Russia’s War in Ukraine and Beyond

Chapter 10: The Humanitarian Crisis: Refugees and IDPs

Ian Cullen, Mackensie Park, and Mustafa Bugti

The 24th of February, 2022, marked an atrocious day for Ukrainians. In a major escalation of the Russo-Ukraine conflict, Russia’s invasion caused the largest refugee crisis that the world has seen since World War II. Just within the first week of the war, there were at least a million Ukrainian refugees. As of November 18th, 2022, one-third of the entire population of Ukraine has been displaced, including 7.8 million refugees from Ukraine spread across and beyond Europe, with another 6.5 million in Ukraine as internally displaced persons (IDPs).

A refugee is defined as a displaced person who has crossed national borders to escape persecution in their home country. While internally displaced persons are not technically refugees, as they are people who are forced to leave their homes and remain in their home country. As such, they go through many similar experiences as refugees. In the first part of this chapter, we review the unfolding situation with Ukrainian refugees to paint a picture of their experiences on a macro level through statistics. Statistics are helpful for gaining a bigger picture of the situation in and beyond Ukraine. On a broad scale, statistics identify who is going where, and why they are going. However, statistics are not a substitute for individual experiences. A great deal is left out by just looking at statistics, as experiences differ based on a person’s socioeconomic status, demographics, age, sex, and many other factors. These specific experiences will be covered in the next section of this chapter.

As the war progresses, the statistics relating to migration are often shifting. As such, the numbers used here will quickly become outdated in the near future. Factors like bombings and attacks can suddenly force citizens to flee, changing their lives forever. General trends remain consistent, however, such as the majority of refugees being single women with children or elderly people. According to the United Nations, 87 percent of Ukrainian refugees are women and children, and at least one-third of families have a member with at least one disability. There is also a large number of refugees under 18 who are not accompanied by an adult. The gender imbalance is explained by the fact that adult men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not permitted to leave Ukraine by law. The difficulty that these demographic groups face in terms of escaping to seek refuge, finding a place to stay, and sustaining themselves is something that cannot be fully represented by numbers alone; we elaborate on these points in the next section.

Fortunately, the favorable reception of Ukrainian refugees has helped millions of people find shelter and safety, either in bordering countries or within Ukraine. In March 2022, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union invoked the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time since its establishment in 2001, granting Ukrainian refugees the right to stay, work, and study in any EU member state for up to one year. This directive may be extended until March 2024, should the need for extended refugee protections continue. Nearly five million refugees from Ukraine have registered for temporary protection in 34 countries across Europe. Humanitarian organizations have played an important role in aiding refugees. Volunteers at refugee centers were especially quick to respond when the war broke out, as it took the UN and other multilateral organizations several months to develop a strategy to intervene in Ukraine.

The overwhelmingly positive response to Ukrainian refugees can be attributed to surrounding European nations. Laws that aid refugees and help them resettle have been passed by countries such as Germany and Poland. Visas have been granted so that refugees can work and stay in the country for some time. With directives that bring much aid to Ukrainian refugees, the response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis is objectively positive. Poland has one of the highest Ukrainian refugee populations; refugees fleeing to Poland have caused the population of Poland to reach 40 million inhabitants for the first time. As of November 29, 2022, there are some 1.5 to 2 million Ukrainian refugees in Poland, where they are entitled to health, social, and family benefits.

While reception has been largely positive, a large-scale migration event like this causes many concerns. Tensions can build up between the Polish and Ukrainian communities. The Union of Polish Metropolises identifies these risks as including a sense of injustice on the part of some Poles due to the large-scale financial support being offered to Ukrainians; debates over past historical wrongs in Polish-Ukrainian history committed on both sides; competition with Ukrainians in the Polish labor market; increased housing prices driven by greater demand; increased pressures in the Polish education system; and a surge in xenophobic attitudes. These are just some of the factors that leave the future of Ukrainian culture and its standing in the world at risk, which we discuss at greater length in Section III.

With the war being an ongoing event, how data is collected about the millions of refugees on the move is ever-changing. There are different data collection methods that identify different trends. Countries are able to keep track of how many refugees cross their borders through registration, but this number does not indicate how many refugees are staying in a particular location. Additionally, there can be multiple border crossings for an individual refugee as they leave their home and go back. Not every refugee registers. Geotrapping is another method that has found use in identifying where Ukrainian refugees are staying. The Union of Polish Metropolises has used this method to identify refugees in Poland.

In essence, refugees can be identified based on their smartphone information. A smartphone is an essential tool, and it likely travels with most refugees along their journey, identifying their day and nighttime locations. Smartphones of Ukrainian refugees and regular citizens can be differentiated by language: a Ukrainian refugee, for instance, would have their language set to Ukrainian or Russian, while a Polish citizen would likely have it set to Polish. While this method excludes children (who often do not own smartphones), a complex formula can be used to estimate the number of children based on this data. Of course, this data is not perfect, but it gives a good general idea of where people are and how they move around, including where the majority spends the night-time hours (usually on the edges of town or in the suburbs) versus the day (often in urban centers where they work).

