‘We’re not waiting for war to end’: Irish charity refits Ukrainian special needs centre in historic monastery

Founder of Effective Aid Ukraine says rebuilding Rozdil is about helping the most vulnerable

Residents of the Rozdil special needs centre in western Ukraine are sleeping in corridors while renovation of the 17th-century monastery building takes place. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

When Oleksandra Yanovych was a young girl visiting relatives in Rozdil in western Ukraine, they would warn her to stay away from a 17th-century monastery in the village that the Soviets had turned into an orphanage for disabled children.

“When I came here on holidays they would scare me with this place. If I wasn’t good or didn’t eat my meals, they’d say that I’d be sent here to meet the boys, or the boys would come and take my food,” she recalls.

“When I went to the local shop to buy bread, I was told to keep a stone handy to throw at the boys if they came near me, and to run home as quickly as I could. Now I realise that they were just kids, like me, and they would have meant me no harm.”

Yanovych now runs a medical clinic in the city of Lviv, 50km from Rozdil, and is an adviser to the regional administration, which has pledged to renovate and modernise the cash-starved special needs centre in partnership with Irish charity Effective Aid Ukraine.

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The project leaders hope it will give more freedom and opportunity to the 100 or so residents of the centre – some of whom were evacuated from the frontline Zaporizhzhia area – and show how the state and foreign aid groups can jointly help Ukraine build a European model of care, even as it fights for its survival against Russia.

“This is about capacity building for Ukraine that can be done now – we’re not waiting for the war to end – which helps the most vulnerable, including many who have been relocated because of the war,” says Tom McEnaney, founder of Effective Aid Ukraine.

Alina Danova works at the Rozdil special needs centre in western Ukraine. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

“It’s devastating for anyone to be relocated because of war, but especially for children with special needs. They are used to a routine and when it is taken away from them, it can be particularly distressing and traumatising,” he says during a visit to Rozdil.

For McEnaney, a Dublin-based media consultant, this is a first big “pilot project” in Ukraine after renovating nine institutions for children in neighbouring Belarus since visiting the country as a journalist in 1998; using about €3 million in donated funds, he also built farms to provide food, work and income for orphanages and supplied dozens of Belarusian institutions with books, clothes and playgrounds.

“When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began [in February 2022] it became morally, legally and logistically impossible to work in Belarus,” he says of the autocratic state’s support for Russia’s attacks, some of which were launched from its territory.

“That was a big blow for us, but the corollary was that it threw up a huge need in Ukraine… I’d like to be in Ukraine for at least the next 20 years to help redevelop all of its orphanages for children with special needs.”

Tom McEnaney, founder of Irish charity Effective Aid Ukraine, with Oleksandra Yanovych, an adviser on social and inclusion affairs at the Lviv regional administration. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

McEnaney says Rozdil may be “the oldest orphanage in Ukraine and the one in the worst physical condition”, and its renovation should serve as “proof of concept” for co-operation between a regional administration and his charity, which could then be replicated across the country.

On a sunny day in Rozdil, which is about 130km from the Polish border, McEnaney and Yanovych are greeted by boys and young men who are playing with toys and sports equipment provided by Effective Aid Ukraine.

A large greenhouse and new kitchen and laundry equipment to overhaul decades-old facilities are already on-site or will soon arrive, but preparatory work such as rewiring is complicated by both the monastery’s great age, and a lack of funds in a country under daily attack whose priority must be the needs of its defence forces.

Residents of the Rozdil centre for boys and young men with special needs in western Ukraine. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Millions of displaced people have moved through Lviv province since 2022 and about 350,000 have settled there, including 70,000 children and 10,000 people with disabilities, says regional governor Maksym Kozytskyi.

“We’re facing difficulties with our places for displaced people with disabilities, and for orphans and other children in care. These places are now at twice their capacity,” he says in his office in the centre of Lviv.

“We’ve had moments when we suddenly received 50 or 100 people with mental problems and we’ve had to immediately find places for them and people to look after them… Suddenly a whole orphanage from Zaporizhzhia region has arrived or a psychiatric care home from [now-occupied] Bakhmut,” he adds.

“We fully understand that we must deinstitutionalise care in our country, but how do we get to that goal? We must do what we can now. The people who are making changes now are very important, because they’re not waiting for the war to end to make things better… And that means that a place like Rozdil will become a home, not an institution, because the people living there will feel loved and respected.”

Lviv region is vulnerable to Russian missiles and drone attacks despite being 900km from the front line, and a strike on Saturday morning hit an energy facility in the province, deepening fears for the stability of power supplies next winter.

Tom McEnaney, founder of Irish charity Effective Aid Ukraine, centre, at the Rozdil special needs centre that the group is helping to renovate. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

A generator kicks in at the Rozdil orphanage during blackouts, and residents and staff shelter between the monastery’s metre-thick walls when the air raid siren sounds.

Studying plans of the centre’s four hectares of land, Yanovych and McEnaney discuss possibly building modern sheltered housing and a farm at Rozdil, to boost the independence and skills of residents who are now interacting more often with the local community and visiting factories, offices and vocational colleges.

“We are proving the concept now, and hope that at some stage the Irish Government will get on board,” McEnaney says of the co-operation between Lviv region and his charity.

“Once we get to a significant scale, we hope to be able to call on the resources of Irish Aid and say, this is a project that has had success in improving the lives of children with special needs in Ukraine, and would it be something they would like to get behind.”

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