According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of 10 January 2023, 4,928,311 refugees from Ukraine had registered for Temporary Protection or similar national protection schemes in Europe since 24 February 2022. The Village Ukraine talked to four women who fled Ukraine for Europe about their experiences living in four different countries, what they miss the most, and how their host countries differ from Ukraine. One of the women shared an incident in which she was discriminated against.
Earlier The Village spoke to mothers who were forced to flee with their children as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion about sending their kids to school outside of Ukraine.
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“You register online, but have to wait to receive your login and password by regular mail”
Musician and DJ
Alisa left Kyiv with her son during the first days of Russia’s full-scale invasion. She was planning to go to Israel, since she qualifies for Israeli citizenship. But, unable to obtain notarized permission to bring her son with her, she had to abandon the idea. They went to Berlin instead, where Alisa had friends who promised to put them up for a month.
We arrived in Berlin on 3 March. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about what the situation with our documents would be in the future. What mattered to me was whether we could enter the country on a tourist visa and whether we’d have somewhere to live. Friends of ours offered to put us up for a month, so it was an obvious choice. A lot of my friends were also fleeing to Berlin.
In the beginning, there were a lot of hosts who were willing to offer us a room or an apartment. At first we lived in a flat whose owners normally used it as an office, but decided to offer it up to us for a month.
We were also lucky with the next place we stayed: volunteers from the film industry saw my post about searching for accommodation; they knew several firms that they had rented various locations for filming from in the past and were able to secure 10 apartments for [Ukrainian] families from the firms. I was lucky to get to Berlin early on – housing became more scarce later.
The most difficult thing in the beginning was that the German state itself was not sure what to do with us
I keep running into bureaucratic issues here. The most difficult thing in the beginning was that the German state itself was not sure what to do with us. We were the guinea pigs. Different districts and regions had different approaches to and rules concerning paperwork which would change every couple of weeks. There are chats for [Ukrainian] refugees in Berlin, but chaos reigned even in those chats: one person would have to do something one way; another, just a week later, would have to follow a totally different procedure. It was impossible to know how to prepare registration paperwork correctly. I just had to join queues to get into various offices.
Once I had to queue from four in the morning. I wrote my name on a piece of paper, found people who were already queueing, gave the scrap of paper with my name to the last person in line and went back home to sleep. When I got back at seven, there were over 50 people there, but the paper with my name helped me get in on the same day.
I know that I am asking another country for support, for financial aid, for shelter – so I can’t complain about the conditions [through which I receive aid]. When I get up at four in the morning I know that I’m the one who needs to get something done.
I had to officially register as a freelancer since sometimes I still play gigs. This turned out to be difficult, too. It seemed that I can do the whole thing online, but the registration system is complicated: Germans love sending letters by post, so even when you register online, you have to wait to get your login and password by post. Then you enter those details and change your password. Then you receive a code – in another letter by post. Only then you are fully registered in the online system.
Then you have to apply to register as a freelancer. First you fill in a 28-page application form. (It’s worth doing this with someone who speaks German and understands how things work in Germany.) The application includes questions such as whether you want to pay VAT, and you need to know which option is best for you and why. I chose to pay VAT (19%), which overall is good for me, but I now have to submit additional declarations. On the good side, I can declare all expenses related to my work, such as buying records, and get a 19% VAT refund. I have to keep all receipts for 10 years.
If you are a freelancer and also receive state social benefits, you have to declare any changes to your status every six months at the job center: whether you are in a relationship, how much your partner is earning. You can’t show you only have 300 hryvnias on your bank card as you’d be taken for someone who has nothing at all.
I often feel confused and unsure whether I’ve done everything correctly because I receive five or six letters from the government every week. Sometimes I’m so stressed to see these letters that I don’t open them straightaway.
In truth, they favor postal letters because this is a way of protecting people’s confidential personal data. But we Ukrainians are used to being able to access all sorts of services online, so it’s a bit strange that when you want to open a bank account you have to go to a branch to make an appointment a week ahead of time, attend the appointment with a manager in order to submit documents in person, and only then receive a bank card. I miss Monobank [Ukraine’s first virtual bank, now extremely popular; it allows its customers to conduct transactions directly from their smartphones, including paying utilities, topping up their phones, and so on – ed.]
