LVIV, Ukraine — Olia Kareva is 46. She spent five years in jail
for a crime she did not commit.
Kareva worked as the accountant at an enterprise in Lviv, and the
court found her co-responsible for the financial fraud of the director. When
she was "at those places" — Kareva did not use the word
"prison" — she lost her apartment. Afterward, she could not find a
job due to her criminal record and health problems, and she found herself on
the verge of homelessness.
Kareva found a home in Walnut House, a center for women in crisis
in Lviv. "Crisis" is a euphemism that the center's founder, Yuriy
Lopatynsky, uses to describe the situation of utter despair that brings people
to the street. Childhood in orphanages, dysfunctional families, domestic
violence, drugs and alcohol, property swindles — every woman has her own
Since 2010, when the center opened, more than 80 women have been
through its program, although the facility could house up to only 12 women
simultaneously. It was the only program in a city with almost 830,000 inhabitants
and close to 3,000 homeless people, 30 percent of whom are women.
"Women normally do everything to stay at home, even if they
suffer the violence. But there are situations when a woman has to leave and
doesn't have a place to go," said Lopatynsky. Observers say city
authorities tend not to notice the issue or try solving it with some weak
"We, who have problems, are not welcomed in the city. Nobody
wants to notice us," said Kareva.
Kareva is a success story. She was able to get back to her
profession and works as an accountant at Walnut House Bakery.
"I wanted to show my gratitude. I did not have money, but I
could pay with my work. And I'm not feeling useless anymore," Kareva told
Catholic News Service.
Lopatynsky decided to open the bakery to support the house and
program financially and to offer jobs for women who lived in the center. In
addition, cookies and the baking process are strong symbols of warmth and
comfort that can give women a sense of a home.
"At first we didn't associate directly the bakery name and
the house for women. But later somebody noticed a powerful symbolism — a house
protects women as a shell protects the walnut," Lopatynsky said.
Lopatynsky studied in the seminary and this year completed an MBA
program at the Lviv Business School of the Ukrainian Catholic University. He
said he tries to apply effective business models to solve social issues.
The bakery produces 1.5 tons of pastry monthly, sells products to
different restaurant chains and provides conference catering. Recently, it
opened a small canteen.
Another woman who lived in the center, identified only as Lesia,
washes dishes in the bakery. She is a widow with two children who do not live
with her. She lost her home after the deaths of her husband and mother and
problems with alcohol. She avoids talking about this, but she gladly shares how
the integration program changed her.
"They helped me to understand that life is going on and I
need to struggle. And I overcame it," she said with a smile.
Khrystyna Bahriy, a social worker at the women's center, said
with every woman who came to the center, staffers met with them to plan
reintegration, and it was the job of each woman to make this plan work.
Lopatynsky said their idea was not to build the community but to
offer opportunities for women to become more independent.
"Homelessness is characterized with a loss of all social
relations, needs and skills. We tried to motivate women to be more independent,
to strive for more. We tried to help them to leave our house as soon as
possible. Women need to have their own home, be the owners of their
In some cases, such as with elderly women who cannot live on
their own, Walnut House workers engaged with partners to find solutions. They
say the state system is weak and inefficient, so they try to build the
alternative system. Walnut House charitable fund staffers hope to establish a
geriatric center and a house for women with children.
"We need to develop business projects to support our social
activities," said Halyna Onyshko, director of the charitable fund.
In October, Walnut House faced a serious challenge to its
existence. For six years, the center operated in a rented house, and the owners
decided to sell it. Although for two years city authorities had promised to
donate municipal facilities, the women lost their home.
"This crisis became the impetus for many courageous steps
women took. They found temporary housing. And we help them with a rent
payment," said Lopatynsky.
He and his team did everything possible to get a new house. For
two months, the organization dialogued intensively with members of the city
council, media and civic activists to explain how important the center and its
activities are for the city. Their campaign again drew attention to the problem
of homeless people.
On Dec. 1, the Lviv City Council voted to lease a municipal
building for a new home for women. Now, Walnut House is preparing to raise
funds to renovate the building and hopes to relaunch the center program next