Someone could be standing at the border when they called us – and immediately get an answer.’ How the virtual Diia.Business centre helped thousands of displaced Ukrainians

May 27, 2024
Photo: Andrii Krepkykh / UNDP in Ukraine

About 6 million Ukrainians went abroad in the first months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In order to quickly and professionally help people who were forced to find shelter because of the war, the national Diia.Business project in May 2022 launched the virtual Diia.Business centre – a hotline and a chatbot for consultations. During the year the centre was in operation, specialists consulted tens of thousands of Ukrainians on legal and social issues. How did the hotline, which was set up literally in a matter of weeks of the full-scale invasion, and specialists, who advised thousands of Ukrainians, work, and how was it possible to help people who were forced to leave? Read the story of one of the employees of the centre.


Alina Ponomarenko is a consultant at the Diia.Business support centre for entrepreneurs in Poltava. She has been working there since its opening in 2021, and has been a business consultant for more than eight years. She helps people who want to start their own business, conducts initial consultations and consultations on the application of the PRO/PRRO for individual entrepreneurs (FOPs), gives lectures, and runs business games.

In May 2022, Ponomarenko also became one of the consultants in the virtual Diia.Business centre. The innovative hotline was launched with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Ukraine and the Government of Sweden as a response to unprecedented challenges – to help Ukrainians who were forced to move because of the full-scale war.

Escaping from shelling, many Ukrainians were unable to take many of their belongings or important documents. As fighting raged around them, there was no question of planning or preparing a move – they simply had to leave. However, once in a new place, sooner or later they faced more challenges – everyday life and processing documents for staying in a new country. The hotline initiative was designed to help Ukrainians who found themselves in such a situation.

The virtual centre worked as a free hotline and a chatbot where people could reach out for help. The centre advised people on legal and social issues, such as how to formalize your legal status abroad, enrol your child in a kindergarten or school, how and where to find a job or language course, and how to establish or relocate your business, and then return it to Ukraine.

People contacted us to find out about their rights and where they should go in a foreign country,” Ponomarenko recalls.

At first, consultations were provided to Ukrainians in the seven European countries where the largest number of displaced Ukrainians ended up – Bulgaria, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. But from December 2022, after many Ukrainians had already returned home, the centre also began counselling on legal and social issues internally displaced persons and the owners of displaced businesses within the country.

In the first few months, 18 consultants worked for the centre. One specialist had to process an average of 50-60 phone calls per day, while 8-10 people would contact the centre through the chatbot, Ponomarenko recalls. In total, over a period of a year before closing in June 2023, the virtual centre helped more than 21,000 Ukrainian citizens – more than 10,000 consultations were through the hotline, and almost 11,000 through the chatbot. Some 93% of user reviews were positive.

People turned to the centre for help when they didn't know who to turn to to solve urgent organisational issues, says Ponomarenko. “Help was needed immediately, because in fact someone could even be standing at the border, not knowing their rights or what documents would be necessary to have, call us – and receive an answer immediately.”

Most of those appealing to the centre for help were women with children, from various regions, although mainly from those where hostilities were taking place. The number of requests also increased significantly as soon as the number of attacks increased, Ponomarenko says.

A lot of advice was also given regarding animals: At the start of the full-scale invasion, border checks were not as thorough. But later, at their new locations, pet owners were faced with the requirement to provide vaccination documents. The hotline specialists collected all the necessary information from embassies and other responsible bodies, and quickly passed it on to pet owners.

This was not just a classic hotline, where people could get advice and be given the necessary contacts: The centre’s consultants provided full support to people facing difficult questions, and created for them a “road map” with a plan of further steps, as well as recommendations – they sought to give people as much information as possible about how to act in this or that situation.

“There were even situations when people didn't know what the emergency phone number was in case something happened. They called us and asked for the phone number of the police or the medical clinic.” – Alina Ponomarenko

The stories of those people who were still in the territories where hostilities were taking place affected her the most, Ponomarenko says. There were also people who wrote to the chatbot while in the occupied territory. “These stories were very touching, because you understood that the person was physically in danger,” Ponomarenko says.

What case was the most notable? “I remember one old man, he was leaving with his grandchildren from a territory where hostilities were taking place,” Ponomarenko recalls. “We were talking with him even when he was at the stage of departure near the border. A few weeks later, he called again and was already asking how to get (his grandchildren) into kindergarten and school,” says Ponomarenko. “I remembered (him), so we were glad to hear from each other. I knew that everything was OK, that he had settled in.”

After half a year, Ponomarenko resumed her main activity as a consultant at the Diia.Business centre for the entrepreneurs support in Poltava, once it had returned to offline mode in full. But she remembers her work at the virtual centre, and values the experience: “It was interesting, active work, where I constantly communicated and supported citizens,” Ponomarenko says. “Consulting, I felt my usefulness in a very difficult time for my country, because I saw its immediate results, as all issues were solved immediately.”

The virtual centre project was initiated by the team of the national Diia.Business centre, which is implemented by the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine and the Entrepreneurship and Export Promotion Office. The innovative hotline was implemented by the Small and Medium Business Support Consulting Centre, an NGO, with the assistance of the DIA Support project that the UNDP in Ukraine is implementing with financial support from Sweden.