There’s also issues with internet access here. I have a German SIM-card – it’s a requirement – though it would be much easier to pay for roaming on my [Ukrainian] Vodafone SIM and get 10GB of mobile internet. Instead, I only get 3GB for €10 with my German SIM. In Kyiv I paid 200 hryvnias for my Wi-Fi, here I pay €60 – and it doesn’t even work that well.
I’m not complaining at all! Germany has given me a lot. I like that I can feel the support of the welfare state. Everyone is equal here. Ukrainians have received a lot of help. At first Ukrainians could use public transport for free; in the summer the city introduced a €9 reduced-price travel card which covers all modes of public transport. Anyone can get it: Germans, tourists, refugees – they made all of us equal, because they care about German citizens and recently arrived people alike. Here you can really count on municipal and state support. For example, I wanted to join a music school; they earmarked several spaces for refugees. As an artist, I can receive additional help in order to foster and cultivate my creativity. It’s really incredible that here you can count on [state] support even without being a German citizen.
“In Kyiv I was a photographer and created media content for various restaurants. Here no one cares about social media, but relies on reviews instead. My job is simply irrelevant”
Marketing professionals and photographers
Aliona and Ania arrived in Portugal in late March. Until then, they both volunteered in a café in Kyiv. They settled on Lisbon because they thought it would be a warm and inexpensive city where they could get by with one backpack’s worth of belongings each, thinking they would be able to return to Ukraine soon. Reality didn’t quite live up to their expectations.
Aliona Lobanova: My sister and I came to Portugal around 20 March. During the first two weeks of the full-scale war we both volunteered at the Mates café in Kyiv, but it was getting more dangerous every day, so we first left for Lviv, then Krakow, and then decided to go to Portugal. We had friends there that we could stay with. We didn’t have much choice. We were stressed and desperate and seized the first option available.
Ania Lobanova: When we came to Portugal we thought we would spend a month there at most. It’s easier to pack all your belongings for a month into a backpack if you’re going to a warm country. I’ve been to Portugal before, I knew what the country was like, but being a tourist is one thing and living there is another. Portugal is very slow. Of course it’s a very beautiful country: the ocean is right there, the buildings are colorful, and people know how to rest. But its mentality remains a mystery to me.
My first month as a refugee was somewhat hazy. I was trying to stay positive, to look on the bright side of things
Aliona: My first month as a refugee (I hate that word, but it’s true: emigrants choose where to go, refugees just flee) was somewhat hazy. I was trying to stay positive, to look on the bright side of things. I was trying to do something useful: I took pictures at protests, organized film screenings. But I was in a constant state of shock.
The good thing here is that you can apply for temporary protection online, though you only get a PDF, which no other countries take seriously. People outside of Portugal are always perplexed by it.
Ania: If you want to receive benefits, you have to sign up to receive a password for your personal account, where you can request a meeting. But the password has to arrive by post, in a letter. I still haven’t received mine, so I can’t get my benefits.
Aliona: It’s difficult to find accommodation here. Rent’s very expensive here – not at all in line with people’s salaries – maybe because of the influx of people.
Ania: Portugal used to be a lot more affordable, but in the previous years housing costs have risen and are now in line with other European cities. We were lucky: at first we stayed at our friends’ place and then found a Portuguese host.
Aliona: It’s also difficult to find work. I was a photographer in Kyiv, created [social media] content for various restaurants, and worked as a social media manager. Here no one cares about social media, but relies exclusively on reviews instead. Very few restaurants here use social media to market and promote themselves. My job is simply irrelevant. The more Ukrainians in Lisbon, the more requests I get to organize photoshoots. For a long time I didn’t have any work at all, I think because it’s very difficult to find a job here if you are involved in the creative industry and the arts.
Ania: I miss how online everything was in Ukraine. Here I still don’t have a debit card. I’m used to being able to order something online and receiving it the next day in the nearest post office. Here, if you order make-up or something else, it will be delivered by a courier at their convenience. They can reschedule deliveries without even calling to let you know.
