Petr Štefan: Ukrainians primarily help each other. And they are excellent at it.

Vinohrady – one of the most well-known districts in Prague. It hides a lot. Here you can also find the headquarters of the well-known non-profit organization People in Need. From an unassuming light-gray corner building on Šafaříkova Street, its employees, especially colleagues on international missions, help millions of people around the world. One of the workers is Petr Štefan, the Media Coordinator of the Humanitarian and Development Section of the most famous Czech non-profit organization. He picks us up at the reception. Together, we take the elevator to his office on the top floor – to talk about his profession, but above all, about Ukraine.

You studied journalism and political science. Have you ever worked in the media?

I started working in newspapers while still in school. I gained my first experiences at Mladá fronta, then at Metropolitní expres and Metro. I concluded my journalistic career in the foreign department of iDNES, which I later also led. In 2011, I applied for the position of Media Coordinator for the Humanitarian and Development Section at People in Need. Sixty people were competing for that position, and in the end, I got it. I started in early 2012 and have been working there ever since.

Are you still drawn to the work of a journalist? 

To some extent, yes. But I can’t imagine working under an owner with whom I couldn’t resonate both in terms of ideology and values. However, working at People in Need is closely related to journalism; we regularly communicate with the media. My profession fulfills me, and I enjoy it. I perceive one significant advantage here – if you come up with a meaningful project, no one throws obstacles in your way, and you can fully dedicate yourself to your idea.

Have you come up with any projects of your own?

The majority of the funds used by People in Need do not come from Czech donors. Many finances come from the European Union, UN agencies, or, for example, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, or Switzerland. Around 2015, I came up with the idea that we need to provide more systematic feedback to taxpayers in these countries on how we use their funds. To show them, for example, the stories of specific individuals who have been supported by the money and services we provide. In order to be able to testify from the field, I started building communication teams with others on our missions and also developing communication in the countries where we work.

What did such a process look like? 

I used to go on missions and sought local people who could assist us with communication. This approach to work is effective and has many advantages. A local colleague understands the dynamics of the country, language, traditions, culture, and, most importantly, knows how to ask the right questions. Currently, we have over 30 people working on communication in our missions, and we support them from Prague. They are the ones doing the most important work, often in very challenging conditions. In all countries, we have a Facebook page or a website in the local language. Simultaneously, all materials appear on our Czech and English communication channels.

The Czech communication team of the development and humanitarian section consists of 10 employees, each responsible for specific regions. Petr Štefan oversees Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Yemen. What does this mean in practice? Everything you see on social media or the website of People in Need from these countries has, in some way, passed through his hands. He usually ensures that materials created by local colleagues make their way to English and Czech communication channels, and to a lesser extent, he also creates content himself.

How many missions have you personally participated in?

I have been on short work trips to Angola, Zambia, Congo, Ethiopia, and Mali. Regarding the Middle East, I have been on our missions in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. Of course, I have been to Ukraine and the Balkans, including Kosovo and Serbia. I have also visited our missions in Georgia and Armenia. From Asian missions, I have traveled to Afghanistan, Nepal, Cambodia, the Philippines, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Many of them I have visited repeatedly.

People in Need operates in, among other things, war zones. These are certainly not vacation destinations. 

Yes, but that’s the reality of today’s world. People in Need works in the largest humanitarian crises on the planet. I have experienced several challenging situations. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, I, for example, experienced bombings—quite up close. However, we have a well-developed safety protocol; we carefully consider every detail, and we analyze information from multiple sources. The safety of our teams is an absolute priority. We never send our people into explicitly dangerous areas where their lives would be at risk. I have absolute trust in People in Need in this regard.

Where have you felt most comfortable?

I’ve received that question a few times, so I’ve created my own ranking. The most important factor for me is the people in a given country. I really like Afghanistan. Mongolia and Congo are also high on my list. But then I have a separate category, and that is Ukraine. There, I immediately understand almost everything the locals say to me. Every babushka could be my grandmother, every mother my sister. Ukraine is very close to me; I almost feel like I’m in the Czech Republic.

Can you recall the moment when you learned about the Russian invasion?

