It is an unacceptable thought that my three children would grow up without a father

Implementing a project in Ukraine 1
Hielke Zantema, disaster response officer at ZOA, is currently in Ukraine implementing a new project. He tells about it in this interesting interview.

After a few visits, ZOA decided to do more; did an assessment to find out what the biggest needs were and recently went back to start a cash for shelter program. We spoke to him and asked some questions about the situation, the project and the humanitarian needs.

ZOA is setting up an emergency relief program in Kherson, Ukraine. Can you explain why and what exactly the project entails?

We are doing a cash for shelter program. That means we go village by village, street by street in an area that has recently come back under Ukrainian control, where we focus on repairing houses that are still repairable. A lot of houses are of course completely destroyed, but there are also houses that can be made habitable again by repairing windows, doors and roofs. So what we do: we go house by house with a contractor and see exactly what the damage is and what needs to be replaced. From these visits it becomes clear what it costs to make a house habitable again. We register people in a digital system and transfer the needed amount to them. With that, the people themselves are responsible for making the request to a company to fix what is broken. We ask them to forward the bills, so we can check if it’s really spent on that. People have the responsibility over the materials, what kind of doors, what kind of windows, you name it. But they are also responsible for transporting and installing them themselves. Through the digital system we can monitor this whole process very well.

Why did ZOA make the decision to set up a project here?

Because this is an area that has recently been taken over again by Ukraine. Just a few months ago this was the front line. It is risky, though. I am regularly in the shelter here. Last week there was another bombing not so far from our place.

Looking at the current situation in the region, what do people need most?

People need shelter. It’s incredibly cold here. Last week it was -12, now around 0 degrees. Water and wind proof houses are definitely a priority. In a December assessment, 90% of 200 people indicated that shelter should be a priority.

What can humanitarian aid organizations do to help (better)?

Align! And definitely do cash. The market here in Ukraine is still (or again) functioning very well. Many organizations deliver goods from the rest of Europe but that is not necessary. Goods are available here. Cash is much more effective and efficient, and helps the local economy.

Implementing a project in Ukraine 1

What are some obstacles that you encounter?

Safety is a big obstacle. It’s crazy to be in a place where you hear explosions from time to time and having this constant idea that a missile could come down on your hotel. Those are definitely obstacles we have to deal with. If I am scared? No.

Except when it flashes through my mind that I could be hit by a missile and my three young children would grow up without a father. That is an unacceptable thought.


Is ZOA planning to work with local partners?

We are not yet working with a local partner, with emphasis on yet. This is what we are going to do. We’ve only been here a week, so we are first starting up a pilot of 20 houses. However, we are talking to a number of organizations here. Those are often focusing on collecting and distributing materials or food, while we do cash. It is sometimes a matter of finding out how we can work together.

You have talked to a number of people there, what story sticks with you?

96% of the people we talked to, say they have problems sleeping. Some were talking about a safe place to sleep but also because of mental health issues and trauma. That’s a huge number. You also notice the trauma when you talk to people.

I have talked to many and in all these conversations tears do come at one point. 


How do you see the future for the people there?

The people here are enormously resilient and dedicated to work hard for the future of their country. I really believe that nobody is able to ‘break’ these people completely. These people are determined to survive and move on. It’s going to be a tough future, but I see a lot of strength and energy in them. That’s also what makes it special to be able and allowed to work here.

Wanna read more about ZOA? Click here.

Date: 14th of November 2023
Author: Marianne Sijtsma

Photo ZOA
- Photo ZOA -

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