I really miss our beauticians, they’re the best at everything they do. The last time I cut my hair was in Ukraine. There’s nothing like our G.bar in Portugal, where you can make an appointment online, receive quality service, and feel like you’re being taken care of.
There’s a huge demand for Ukrainian beauticians here. For me, this is not just about getting excellent service, but also about supporting fellow Ukrainians. In Lisbon I get my nails done at a salon opened by a Ukrainian woman who only employs Ukrainians.
Aliona: I think Ukraine is more modern, more online. Ukrainians are always in a rush, always busy; they’re highly driven. They know how, and love, to work. The Portuguese prioritize rest. We have to learn from them too, because this is very unlike us. On the other hand, it does seem that the only thing they do here is rest.
When I had to print posters for a screening we organized, we got to the printing studio in the morning and were told to come back at 16:00. At 16:00 it turned out the person we needed was out for lunch. That’s how it is everywhere here. Coffee shops might close at 13:00 or not open at all, without a warning.
There’s a lot of mold here, especially during rains. Oh and when it rains almost all public transport comes to a halt. Rain here has the effects of a natural disaster.
“Your ambitions are obvious based on the salary you asked for. You will definitely be able to earn enough to rent a flat”
Anastasiia was interning in Turkey before the full-scale invasion. After 24 February, she decided to find a job and stay there for a while. She has encountered discrimination and disrespect.
Before the beginning of the full-scale invasion I was doing an internship in Turkey. I was working in an English language school. I ended up having to stay in Turkey past the project’s end date in March because of the [full-scale] war in Ukraine.
“What are you talking about! You’re a refugee from Ukraine. You have no right to ask for a salary like that!”
I had some savings and my friend let me stay with her, but I still had to find a job. I really wanted to find something in my field. I found a company that did linguistics-related work. They were looking for someone to join their marketing department; the job description said that they were looking for someone from Ukraine and that they would pay for their housing and otherwise support them.
I submitted an application. I went through the first round of interviews and was invited to the second interview, in Istanbul. At the time I lived in another city. It took me two and a half hours to get to the capital.
I met the CEO of the firm during this second round of interviews and he told me I was a good fit in every respect. I was asked how much I expected to get paid. I thought about the amount of work I was asked to do and realized that they were essentially looking to hire a marketing manager. In Kyiv, I’d get paid around $1,500 for that work. I understand that salaries in Turkey are much lower, so I asked for half of that, $800. The CEO was shocked: “What are you talking about! You’re a refugee from Ukraine. You have no right to ask for a salary like that!” I tried to explain that it’s a job and I have to put in work in order to deliver the results that they want. I was told they can only pay me $400 for this work. I told them that I’ll take the offer only if they provide accommodation in Istanbul, as mentioned in the job description.
The CEO told me that he won’t help me with accommodation: “Your ambitions are obvious based on the salary you asked for. You will definitely be able to earn enough to rent a flat.” He said I didn’t look like a refugee, that I have no kids, and that it doesn’t seem like I need any help. He also said that I didn’t have to live in Istanbul and that it’s okay to spend two and a half hours traveling to work every day. I thought it was quite an unusual experience and kept looking for work.
I went back to the English school where I interned. The principal asked me why I didn’t ask him for a job and said that he understands that I want to work in my field, but since I’m Ukrainian I just need money – and he could offer employment.
I was offered $300 a month despite a substantial workload. Sometimes I stayed behind to finish work late into the night. I needed money: a ticket home cost $150 and I only agreed to take the job on the condition that I’d get paid weekly.
But I didn’t get paid after the first week, or after ten days. I went to ask about my salary but every time I was given some reasons why I’d get paid “tomorrow”. I waited for two weeks. When I reminded them what I was promised I was told that they don’t owe me anything and that I’m free to return to Ukraine. They pretended that they had been kind to me, saving me from the war, and painted me as an opportunistic money-grabber.
After that, all of the students in the school where I was working turned against me. The director blocked me on social media. I was really upset and hurt and was forced to end my job search in Turkey.