oDR: Feature

Homesick in Europe, Ukrainians are going home

Despite Russia still waging its brutal war, more people are now entering Ukraine than leaving it

Caleb Larson
1 June 2022, 11.21am

Friends reunite in Kyiv, after returning from Poland

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(c) SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The scale of the mass exodus from Ukraine has reached incredible heights since Russia launched a new war of aggression against the country on 24 February. According to the UN, more than 6.8 million Ukrainians have so far fled the country, a number that is still increasing.

But the movement of people is not one-directional. Though millions have left for Poland, Germany, the Baltic states and other parts of Europe, many are now choosing to return home to Ukraine, irrespective of the war that continues to rage unabated in the country’s eastern Donbas region.

Panayiotis Xenophontos, a lecturer at the University of Oxford who is volunteering at the Polish border, said that from mid-March to mid-April he and other volunteers had observed “a visible increase” in people crossing over the Polish border into Ukraine.

The aid group he co-founded, the Kharkiv and Przemyśl Project (KHARPP), had been spending 12 to 14 hours a day at the border town of Przemyśl, helping people to leave Ukraine. Xenophontos and his colleagues noticed that “as time went by, people started using the train station to go in the opposite direction”.

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KHARPP’s observations are corroborated by statistics collated by the Polish Border Guard, which records the number of Ukrainians heading west to leave the country and the number moving east back to Ukraine.

According to the Polish Border Guard, several days in April saw more Ukrainians reentering Ukraine than leaving, a trend that sharply accelerated at the beginning of May. Though millions of Ukrainians remain abroad at the time of writing, more are returning to Ukraine through Poland than leaving.

Financial woes

At first glance, Ukrainians’ decisions to return appear difficult to understand, given the savage ferocity of Vladimir Putin’s war machine – with shelling and long-range missiles continuing to regularly kill people across the country.

The likes of Irpin, Bucha and Mariupol – all made infamous by the Russian army’s summary executions, torture and multiple mass graves – are hardly places anyone would want to return to. But many towns and cities, particularly in western Ukraine, are deemed relatively safe. And life in Europe comes with its own challenges for displaced Ukrainians, with many missing friends and family and the familiarity of home.

“Inconveniences accumulate if you can’t find permanent housing”

Hanna Vakhitova, assistant professor at the Kyiv School of Economics, explained that the temporary housing situations Ukrainians have found abroad can work in the short-term, but “cannot last forever”.

“Inconveniences accumulate if you can’t find permanent housing,” she explained.

Jobs are also “a primary need”, Vakhitova said: “If you can’t find a job that will sustain you, that is a strong motivation to return.”

Anastasiia Pankova, a 27-year-old event organiser, owns and manages a ceramics studio with her fiancé in Sloviansk, in the Donetsk region. She left Ukraine on 13 March for Kaunas, Lithuania, along with her friend and both of their mothers.

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Anastasiia Pankova

Anastasiia and her friend are being hosted in the spare room of a Lithuanian family. They are deeply aware that their living situation, though imperfect, is more comfortable than other Ukrainians’, and consider their case to be “very good” in comparison.

But Anastasiia notes “one big issue”: their separation from loved ones.

As a man of military age, Anastasiia’s fiancé, Oleksiy, cannot leave the country due to Ukraine’s martial law.

He remains in his hometown of Sloviansk. For Anastasiia, the separation is an acute pain.

“I’m not at home and not next to my loved one,” she explained, adding that physical proximity is “very important morally and psychologically”. The couple has lived and worked together for the past five years – in which time, they’ve rarely been apart for more than a week.

They planned on getting married this year, but the wedding is on hold for the foreseeable future. Their relationship now is “not a relationship, it is an imitation”, she said, and one that weighs heavily on both their hearts.

Aside from intense homesickness, Anastasiia and her friend must also cope with significant financial hurdles in Lithuania, which has put their future in the country in doubt.

The pair have found jobs at a logistics company, marking and moving boxes through a warehouse. They are thankful to be employed, but the work is backbreaking. Boxes can weigh up to 20 kilogrammes, and “in a single day”, Anastasiia explained, “we can move up to two tonnes of goods.” Both women experience back pain, and their hands are scratched and cracked after work.

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23 May: Residents evacuate from Slovyansk

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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Anastasiia and her friend have a two-month grace period in which they are paid a fixed income for their work. In June, however, they will be paid by the number of boxes they sort, and anticipate an immediate income shortfall – half of their previous salary – that Lithuania’s refugee benefits won’t cover.

Amid this drop in income, the friends will have to hunt for a new apartment, as their two-month stay with their host is coming to a close. But their new salaries “are not enough for an apartment and food”, Anastasiia explained. The tight housing market in Kaunas has prompted the young women to look for a cheap apartment outside the city – further away from their jobs.

The women’s looming financial challenges, combined with their housing problem, has made them rethink their residency in Lithuania. They have decided to move home – joining the increasing number of Ukrainians who have concluded that life in Ukraine is now more manageable than life abroad.

‘It’s weird to start from scratch’

Those who left Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion may be more likely to return home than those who left later, Hanna Vakhitova suggested, as they are less likely to have witnessed the destruction of war first-hand.

Moreover, with the war now confined mainly to the east of Ukraine, people’s “danger perception is lower,” leading to mental cost-benefit accounting. And increasingly, it seems “the benefits outweigh the costs”, Vakhitova said.

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Thousands of people return every day to Ukraine via this Polish-Ukrainian border point

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(c) SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Another woman, also named Anastasia, left her home in Kyiv on the first day of the war. She shared her experience with openDemocracy on the condition her last name be withheld. A 27-year-old business analyst, Anastasia moved with her parents and younger sister to Thuringia in eastern Germany, where she had previously spent a year working for a local NGO.

With help from local friends and an aid organisation, Anastasia’s family sifted through reams of paperwork and navigated German bureaucracy, securing temporary protection status and social security benefits. Anastasia’s younger sister has autism, a factor that helped the family secure an apartment rented by the city.

“I want the life that I was living there, my environment. I still have my job in Ukraine, and I want to see my friends and work and live as normally as possible”

Both Anastasia and her father, a systems administrator, have been able to work remotely and are still employed by their Ukrainian companies. Combined with state aid, their dual income streams have afforded the family a relatively comfortable life abroad.

The family holds opposing views about the future. Her mother and sister want to start new lives in Germany, while Anastasia and her father would prefer to rebuild the lives they had before the war. “I want the life that I was living there, my environment,” Anastasia explained. “I still have my job in Ukraine, and I want to see my friends and work and live as normally as possible.”

Anastasia said it’s just as hard for her father. He lived in Ukraine his entire life, she explained, and “everything he’s worked for” is there. For him, “it feels weird to start from scratch”.

In the end, the family compromised. On Sunday, Anastasia and her father arrived in Lviv, in western Ukraine, while her mother and sister remained in Thuringia.

Anastasia hasn’t decided if she’ll go onward to Kyiv. “For now I’ll stay here. I may still go back to help my mom and sister in Germany, but I’ll see how it unfolds.”

“It’s a difficult situation,” she said. “My mother preferred to stay in Germany, and my sister feels more comfortable there. It’s challenging for her to be in Ukraine. We still don’t know how we’ll come to one solution to this.”

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