The number of IDPs within Ukraine has increased from 6.2 million at the end of September to 6.5 million today. As of September 23, 2022, a survey conducted by the United Nations showed that the majority of Ukrainian refugees, 81 percent, intend to return home to Ukraine; however, only 13 percent plan to do so in the next three months. The main reason for this response is safety concerns in Ukraine. Refugees mention that their home country of Ukraine has positive factors that make them want to return, including connections to friends and family, education, medical services, stability, and their financial situation.

In fact, most adult Ukrainian refugees are highly educated: 70 percent have higher education qualifications. They want to find work as well, as another two-thirds were previously working in Ukraine. Work is very limited at this stage, and the availability of work throughout the war period to date can be divided into three distinct waves: 1) those who fled from the crisis early on (in March or April), many of whom found jobs, often the job they were working before the war; 2) those who left during the summer, many of whom are currently working in jobs that they did not necessarily want; 3) and those who have left more recently. Now, there is a severe lack of jobs, as most have been taken by those from the first and second waves. This situation is unfortunate, as the majority of refugees surveyed are willing to reenter the labor market. That said, less than one-third of refugees are currently employed or self-employed.

Russia has been suspected of engaging in forced deportations of Ukrainian refugees to Russia. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugees from Ukraine recorded in Russia is 2,852,395, the largest number of any country. Over half of those refugees were reportedly forced to go to Russia after passing through so-called “filtration camps.” Additionally, Russia continues to make life for refugees and Ukrainian citizens harder than it already is. On November 17 and 23, 2022, missile attacks targeted critical infrastructure that has left millions without electricity, heating, and water. In Kyiv, an estimated population of 3 million is left without access to clean water. The decreasing availability of jobs and housing has caused a tremendous amount of suffering for refugees, and it is likely to get worse in the near future. With uncertain access to electricity and water, Ukraine is currently dealing with a harsh winter.

The Ukrainian refugee crisis has been met with a significantly different response from previous refugee crises in Europe, distinct enough to point out. The Syrian refugee crisis resulted in 1.3 million Syrian refugees crossing into Europe to seek asylum, not without discrimination, prejudice, and heavy anti-immigration sentiments.


Individuals among Millions

On December 13th, 2022, the UNHCR reported 13,461,991 border crossings from Ukraine and 8,495,845 border crossings into Ukraine; yet 2,380,364 refugees were documented in the recorded countries. As these statistics indicate, the numbers are not only constantly changing, but also represent a small portion of the greater picture.

The refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine have faced a variety of different obstacles relating to their own personal identities and how they intersect with the war in Ukraine. Understanding the complex needs of Ukrainian refugees requires an understanding of these intersections between one’s social identities and their proximity to the conflict. Class, gender, and age are only a few examples of the social identities that can shape a refugee’s experience and the adversity they face. An example of these social identities and their influence on a refugee’s identity can be observed in relation to social class. In February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, safety outside of the country was accessible to members of the upper classes first. Whereas a lower class family might not be able to afford the expense of a large move, for an upper class family, uprooting one’s life and moving to another country could be supported by their personal finances.

In intersection with these social identities are new identities derived from how the war is affecting them. In the Ukrainian refugee crisis, such factors as when one left the country, where one fled from, and where one fled to all form new identities individual to the experiences and challenges of the person facing them. For instance, refugees who left Ukraine in March of 2022 commonly found jobs in line with their professional training or previous career path, whereas those who left in summer 2022 commonly found work outside of their area of expertise, and those leaving in November of 2022 are confronting the prospect of having no work entirely. With no opportunity to work, refugees leaving in November 2022 face different challenges and have different needs than those who fled in summer. In addition to the absence of work, a lack of safe shelter is another danger that factors into individual challenges facing more recent refugees. While refugee shelters in the spring and summer were a form of temporary support acting as a halfway house to more permanent living situations and employment, the cold fall and winter months make them uninhabitable for refugees leaving in November. The intersection between the absence of work and underfunded refugee shelters, a large number of which have since closed, means that many November refugees will need to return to conflict zones in Ukraine.

That said, an absence of opportunities and basic necessities in surrounding European countries are not the only reasons for refugee migration back to Ukraine. Homesickness, family, and national pride are often influential factors that prompt people to travel back to Ukraine despite the continued violence. Refugees living in Ukraine, referred to as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), numbered as many as eight million in May 2022, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Many Ukrainian IDPs are now facing winter with no electricity, heat, or running water. In addition, stipends paid to IDPs by the Ukrainian government are now only given to people from places of active military conflict, regardless of the conditions of one’s home. This means that refugees whose residencies have been destroyed in the war but are no longer under active Russian military occupation will not receive stipends despite their need for aid.

