By Olena Levhcuk & Svitlana Zavialova


A Ukrainian Refugee Trauma Therapist Explains The Stages of Exposure




Today marks one year since the beginning of full scale Russian war in Ukraine. Countless Ukrainians found and sought refuge around the globe. We the people that are trying to help - focused on the rational side of the matter. Global trauma and a major mental health crisis that will linger for generations to come. How do we exercise compassion beyond just cognitive empathy? How do we grasp what these people feel daily? 

Olena Levchuk - a Ukrainian Gestalt therapist, lived and worked in Ukraine. She has worked as a psychologist in Fundacja Międzynarodowa Inicjatywa Humanitarna with victims of torture and violence (Chechens who were tortured and captured in the "Foundation of Russia). GIP " and the – (East of Ukraine, on the line of demarcation). She was actively working with refugees in Crimea – East Ukraine at the “Crisis Psychological Service of Majdan” (2014-2016 ). Olena is now a refugee herself.  

Through the chain of events that could only be described as fate at this moment, Olena found herself being a refugee in the United States. Her personal experience of working with refugees in the past places her in a very unique position. She is a refugee and is on the inside of the experience. As a mental health professional, she is able to open the veil of understanding of the refugee experience from a meta position.


Essay by Olena Levchuk

Refugees are something like authorization or legalization of the right to life! Speaking in modern language or content.

But it is important to note that refugees are not something that you choose, you become a refugee.

It's interesting to experience the path you're on or find yourself on. It's like an ocean. It is difficult to measure its depth and grasp its length without having special knowledge, experience, etc.

First you meet something that defines your strength. Catastrophic events do not stop you, but only strengthen the desire to exit them with the maximum level of safety, as far as possible in this situation.

The life of a refugee is like a struggle at the following stages.

The first stage in its characteristics is decisive and unique for everyone - an event that deprives the right to be! Circumstances that are on the verge of life and death. Losing everything that was "Yours". Defense and struggle lose their meaning. , at the depth of the impulse - to SURVIVE.

The next stage can be marked with the triad of words "how, where and with what."

At this stage, each person/refugee has their own destiny or their own thorny path.

A country, a place, an environment, a system - this is what guides, and sometimes becomes destructive.

Communication, mastering a foreign language, integration.

The experience of this stage is well conveyed by the metaphor of life in the ocean.

A person in exodus does not plan anything. The intensity of the experience, like a wave that constantly catches up and covers with memories and sadness.

Experience lived through and acquired at the same time becomes the cornerstone. It seems to merge into a single system of perception - stress or acute trauma, emotional activation, chronic fatigue, impotence.

All this is often intertwined with a constant feeling of loss of the most valuable and dear. Loss of "your" - home, relatives and loved ones.

Family, belonging - it's like a washed-out shore, to which it is impossible to touch today..

A wave of sadness for relatives and loved ones, like tides and ebbs that emerge from a feeling of constant loneliness and fatigue.

Sometimes, a person like a ghost seems to be driven by waves of pain and sadness.

All this defines the image of You, the one who carries the "strength of the spirit" on his shoulders, but at the same time, often loses his own identity.

You are like a person on the Titanic, who sometimes comes up and then sinks again.

The catastrophe, like a lunar halo, still envelopes your wounded soul.

The echo of war becomes the conditioning of the atonement of pain. Survivor's guilt is woven into your feelings.

The external struggle turns into an internal one.

You try to live with it, and you also try to be reborn.

A damaged soul needs peace.

An exhausted body needs healing.

This state can be compared to the eruption of a volcano, which has completely destroyed all living and dead things.

Time in its hypostasis has lost the power of memory, and destruction has ceased to be filled with a sense of horror.

The most difficult part is choosing how and where to stay.


The state of the refugee is a mix of "eternal" adrenaline. 


Olena Levchuk 

Trauma therapist, Gestalt therapist, teaching therapist at Ukrainian Association of Psychotherapists


Svitlana Zavialova 

Performance Artist, Actor


Vincent Lyn

CEO & Founder of We Can Save Children

Deputy Ambassador of International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations (ECOSOC)

Editor-in-Chief at Wall Street News Agency







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