It’s unforgettable. It was Thursday, February 24, 2022, around 4 in the morning when I started receiving the first notifications. Even though I expected a Russian invasion, I was still in shock. The morning was dreadful. I was thinking about our colleagues in Ukraine. People in Need had to act immediately. We began addressing the evacuation of our colleagues to safer areas. Eventually, we moved the office from Kyiv to Lviv. We communicated everything externally, initiated fundraising efforts, but most importantly, we were focused on the safety of our people and figuring out how to help effectively. The first days seemed endless, and we didn’t get much sleep. Over the weekend, it was decided that the first team would go to Ukraine – myself and my colleague. I didn’t hesitate for a moment. On Sunday, we got in the car, and by Monday, we were in Lviv.

“Ukrainians primarily help each other. People in Need is in the country to support locals where they cannot manage on their own.”

People in Need has been operating in Ukraine since 2014. How has its role evolved?

Before the Russian invasion, we were in eastern Ukraine, mainly near the frontlines. Throughout that time, we provided basic assistance, such as water deliveries, and focused on activities like reconstructing homes and schools or revitalizing small businesses. We provided financial and psychological support to people who didn’t want to leave the area or were starting their lives anew as internal displaced people in a new location. It was frustrating when attention began to wane – that’s how it is with every war; after some time, you no longer read about it in the news. However, the conflict didn’t end, and we had to focus on awareness and innovative approaches to keep people informed about the situation.

What ideas did you come up with? 

For people living in villages near the frontlines, for example, we distributed phones and provided training on how to use them. We asked them to record what they saw around them. Our team handled post-production, and a short ten-episode series with unique testimonies, “This is Us, This is Ukraine,” was created. We also collaborate with Czech influencers. We invite them to the location so they can see everything firsthand and share their experience with their audience. We don’t pay for such collaborations; we only provide logistics. Shopaholic Nicol was with us in Ukraine, and after the invasion, Janek Rubeš joined us.

How did the People in Need team expand in Ukraine after the invasion? 

Just before the Russian invasion, we had a team of about a hundred people in Ukraine, with the majority being local colleagues. Today, we have over 340 people in Ukraine. While we used to operate mainly in the east, we are now present in almost all regions. Our assistance has thus expanded geographically. Simultaneously, the volume of aid has significantly increased—the financial resources we work with are orders of magnitude higher. Programmatically, our assistance has also broadened.

What are you currently doing in Ukraine?

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, we have supported over one and a half million people in Ukraine. Key to our efforts are the reconstruction of homes and apartments. We aim to ensure that the most vulnerable have at least one place where they can retain warmth and withstand the winter—temperatures in Ukraine can easily drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius. We repair windows, doors, and roofs. Without these essentials, living is impossible, especially during winter. People either manage the repairs themselves, and we provide financial support, or our engineers arrange the entire restoration—in collaboration with a Ukrainian construction company, of course. We purchase all the necessary materials in Ukraine to aid the economy. In addition to homes, we also renovate schools or collective centers—unused administrative buildings or schools serving refugees from other parts of Ukraine. These often-overlooked places house about 3.7 million internally displaced persons, as attention tends to focus on those who have left Ukraine.

11,700 repaired homes

80 renovated collective centers

20 repaired schools

Another category of assistance is education. 

If a school is to remain open, it must have an underground shelter – we also renovate these. When sirens sound, children move to the shelter and continue their studies. These shelters are usually basements where unused items were stored, later converted into makeshift classrooms. We also take care of extracurricular activities—children gather in clubs where they can draw, improve their IT skills, or simply talk to each other.

SOS Ukraine – the largest fundraising campaign in People in Need’s entire history.

“Last year, we raised 2 billion Czech crowns from Czech donors. This number proves that Czechs are supportive. For us, it’s a significant responsibility. People entrusted us, and we cannot let them down. And this year? Since the beginning of the year, people have contributed 100 million Czech crowns. Solidarity is still present, but, of course, not as strong as at the beginning.”

You can help Ukraine through the financial collection of People in Need—either regularly or with a one-time contribution of your chosen amount.

What does assistance look like near the frontline? 