The IDP crisis in Ukraine is at least equal if not greater in severity to that of the refugee crisis in surrounding countries. Establishing comprehensive aid that understands the differences and intersections of a refugee’s identity cannot be obtained through statistics. While the demand for practical support, including jobs, welfare, housing, safety, and education are universal in Ukrainian refugee communities, their personal experiences and challenges are crucial to understanding their needs beyond these essentials.

To examine some of the different perspectives within the Ukrainian refugee community, we turn to the documentary Voices of Ukraine directed by Jenny Barruol (posted to YouTube on October 23, 2022); an essay written by Susanna Nazarova documenting her time as a volunteer in a Ukrainian refugee center in the city of Przemysł the Polish-Ukrainian border in May of 2022; and an article titled “I Will Stay Until Kharkiv is Rebuilt” published in The Guardian on June 20, 2022. We will look at refugees’ personal experiences from when the war first broke out; fleeing the violence and occupation; and what their next steps look like. Is there an endgame and will it be in Ukraine? Personal anecdotes will help provide insight into their emotions: What forced them to leave? Who was left or stayed behind? Where did they go? Where will they go? How long will they travel? What do shelters look like? Will they go back to Ukraine? These insights are meant to humanize the experience, give voice to people, and instill empathy to help better understand and aid Ukrainian refugees.

The section below includes anecdotes from the beginning of the war, transcribed from the 2022 documentary Voices of Ukraine, in which 28-year-old Alyona from Mariupol, 25-year-old Bogdana from Mariupol, Danelo from Berdyansk, Olya from Zaporizhzhia, and Liza from Poltava speak about their experiences from when the war first broke out. Some had to flee immediately; others left soon after in the face of Russian violence. In their anecdotes we see some of the reasons people were forced to flee, the fear of impending war, and what it was like to be in Ukraine at the time.

Excerpts from Voices of Ukraine documentary (dir. Jenny Barruol, October 2022)

Alyona (28), female

“On the 24th of February, when we heard the news of the beginning of the war, we were told there were lots of trains coming to pick people up, but no one really paid attention because we all thought the war would not last. But then, a few days later, we realized that Mariupol was surrounded by Russian forces.”

“We couldn’t believe that such a scary thing could happen. Nobody was expecting it.”

“I was in Berdyansk and this city is already under Russian occupation, although it is calm there and there are no explosions, it’s still a scary place. It was frightening because lots of people go missing there. Nobody knows where they go or what they are doing. It’s scary to even go on the streets. So I decided to leave Berdyansk. I didn’t know where and I didn’t know how because we didn’t have internet.”

Alyona, female from Mariupol, and Bogdana (25), female from Mariupol

“Our families are still there: dad, mom, grandma, grandpa, pets… they’re all still in Mariupol.”

“The Russians tried to tell us they were the good guys, that they came to liberate us, and to get us to come to Dnepr. After we left, total chaos ensued. They started robbing women, stripping them of their clothes, rifling through apartments looking for gold, looking for Azov, Ukrainian soldiers. We escaped at the right time.”

“My aunt was only eating one spoon of buckwheat a day because she had two young sons that needed to be fed. This was at the beginning of March, and now it is the middle of April.  How people are living there, I don’t know. They are just dying from the lack of food, medicine, and water. So many elderly died because there were no windows and no ventilation in the basements. It’s truly horrible.”

“They set up ‘sorting camps’ to figure out which people to keep in the city, and which people to send to Russia, or to release in Ukraine. Our friends are in Manhush, it’s near Mariupol. There was a ‘sorting camp’ there, where they hoped to be released to Ukraine. They checked our friend’s phones, and one of them was in a Ukrainian news messenger channel and because of that, they wanted to send them to Donetsk which has been under Russian occupation as the “DPR” [Donetsk People’s Republic] for 8 years now. They told my friends that they can release them only if they paid 10,000 UAH. They took away from these people, life as they knew it. They took their homes, their cars, but it wasn’t enough. They took away our friends’ children, parents, friends, relatives. On top of that, they took the only money these people had. This is not normal. This is genocide. A real genocide is happening in Ukraine, especially in Mariupol which has been under a blockade for almost two months now.”

Danelo, disabled male, from Berdyansk

“I am a Disabled person”… “No jobs, no money, no basic products, no hygiene products, and medical care is bad”… “so I decided to go Poland.”

“In the first days of the occupation, the people of my city went to protests and meetings to make it clear that Berdyansk is Ukrainian, but it ended very quickly because Russian troops started to arrest protesters taking them to unknown destinations then they let almost all of them go. They told us that they were tortured and beaten, and were forced by the Russian forces to read and agree to statements that they are in agreement with Russia and are happy to live under the Russian flag. Everything is fine and dandy. When our people were let go, they told us all of this. there was one female activist who told us that when she left the torture chamber, she said that they grabbed her again and continued to beat her. They wanted to record a video of this but it was impossible because she was beaten so badly, and this would consequently be shown on their TV channels. Thank god they let her go. And this is just one example of many.”

