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Legal aid and psychological support: new horizons for STEP in its work with IDPs and communities

Publication date: March 18, 2024

The NGO “Strategies and Technologies for Effective Partnerships” (hereinafter referred to as “STEP”) has been actively working with communities in Zaporizhzhia and neighboring regions, local governments, youth and vulnerable groups for 15 years.

During this time, the organization has evolved from a city youth initiative to a reliable development partner for communities, becoming one of the providers of free legal aid and legal education in Zaporizhzhia oblast.

Since February 2023, the organization’s initiatives have been supported by the Legal Development Network (LDN) as part of a program to strengthen the capacity of local organizations to respond to the challenges of war.

Oleksii Agentaiev, chairman of the board of the Zaporizhzhia-based NGO STEP. Photo from the personal archive

Adapting to new challenges: helping IDPs

Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine has significantly changed the organization’s plans and focus. Thanks to its flexibility, focus on results, and cooperation with partners, STEP makes a significant contribution to supporting communities and people in need. Currently, 13 permanent team members are involved in various projects. 

“In the first month of the full-scale invasion, we all felt confused, but we did not stop and continued to implement our plans. Together with donors, we reviewed our activities and adapted them to the new conditions,” says Oleksiy Agentaiev, chairman of the board of STEP. “If earlier our projects were aimed at training components and involving residents in governance, now we support communities. It turned out that the leadership of the communities relocated to Zaporizhzhia did not have computers or desks to work with, and we helped them by purchasing some of the necessary equipment. Another project was reoriented to support volunteer initiatives that started in Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv region. This included equipment for offices and the creation of a warehouse. Approximately 20% of our activities were aimed at humanitarian aid. Together with communities, we wrote projects and purchased food packages for IDPs in Zaporizhzhia. Later, we returned to our normal activities.”

Since the beginning of June 2022, the organization has been able to provide primary legal aid. Lawyers were engaged to conduct group consultations and develop information materials that were actively distributed in humanitarian aid centers.

The organization’s work was focused on providing legal aid to IDPs, particularly those living in Zaporizhzhia. Due to the large number of IDPs, the team members started to visit neighboring communities, such as Shyrokiv, Mykhailivka and Solonyanka communities in Dnipro oblast. The organization’s eight lawyers are working in various locations, including places where IDPs are compactly residing, such as dormitories or assistance centers.

Charitable support from partners allowed the organization to provide primary legal aid to more than 2000 internally displaced persons.

Since the first days of the full-scale war, the STEP team has been providing legal assistance to IDPs in Zaporizhzhia. Photo from the organization’s archive

In 2023, the legal direction, which began to develop in 2019, was able to be distinguished as an independent one. In the last six months of 2023, the organization provided assistance to more than 700 people in various fields.

The consultations cover a variety of topics: compensation for damaged or destroyed property, inheritance issues, opportunities to receive compensation for movable property, border crossing procedures, and changes in IDP registration. Questions about organizations that provide financial assistance to IDPs remain relevant. People continue to look for opportunities to receive payments for medical treatment and housing, employment opportunities, etc.

One example of assistance is an IDP’s request to digitize his or her work record book. The possible loss of this document could become an obstacle to confirmation of the medical work experience. Anton Stasik, a lawyer of the NGO STEP, not only provided a consultation, but also personally contacted the responsible persons of the medical institution. In addition, he helped the man create an electronic account at the Pension Fund and obtain an electronic digital signature at the bank. As a result, the work record book was digitized through the Pension Fund’s electronic cabinet.
“In terms of initial consultations, there is a tendency for people to seek advice from us more often on the recommendation of their friends,” says Oleksiy Agentaev, “During consultations, we focus on effective strategies for resolving legal issues so that they understand the current legislation, know how to use it and can share their knowledge with friends and acquaintances. This approach will contribute to raising legal awareness.”

In Zaporizhzhia, the organization is implementing a project on access to quality primary legal aid for IDPs in the Vasylivka and Yakymivka communities. Lawyers assigned to the community are involved in consultations and training. Three trainings were held for each community. Participants received information on how to apply for legal support and use available resources. Photo from the organization’s archive

At the end of 2023, more than 30 group legal consultations were held on the algorithm of actions to obtain compensation for destroyed or damaged property, on establishing the facts of birth and death in the territory temporarily not controlled by the government of Ukraine, and on the procedure for restoring lost documents.

Expanding the scope of activities: psychological support

The program strengthens the capacity of local organizations to respond to the challenges of war. STEP expanded its legal activities and then added psychological support through trainings, meetings and discussions.

“The IDPs face numerous challenges in their new location, including communication with relatives and friends who remained in the occupied territories. This situation will be relevant for a long time, so it is important to continue to provide support in this area,” says Oleksiy Agentaev,The Institute for Regional Coordination allows us to ensure stability in the work of specialists. The organization is working on projects that are being completed and is constantly looking for opportunities to support its activities.

There are currently a large number of local governments of displaced communities in Zaporizhzhia whose employees need psychological and humanitarian support. Working meetings with representatives of relocated communities, institutions and organizations to discuss urgent issues and plan next steps became an important part of the activities.

The STEP team held meetings for internally displaced persons and community representatives to discuss the impact of military operations on the mental health of children, adolescents and adults. And during the events for teenagers at boarding school No. 7 in Zaporizhzhia, they provided practical advice on how to manage emotions and help themselves and others in case of stress in crisis situations.

Oleksiy Agyentayev has prepared tips that will help stabilize a person in stressful, traumatic or crisis situations and significantly reduce the level of psychological trauma. Memo-instruction for psychologists and volunteers published on the LDN website

Several psychological support events were also held for POWs and representatives of relocated medical service organizations.

Future strategy: priorities and goals

“We have just completed a large project involving many communities, and it has shown that we are able to work effectively with them and really love doing it. Developing this area is our superpower. We plan to continue to focus on developing initiatives, supporting community activity, and involving residents in decision-making. In the legal area, we plan to expand our coverage of communities in Zaporizhzhia and partially in Dnipropetrovsk oblast,” says Oleksiy Agentaev.

In December, the STEP team finalized a new strategy that outlines goals and priorities for the coming years. They include strengthening the capacity of local organizations and supporting the processes of strategic development and early recovery in communities. Particular attention is paid to strengthening the legal capacity of local communities and their residents. The legal direction was singled out as one of the strategic directions of the organization’s development.

The material was created with the support of the international charitable platform GlobalGiving, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of the public union “Legal Development Network”.

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