When she was ten years old, Tetiana Baransova fell and broke her spine while performing gymnastics at school. But this did not deter her from becoming an icon for those and a powerful advocate for others with disabilities in her native Ukraine. And this determination has now brought Tetiana Baransova the prestigious UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award for Europe region.
The award is given for outstanding service to the cause of refugees, displaced or stateless people. Tetiana, 46, set up Ami-Skhid, a non-governmental organization to help young Ukranians, women and families overcome disabilities through advocacy, services and counselling in 2002. She was quoted by UNHCR website as saying that her mission was to help others.
Tetiana’s leadership and natural authority came to the fore in 2014 when conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine. When she saw people with disabilities in her home city of Luhansk and the region in distress, she stepped in. She had to flee from Luhansk with her son Pavlo, who was then eight years old, and her husband, Oleksiy Soroka, who also uses a wheelchair.
Once in safe place, she set about organizing evacuation for many others. She created a hotline and was personally answering phone calls from people with disabilities stuck in the conflict zone. This hotline helped some 5,000 people with relocation, cash assistance, as well as legal and psychological support.
She also set up an online school for the internally displaced children, especially those with disabilities. The school functioned through Skype for two years starting in 2014 and taught around 1,000 children. Many teachers donated their time for free and Tetiana, who has degrees in sociology and art and is doing further postgraduate research, taught drawing.
He activities did not remain within her NGO. While teaching at a university in Luhansk, she persuaded the university to make the campus wheelchair accessible. In her capacity as government commissioner for the rights of people with disabilities, she argued that rescue workers needed special training to help people with disabilities in the event of natural disasters.
The UNHCR quoted her saying that she did not work for honours or recognition but hoped the Nansen Refugee Award would provide “more opportunities to be heard” in her life’s work of advocating on behalf of people who have disabilities. “We should do everything to make this life better, because life is very difficult as it is,” she said.
Tetiana will receive the award at a virtual ceremony on October 5.