“You know, when the war started, there were huge queues of men in front of all of the army intake facilities. I’m not talking about pro-Russians but almost all Ukrainian men were ready to go to the front lines and defend themselves, their family and their country, and to take up arms against the Russian aggressor, this continues to this day. Not everyone was allowed to join to defend, not even. Elderly people between 70 and 80 came up to the stands, begging to be given a weapon. Saying: ‘I will defend my home, I will defend Ukraine.’ I will say that if my health was better and if I was physically able, I would fight too. The fighting spirit of all Ukrainians, everyone is ready, I’m not only talking about men, women too are ready to go and defend.“

Olya, female, from Zaporizhzhia

“Zaporizhzhia is very close to Donetsk and Luhansk, so near us, the fighting is heavy. It’s horrible to be constantly hiding in the basement, the sirens always going off, having to run down from the 9th floor to the basement four or five times a day. The lift doesn’t work, in the winter the whole place nearly flooded. It’s a terrifying situation.”

“Ukrainian children are being killed. They are raping Ukrainian children and women. It’s terrifying, everything that is happening, it’s really terrifying.”

“It’s awful, everything that is happening there. For a week now, it’s been impossible to evacuate people from places under fire. There is heavy fighting near our home. About 40 km from where we lived, there were Russian soldiers and checkpoints. Lots of vehicles leaving with children; they have to check them and pick them up while under fire. It’s terrible what’s going on there.”

“In Zaporizhzhia there was a train running to Lviv, there were lots of people there, the queues were long. Everyone wanted to leave because staying in Zaporizhzhia was already a nightmare. There were many people on the train, almost all women and children. Some even sat on the floor. The lights were off at night-on board. They made sure all of the lights were off, so that the train wouldn’t be bombed. We arrived in Lviv. There, the volunteers boarded the train to Przemysl and the Polish border, which is where we got off.”

Liza, female, from Poltava

“While some of my friends were woken up by phone calls that morning being told that the war had started, I was woken up by the sound of bombs.”

“There was no time to think. We took all our things, packed them in a suitcase and escaped from the bombing because my mother has heart problems and I have some health issues too, I needed to get her out of there as soon as possible.”

The following anecdotes give insight into the journey of leaving Ukraine. Some are sourced from Voices of Ukraine, where Alyona and Bogdana from Mariupol speak about their experiences leaving and why it was critical for their survival. Alyona speaks to why some people in Ukraine stay despite the conditions and the informational vacuum that justifies Russian violence at the cost of Ukrainian freedom. Danelo from Berdyansk speaks to the experience of a refugee center in an area under military occupation and the devastating tactics employed by Russian occupiers to extort Ukrainian submission. In addition to the anecdotes from Voices of Ukraine are excerpts from a written piece by Susanna Nazarova who documented her time in a refugee center on the Polish border during May of 2022. In them are key insights into what traveling can look like for refugees or refugee families, and some of the daily realities and griefs that are processed in refugee centers.

Excerpts from Voices of Ukraine documentary

Alyona (28), female

“We left by car with the help of some volunteers. It was dangerous and so frightening because we had to cross lots of Russian military checkpoints. And they were very harsh because they checked every single private message on our phones. And they would also take away any valuables, if you had any. They checked men’s bodies for tattoos.”

Alyona, female from Mariupol and Bogdana (25), female from Mariupol

“Then we learnt that the cars arriving on the 13th of March could be an opportunity to get out. There was no point in staying in our neighborhood because it was under constant shelling. The neighborhood next to ours got hit by half a rocket.  The house next to ours got shelled constantly, we couldn’t even leave. The last few days we couldn’t even cook over the open fire because you could simply die while waiting for the water to boil. We left under a constant barrage of bullets. The house next door, which was hit by a rocket, was burning when we were leaving. We managed to escape through a city in the Prymorsk area, where it was relatively quiet at the time. Now, it is no longer quiet there: everything is destroyed because the Russians got the port. We left on the 15th (of March) and it was a miracle that we escaped because we had to run for our lives to get to the car.”

“My parents are in Mariupol, they stayed there and you have to understand what is happening there right now. They are in a total informational vacuum. They were born and raised in the USSR. They are in denial of what is happening right now. They don’t want to admit that Russia invaded Ukraine, that Russia is killing people in Ukraine, that this is really happening. They try to make excuses. It is difficult for them to accept reality, they say that everyone is at fault. They lived perfectly before the 24th, and they refuse to leave Mariupol now. They say that “it is our city and we will continue to live here”. When I ask them what kind of future awaits, without work, without being able to eat or even shower, they just say “eh, we will survive somehow”. And then, who will be rebuilding Mariupol? It surely won’t be Russia, they can’t do it, and they don’t want to. Just like Donetsk, which was left as it was, and no one is rebuilding it. I don’t know why. They made the decision to stay and they risk their lives everyday. I don’t even have the service to call them everyday and ask if they are still alive. Many people decide to stay because they think like that. They think that Donetsk was liberated by Russia and that the war is Ukraine’s fault.”

