War refugees grapple with returning to Ukraine

War refugees grapple with returning to Ukraine
Опубликовано: Wednesday, 08 March 2023 06:36

Those who fled Russia’s war in Ukraine feel caught, living in their minds in two places at the same time.

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

WARSAW — For three weeks, Olga Moisieieva and Lena Gorduz sheltered with their families, stuck in the cellars of their apartment buildings in the Ukrainian port town of Mariupol. They could only sneak out briefly during lulls in the fighting to forage for food and water, and even the thick cellar walls couldn’t muffle the cacophony of missile barrages and artillery bombardments razing their hometown.

A year later, the memories still prompt obvious distress.

Olga, a lively 40-year-old, tears up, her body visibly tightening as she chronicles what they endured during their entombment and several failed bids to flee. “The airstrikes started again nearby, and everything was shaking. And we tried to leave the city as fast as we could, but it was really hard because everything was destroyed. And we saw dead bodies; there were people crumpled where they were killed, some covered, some not,” she said.

Olga’s son was 12 at the time, and she was also caring for a nephew of the same age, whose parents had been badly wounded in an airstrike. His mother subsequently died.

Former local television presenter Lena, a year older than her friend, appears almost mesmerized as she stares out on the Warsaw cityscape, her face draining as the memories return. During the siege, her son was 8 years old and her daughter was 17.

“The first couple of months, my son was always asking, ‘when are we going to go back?’” Lena said. But they have nothing to go back to — their apartment building was obliterated shortly after they left for Poland last March.

Both women have now started to put down roots in their new home. Lena’s daughter attends university, and her son is doing well at a Polish school. Will they ever go back to Ukraine? “It is a tough question,” admitted Olga.

“We want to go back with all our heart and soul,” added Lena. “But our children are making friends, and going back will be traumatic as well. We never wanted to live abroad; we always wanted to live in Ukraine. But the longer we are here, the harder it will be to go back.”

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian war refugees are now similarly struggling to envision the future. Should they plan to stay where they are for the sake of their kids, having found good education, friendships, jobs and opportunities? Or should they plan on returning, to pick up the threads of their unraveled past lives? For many, it remains a question that is difficult to answer.

Russia’s invasion triggered the biggest wave of refugees in Europe since World War II — over 8 million fled. While many have since returned, nearly 5 million are still estimated to be overseas. And of those overseas, around 1.6 million are in Poland, 1 million in Germany and 490,000 in the Czech Republic, which is hosting the largest number of Ukrainian refugees per capita. Another million or so are sheltering in eight other Western and Central European countries, and there are over 200,000 in the United States, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Last month, during a visit to Brussels to discuss the country’s reconstruction plans and its funding needs, Yulia Svyrydenko, a Ukrainian deputy prime minister and economy minister, said Kyiv is eager to create the conditions necessary for the return of all who fled to safety. “We need them to return to participate in the recovery efforts and reconstruction of Ukraine,” she noted.

There’s little evidence that most Poles want to withdraw the welcome mat | Omar Marques/Getty Images

While Kyiv wants them to retrace their steps as soon as possible, the longer the war persists, the sharper the dilemma will become for refugees like Olga and Lena, which, in turn, could mean serious consequences for Ukraine — a country that has suffered repeated bouts of destructive depopulation in its history of wars and man-made famine. Even before Russia’s invasion, Ukraine ranked 8th in the world as a source country of migrants.

And as with other past flights, many of those who left Ukraine over the course of the last year are among the most resourceful, and a high percentage are skilled or well-educated. “For Ukraine, if they don’t go back, this would be a brain drain,” Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Paweł Jabłoński told POLITICO. “Ukraine is already losing people in the war, so this will be a problem for Kyiv.”

Jabłoński said the Ukrainian refugees have been good for Poland, plugging gaps in the labor market. And he says there are no signs of Poles tiring of them either — mainly because they’ve integrated quickly and determinedly — so there currently isn’t any push factor to encourage them to leave.

A recent opinion survey conducted by the University of Warsaw’s faculty of Political Science and International Studies bears him out — there’s little evidence that most Poles want to withdraw the welcome mat. “One year after the start of the war in Ukraine, 80 percent of Poles view refugees from that country in a positive light. Poles also believe that Ukraine should be supported in its war with Russia, as well as helping refugees from that country. This has not changed since April 2022, when we first conducted an opinion poll on this issue,” said Robert Staniszewski, an assistant professor.

Though that might change if they remain over time, he cautioned.

Thanks to the first ever invocation of the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) by Brussels, Ukrainians in Poland, as in other EU countries, have been able to avail themselves easily of the right to residency and work. And of the 4 million who have registered under the TPD scheme, almost all are women and children, as Ukrainian men from the ages of 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving the country in case they’re needed for the draft.

Kyiv hopes that the women and kids will be more likely to return as an indirect consequence of this. And, indeed, a United Nations survey published in September found that 81 percent of Ukrainian refugees say they intend to return home to reunite their families. But few doubt that percentage could start slipping if the war prolongs.

TPD only gives Ukrainian refugees residency and work rights for three years, but even in the event of the war ending earlier, migration experts say there will likely be few EU governments willing to send them back quickly and risk the bad press of tear-jerking stories about kids being ripped out of schools, or mothers losing their jobs.

So, without significant push factors, the pace of reconstruction in Ukraine, and the speed of its transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime one, will likely be crucial in shaping the stay-or-go decision many will have to make — one of the reasons Kyiv’s eager to get on with repairing the country as soon as possible.

But in the meantime, Ukrainian refugees like Lena and Olga feel caught, as if they’re stuck living in their minds, in two places at the same time.

Even more than other refugees, those coming from Ukraine have been determined to avail themselves of all the opportunities, educational and economic, they can find in their adoptive countries. And many have adapted rapidly, starting to learn local languages and retraining so they can get working.

“I have been surprised — even my recently widowed 70-year-old mother who’s joined me is keen to learn English,” said Inna, a Ukrainian mother-of-two now living in London. A former property lawyer from Odesa, Inna herself has been attending university, retraining to be able to work in the United Kingdom. Asked about returning to Ukraine, she remains unsure and says she’s starting to think her future may be in Britain.

Of course, for many, there’s also the matter of their children. In some countries, like Germany, Ukrainian refugee children are required to attend local schools, but in Poland, that’s not the case: Just over a third of them have elected to attend Polish schools, while the others are sticking with the Ukrainian curriculum and learning remotely.

According to the Ukrainian mothers I spoke to in Poland, however, this may change. They say that if the war’s still raging by the start of the next school year, they expect to see more refugee children switching to Polish schools — making the decision to return home that much harder.

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