeping in a bomb shelter with their neighbors — grandmothers, and mothers with infants.
Between air raid sirens they would return to their house to try to do online lessons and to feed their pet snail. When they could get outside, Gleb and the other kids passed the time by planting a vegetable garden.
Gleb says what he remembers most is the day before they left. There was an explosion just 100 meters away from the shelter. It was a close call for his mother, who had left the basement to use the bathroom.
Twenty-three year old Liana Piatkovskaya, also from Kharkiv, is clutching a little, growling dog named Sky — he's nervous since going through the bombardments, she says. It's her sister's dog.
Her mother and sister made it out to Switzerland and Germany, respectively. But even before the war began she vowed not to leave Ukraine, because her boyfriend, a policeman, is here. Since the war started, they've seen each other only on video calls.
In the past few weeks, Zabzaliuk has reopened her preschool, and almost a dozen students have come back.
Everyone NPR spoke with said the shelter has been great, they are overwhelmed by people's kindness and they can't wait to go home.
It's not going to be a straightforward task.
According to a recent survey of Ukraine's internally displaced people by the UN's International Organization for Migration, two-thirds — a growing number — need cash assistance. And more than a quarter say their homes are damaged.
But the flow back is starting anyway. According to this survey, around 14 million people are currently displaced, but an estimated 2.7 million have already returned home.
Piatkovskaya's apartment in Kharkiv was hit during Russian bombardment, but the city has now been liberated by Ukrainian forces.
"Yes, there's shellings, there's bombs, but I want to go home," she says. "Here is good but home is better."
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