Danelo, disabled male, from Berdyansk

“We had a volunteer center to help refugees from Mariupol, although we are an occupied territory now, we still tried to help these people as much as we could. Some people walked 100km from Mariupol to Berdyansk just for the center. But one day, some people were arriving at the center, and Russian troops decided to block the center’s activity for a whole day. Then the director along with some volunteers were taken, against their will. They were kept and it is not clear as to where they were taken. They were beaten and tortured then later released. But now in the city, everyone is afraid to do something, to volunteer, to help out. We have a lot of residents in Berdyansk who are pro-Russian. Nobody understands what is going on inside their heads, but they definitely don’t have brains.”

“It’s terrifying. Everyday armored personnel carriers, military equipment, the entire city center, is surrounded and restricted by Russian soldiers who drive around armed with weapons. These armed Russian soldiers will stop men on the streets, strip young boys and search them thoroughly. They are looking for evidence of ‘Nazi’ symbols and any national Ukrainian symbols. Phones, equipment and jewelry of any kind are taken away. They check phones. They basically want to destroy anything that is seen as pro-Ukrainian. With regards to Ukrainians, they are simply trying to demoralize and completely destroy the Ukrainian nation, the Ukrainian feeling. They want Ukrainians to be completely pro-Russian. They want us to glorify Putin as they do. This is simply horrible. It’s one thing when you watch it on the news, but when you live it, it’s painful. You’re on your own.”

Excerpts from Susanna Nazarova’s Notes of a Volunteer (from the section “What I Do”)

When we have the tickets, I take the families away from the desk, to explain and write down, step by step, their travel. First, they need to take the bus to the railway station, get the free tickets (trains across Europe are free for the Ukrainian refugees), come back to the Center, stay here for a few days, then on the morning of their travel, go to the station again, board the train, and go to Berlin, transfer to another train, then go to Cologne, then get on the air train to the airport. I tell them what will likely happen at the airport before they board, and what will happen when they land. I talk and I am scared for them. How will they make this journey? Many have never been to an airport, let alone in another country. They listen, and I know they are also scared. I tell them, it will all be ok, that there should be volunteers at every point. But I can’t know it for sure. They believe me, it is only on faith that they are undertaking this journey.

Marina (60) from Luhansk

Her face is one big smile. You have to hold it together. I wake up in the morning, and I pull on a smile. You can’t get bitter, can’t get bitter. You know how we celebrated March 8th (women’s day) in the basement?! It was the best! The women made so much food, we had flowers, we sang and laughed… After a short pause: The day before, we buried a woman in the sandbox in the playground. It’s easier in the sand. And there was no other place. They will rebury her later, of course.

You have to live now. Don’t you put anything off. You want to drink champagne, drink it now.

We go to the store and buy her a bottle of champagne.

Family of 7 with a cat from Kramatorsk

A disabled husband, a wife pregnant with twins, two small children, the husband’s parents, both in their 80s, and a cat. They are going to Ireland, they already have plane tickets, and they need to get to the airport in Poznan. A driver, a 65-year old volunteer from Virginia, vetted and checked out, who will take them there in a 12-seat van. This journey is supposed to take 8 hours. It takes 12 because grandma has to go to the bathroom every half an hour. But they make the plane.

The final collection of anecdotes are sourced again from Voices of Ukraine and from The Guardian’s “I Will Stay until Kharkiv Is Rebuilt” (published June 20, 2022), which visits five Ukrainian families rebuilding their lives in Portugal, Poland, and Spain. These anecdotes are some examples of how refugees and refugee families are adapting to new environments; memories of their lives in Ukraine; messages to Russia and the world; and hopes for the future. While the refugee crisis is still constantly changing at an incredibly rapid rate, and there continues to be more families being displaced, plans for the future of Ukraine are already being envisioned. In the face of a long-term conflict, refugees are in need of finding semi-permanent or permanent living conditions for the near and distant future. While the Ukrainian refugee crisis continues to unfold and grow more complex, understanding refugee experiences and needs is part of a comprehensive solution.

Voice of Ukraine documentary

Alyona (28), female

“And you know, Mariupol is known to be an industrial city but it was also very cultural. We had a theater, a very good philharmonic orchestra, lots of culture.”

“My main message to Russia is that we don’t need to be liberated. We don’t need to be ‘saved’ from our homes and our peaceful lives. Because we were very happy.”

Alyona, female from Mariupol and Bogdana (25), female from Mariupol

“In the last few years the city was developing quite rapidly. We had a beautiful city center, a beautiful boardwalk, everything was getting renovated. There was a huge plan to renovate the city before 2025, and we were making progress. And everything was taken away from us, all our opportunities.”