Close to the frontline, basic services often don’t function. Locals need fundamental items, such as hygiene packages or, before winter, wooden briquettes. Further away from the front, regular shops operate—there, we provide financial support to the most vulnerable. We don’t want to decide for them whether they should buy lenses or meat. Let them decide what they need most, and at the same time, support local traders and the regional economy. Needs vary; a senior may require medication, while a family with children might need school supplies. We have financially supported 126,000 people.

And what about psychosocial support? 

It is estimated that every fourth person in Ukraine is at risk of a mental disorder—completely understandable. Shelling, sirens, danger, separated families or friends, forced displacement—all these factors impact people. Up to 70% of people in Ukraine already have someone in their family who was killed or injured in the war. Psychologists work in our children’s leisure clubs. We educate teachers on how to work with traumatized children. We operate a nationwide psychosocial support line and have mobile teams of psychologists offering individual or group sessions. The demand is enormous across all age groups. Our psychologists say that people with mental health issues will continue to struggle for years after the war.

Nearly 18 million people—almost every second Ukrainian—require some form of humanitarian assistance.

What does collaboration with local authorities look like? 

We don’t do anything without local authorities knowing us. This is the only way assistance can be effective. They are closest to the problem and know what needs to be done. We obtain most of our information directly from the authorities. They tell us who is the most vulnerable, we verify it, and then we immediately provide assistance. We listen to what they say and respond to the locals’ suggestions. We address issues they can’t handle on their own. But again—Ukrainians primarily help themselves and are excellent at it. We also collaborate with local non-governmental organizations. Ukraine has many volunteers—sometimes they lack the necessary knowledge, capacity, and equipment. So, we provide them not only with direct assistance but also with various training sessions and equipment such as vests and other protective gear. In total, we have 200 partner organizations in Ukraine.

You also collaborate with other global organizations.

We must coordinate activities with all stakeholders—and there are many. We collaborate at the level of various working groups and clusters. We harmonize procedures to ensure that five trucks from different organizations don’t arrive in the same area, all providing the same assistance. We define areas and forms of aid. At the same time, we standardize how the assistance will look—so that a hygiene package from People in Need corresponds to a package from another NGO.

“People are starting to return to their homes, even though it is not yet entirely safe. However, nowhere in Ukraine is entirely safe. That is the reality of war.”

You also help Ukrainians in the Czech Republic. 

For the most vulnerable who find it difficult to help themselves, we provide social and legal counseling, psychological assistance, tutoring for Ukrainian children, assistance with career choices, and conduct workshops. Just like in Ukraine, we also have a helpline here. We offer online courses to educators on how to work with Ukrainian children. We support partner organizations offering different services than ours—providing them with grants from the SOS Ukraine collection. We also assist vulnerable individuals in emergency housing. Workplace exploitation has become a significant issue, and we strive to limit it.

In just the year 2023, People in Need assisted 23,436 Ukrainians in the Czech Republic. Collaborating organizations helped an additional 85,000.

What are the next steps for People in Need in Ukraine?

We don’t want to limit ourselves to humanitarian aid. We would like to support up to 500 small and medium-sized businesses. We also aim to start providing social housing. We will continue to empower locals to better assist their own country. We will commemorate the second anniversary of the invasion. On the first anniversary, we organized a video mapping at the Ministry of the Interior to help people understand the realities of war. They could experience virtual reality, visit an exhibition, or watch one of our documentaries. We systematically bring testimonies of the war to other countries. Since the beginning of the invasion, we have organized exhibitions and events about Ukraine in Berlin, Brussels, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bratislava, or Milan. And we will definitely continue.

Petr Štefan

Media Coordinator, People in Need

Petr graduated from Charles University in Prague, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in political science. During his studies, he worked as a journalist, culminating his journalistic career as the head of the foreign desk at iDNES, an online news portal. In 2012, he joined the non-profit organization People in Need as the Media Coordinator for the Humanitarian and Development Section. Throughout his career, Petr has participated in numerous missions with People in Need. Afghanistan and Ukraine have captivated him the most, and he feels at home in these places. Since the beginning of the invasion, he has visited Ukraine five times – before that he was exploring the eastern part of the country and vacationing there three times.


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