“We just want to say that we need your help in Mariupol. And end the blockade in Mariupol. Time is really essential there, minutes count. Children are dying. The airplanes are constantly flying overhead. My dog is scared of airplanes. And that is a dog, imagine the impact it can have on a person.”

“Now all the doors are open to us. We can go to Canada, even Australia. But we don’t want to. We want to come home to Ukraine, to Ukrainian Mariupol and put in all the effort to rebuild it how it was two months ago. To build our lives there.”

Danelo, disabled male, from Berdyansk

“Now I intend to stay in Poland, I will stay here until the war ends. But as soon as I can go back to my city, I will go home. Of course, all is good here in Poland, people are good to us. And we have all we need, but home is home.”

Olya, female, from Zaporizhzhia

“Yes, we have internet connection. I worry a lot, at night he texts “I love you both.” He’s out there on the ground where the Russians are, he’s helping to get people out, to save them. Apparently it’s like this everyday. I’m finding it difficult to work. I cry, and my daughter worries. Thank God he always comes back alive.”

“Yes, my daughter really misses her dad a lot. She is very close to her dad. She really misses him, she worries about him. And I need to stay strong like my husband, for her. I need to protect my daughter and my mother and that’s why I’m here. And I keep telling my daughter that she will see her dad again. We wish for nothing more.”

Liza, female from Poltava

“Life in Ukraine was amazing, I invite everyone to visit it. Our country is incredibly green, the black soil, we have mountains, the seas, the beautiful women, no less handsome guys.”

“I would like to wish the whole world to be conscious and peaceful. Yes, I have a guitar and you know music. There is heart and it consists of thousands of particles, and I can create as many particles as I want. It can be music, it can be sports, drawing, or architecture. Anything! I am a person who doesn’t want to stand still, even when I sleep for 3-4 hours, but I want to know as much as I can and learn how to do as much as possible. Because time flies and I understand that it’s impossible to know everything.”

The Guardian’s “I Will Stay until Kharkiv Is Rebuilt”

Portugal — Alina Levchenko and her sister Kateryna Skrebtsov

“We thought it would be easier in a sunny country, with so many people, but still we want to go home … although I don’t think we will go soon.”

The Ukrainian diaspora in Lisbon has been an important source of community for them, and it was through this network that they were able to find Portuguese-language classes. Skrebtsov’s son, six-year-old Seva, is progressing quickly. “It’s a tough language but he is better than both of us,” Levchenko says with a laugh.

A recent offer from a friend of their host family to rent a house in Lisbon’s outskirts at a discounted price offers a glimpse of hope for their future in Portugal.

For now, Seva will remain in online schooling with his class back in Ukraine while they wait to settle in a flat and can then enroll him in a Portuguese school for the coming year. These months have been particularly hard for Seva, who misses his father.

They have taken advantage of tours organized by Ukrainians in Portugal that allow them to explore their new city on weekends. Seva’s favorite destination is the seaside. “Sometimes he is a bit moody, and lashing out because he is very sensitive to this whole situation,” says Levchenko. “But by the sea he is comfortable and calm.”

Poland — Katerina Shukh

Katerina Shukh is employed as a therapist by Human Doc, the same organization that helped her escape Mariupol and find accommodations in Poland. She runs art therapy classes with child refugees from Ukraine and group sessions with their mothers.

“The sessions are to help children adapt to these difficult circumstances. We make art and talk while we play and draw,” Shukh says.

“It gives the children a space to process their emotions. Sometimes their parents are not able to discuss all this pain,” she says while showing the drawings toddlers have made, some showing tanks and flying rockets.

When she is not delivering sessions, she organizes transport for new refugees from eastern Ukraine. She welcomes them at the border and helps them settle down in Poland. “I try to do all I can for my country, for people from my country, and often I forget about myself and my situation,” Shukh says.

While her grandparents miss their home village immensely, she is glad she can spend time with them, as well as her mother who travels between Ukraine and Poland with refugee transports. “When we’re together, we still speak about our situation and the news, but we try to find a space for recovery.”

Some of the refugees she worked with have returned to Ukraine, especially those from western regions and Kyiv. “Refugee life is not easy. They want to be back in their own flat, in a familiar place,” Shukh says. “But I don’t have the opportunity to go back. My city is destroyed.”

Spain — Olga Kuzminykh

Three months on, and in spite of all they had to leave behind, Olga Kuzminykh and her family are still a little overwhelmed by their welcome in Spain, which has taken in more than 134,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“What’s really surprised us about Spain is the people,” says Kuzminykh, who arrived in Madrid on March 12 with her mother, Katerina, her husband, Faig Budagov, and their daughter, Alisa. “People here treat us like family even though we’ve never met. We had no idea they would be so friendly.”

Life in the small town of El Espinar, an hour’s drive north-west of the Spanish capital, is comfortable: “we’ve got hot water, heating, a washing machine and everything we need” — and their host family has taken them into the nearby city of Segovia three times to see friends.

While the NGO that brought them to Spain has made navigating the country’s bureaucracy effortless, finding jobs and learning a new language are proving challenging. “We haven’t been able to find work,” says Kuzminykh, who was a primary school teacher in Ukraine. “There isn’t much work around here but we’ve asked people if there’s anything we can do to help.”

The couple’s main focus now is getting three-year-old Alisa ready for school in September: “We want her to start as soon as possible so she can meet other children and learn to speak Spanish.”

“Our main plans are learning Spanish, getting jobs and getting our daughter into school”

“Once we’ve got all those sorted, we’re thinking about traveling a bit so we can get to know Europe better. We love traveling and that’s our little plan for now.”

In a comprehensive study with over 5,143 refugees from European countries, Australia, South Korea, USA, Uganda, China, Lebanon, Nepal, and Turkey, statistics show that 31.5% of refugees exhibited post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 31.5% had depressive disorders, 11.1% had anxiety disorders, and 1.5% had psychoses. The effects of violence and the experience refugees are facing have long-term effects that can prompt multi-generational trauma. The scale of the crisis suggests that the violence experienced by Ukrainian refugees will not only shape individuals, but also the new Ukrainian identity. Millions of people, primarily women and children, live in fear under undignified conditions. Access to education for children is situational and varies, and will likely have an effect on the academic progress of many young Ukrainian children. Separation of families has a significant, negative effect on the development of children and puts many mothers in a position where work and income are inaccessible. The sexual violence against children and women will leave permanent scars. The experiences and stories of these individuals are integral to Ukraine and its story.

Regardless of the outcome of the war, the experiences of refugees and internally displaced persons will be widespread and multi-generational. The emotional and cultural trauma is coupled with physical violence and destruction, which predict long-term effects on the physical rebuilding of the country. The refugee experience is vital to understanding the intersection of Ukrainian culture, and the effects that the war will have on its future. Paying close attention to refugees’ unique and personal needs is the key to impactful aid and to the preservation of Ukrainian history, culture, and their future. While statistics can be vital to understanding the scale of the problem and make clear important trends significant in understanding this phenomenon, personal experiences and comprehensive solutions derived from understanding people and their needs are essential in addressing the true scope of this crisis. To begin to understand and assist the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis, it is vital to understand the balance and importance of both individuals and the astonishing scope of this crisis.


Consequences and Potential Impacts of the Refugee Crisis

The consequences of this crisis will have profound impacts on the future with regards to Ukraine as a country and its standing in the world. Many questions need to be answered: How will the populations of countries hosting refugees react to this influx of Ukrainian people? More specifically, will this influx affect relations with Ukraine and host nations? Will Ukrainian culture and identity be impacted? How will Ukrainian diasporas around the world engage with the crisis? This crisis has had a significant impact on people on the individual level, but there is a need to connect it to the larger picture. By answering these questions and bringing to light broader impacts, we can better understand this crisis and its consequences.

The refugees fleeing are mostly concentrated in countries that border Ukraine, including Poland, Russia, Romania, Moldova and Slovakia. However, non-border countries in the EU have also assumed a role in welcoming Ukrainians. For example, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees have been recorded by the Central Register of Foreigners in Germany. These countries have undertaken major efforts to accept refugees and hope to integrate them into their countries.

When addressing how host countries’ populaces are reacting to this influx of people, it is important to recognize that there has been some public backflash. The public in host nations worry about the consequences of potentially allowing an excessive number of people into their countries, compared to the host nations’ native population sizes. They fear that it will lead to changes in key aspects of their societies. Concerns of changing the structural facets of society, like education, health systems and labor markets, can lead to resistance and bitter feelings towards incoming refugees.

For example, Polish housing faced an apartment shortage of two million units before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With millions of Ukrainians migrating to Poland, the need for housing has increased dramatically, furthering the housing shortage and turning public opinion against Ukrainians. Also, the Polish health care system was facing challenges prior to the invasion, and the millions of Ukrainians migrating to Poland have strained the struggling health care system. Doctors and healthcare services will have constraints on the number of patients they will be able to see, and some Poles blame Ukrainians for this constraint. Others also blame Ukrainians for impeding their ability to find or keep jobs.

Additionally, the EU lacks cost sharing among member states, meaning that border countries like Poland are taking on most of the costs of the crisis. Integrating refugees into host societies increases expenditures for services, welfare benefits, housing, education, and healthcare. Poland specifically has sought assistance in covering costs by requesting EU funds. As a result, anti-Ukrainian views have arisen in border nations due to the bitterness of the potentially overwhelming costs they are facing.

Although there has been some negative sentiment, the public in host nations have, overall, been accepting towards refugees. For example, Poland has been very welcoming to Ukrainians. Polish President Andrzej Duda stated on March 25 that Poles “do not call them ‘refugees,’” and that Ukrainians “are our guests, our brothers, our neighbors from Ukraine who today are in a very difficult situation.” The Poles sympathize with Ukraine and they understand that Poland could be attacked next if Russia decides to continue its aggression further west. By helping Ukrainians, Poles feel that they are also helping themselves by partnering with their neighbors to face Russian aggression together.

Studies have debunked the claim in Poland that the presence of Ukrainians in Polish labor markets has negatively impacted the Poles ability to find and hold jobs. If there are effects on job availability, they will likely be in job sectors that are already composed largely of immigrants from Ukraine, meaning Ukrainians will have more difficulties finding jobs, not Poles. In this regard, the influx of Ukrainians can actually be beneficial to host nations. The labor productivity that results from more people joining the workforce can lead to increases in earnings and per capita GDP.

Labor shortages have existed in other EU member states in Eastern and Central Europe for years leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This labor shortage is due to the open borders that allow travel to more economically developed member states of the EU. Member states stand to benefit from incoming refugees, as they can fill labor shortages. For example, during the COVID pandemic, nations hosting immigrants benefited, as immigrants remained working and were able to keep essential services afloat, such as health care and food services. With Ukrainians entering Eastern and Central European member countries, they can help fill labor shortages and hence develop these economies. As long as the Ukrainian refugees are properly integrated into host countries, these countries stand to benefit from them.

Ukraine likewise stands to benefit from Ukrainian citizens being integrated into other countries’ workforces. For instance, Ukrainians may bring back skills they have learned to their home country. With migration partnerships being mutually beneficial, they could strengthen ties between Ukraine and host nations, as collaboration can lead to closer relations.

The question of whether Ukrainian identity and culture will be impacted is also a necessary one to ask. Open borders that have resulted from the Mass Influx Directive issued by the EU have led to increased opportunities to integrate Ukrainians in host countries. Integration could lead to many Ukrainians choosing to stay in host nations, as they may offer a better life, particularly as the war continues. Ukrainian children have already started to attend Polish schools and are being taught the Polish curriculum. As a result, many Ukrainian children will have to learn the Polish language.

Since Ukraine issued an emigration ban for 18 to 60 year-old males to support Ukrainian military mobilization, most refugees are women, children, and the elderly. There is almost no opportunity for men to migrate. This fact is evident in Germany’s Central Register of Foreigners, which has recorded that nearly 40 percent of Ukrainian refugees in Germany are minors, 80 percent of adult refugees are female, and the elderly comprise some 16 percent of the refugee population. With men being all but absent from the picture, integration could be lacking, as many women may hesitate to remain in the host country without their partners. Integration may also be impeded since many women will have to look after their children, living abroad functionally as single parents. Refugees who have not integrated into their host societies will likely return to Ukraine. Whether Ukrainians decide to stay in host nations or return to Ukraine will drastically impact Ukrainian culture.

The unknowable outcome of the war has led to some uncertainty about whether this population will return to Ukraine. There have been some days on the Ukrainian border where the number of people returning to Ukraine has surpassed the number of people leaving. In a survey that was conducted by the UNHCR on the border of Ukraine, 83 percent of respondents stated that they intended to eventually return to their home region. These respondents were mostly from Lviv, the city of Kyiv, and the surrounding suburbs of Kyiv. The survey also reported that two-thirds of those returning were doing so to be reunited with their family, or because they had been told that their region was safe enough to return to. Only 15 percent of respondents stated that their return was temporary. Although it is still early to estimate the number of Ukrainians who will be returning, it is fair to say that many will be motivated to return. Those who do return will undoubtedly be changed and influenced by the nations that hosted them.

Refugees leaving Ukraine who end up staying abroad indefinitely are diaspora communities in the making. Ukrainian diaspora communities around the world have been able to utilize their networks to help support those fleeing from Ukraine, often facilitating the integration of refugees into host countries. According to UN statistics, the countries with the most native-born Ukrainians in 2020 were Poland, Italy, and Germany, with the Czech Republic and Spain also having large numbers of native-born Ukrainians. The history of Ukrainian diaspora communities and their role in mitigating the current crisis is covered more fully in Chapter 6.

UNHCR Statistics on Ukrainian Refugees

Situation Ukraine Refugee Situation (
Country – Ukraine (
Publications – UNHCR Ukraine

Donating to Organizations That Support Ukraine

Ukraine | International Medical Corps
Ukraine Crisis – Heart to Heart International
Ukraine | Mercy Corps
War in Ukraine | Americares Emergency Response
Ukraine Relief | Direct Relief
Our Work in Ukraine | Project HOPE
UNICEF Ukraine

Non-Medical Supplies

Our Response | Ukraine | World Vision International (
Supporting Displaced Ukrainians | Operation USA (
War in Ukraine (
Ukraine | World Help
Our Work in Ukraine | Project HOPE
Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund – GlobalGiving
Donate to Help Children in Ukraine | Save the Children
Crisis in Ukraine – Good360
Ukraine Humanitarian Crisis – Center for Disaster Philanthropy


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Being Ukraine by Ian Cullen, Mackensie Park, and Mustafa Bugti is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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