Ukraine’s refugees face their first Christmas away

Maryna Prylutska, 34, says she is grateful for the hospitality she has found in Bonn, Germany, despite missing her loved ones back home in Ukraine.

Maryna Prylutska

For Maryna Prylutska, Christmas will be a muted affair this year. Like other recent family occasions, it will be celebrated online, with most of her family back home in Ukraine.

That is, if the electricity supply to Prylutska’s hometown is recovered following a string of Russian attacks.

It is nine months now since Prylutska — who now lives in Germany with her two children — last saw her husband and parents. And for Prylutska, and the millions of others who have fled Russia’s invasion this year, the holidays are proving especially hard.

“I’m dying to go home,” she told CNBC via zoom from her new home in Bonn, Germany. Before the latest attacks, she had planned to return with her children for Christmas.

“It’s great here, and I’m really grateful to everyone who has helped us along the way. But no, there’s no place like home,” the 34-year-old said.

Prylutska is what she calls an “accidental refugee.”

We Ukrainians are willing to do whatever it takes to defend our children.

She and her husband had been considering leaving Ukraine since the onset of the war on Feb. 24. But with no friends abroad to stay with, she was reluctant to move to a shelter with her daughter, 12, and son, four.

“For me, it was really scary. I had to weigh up the pros and cons,” said Prylutska, an English teacher who had never traveled abroad before this year.

Then, one day in March, she received a phone call from her former father-in-law who had encountered a potential host while transporting his own children to Germany. There was a shared home available to her and her children in Bonn, if she wanted it.

Maryna Prylutska’s children, 12 and 4, adjust to their new home in Bonn, Germany after leaving their small hometown in central Ukraine.

Maryna Prylutska

By that point, Russian troops were just 80 kilometers (50 miles) from her hometown, a small locale of 16,000 people in the center of Ukraine, and her options were limited.

“I remember going to bed at night thinking about how I would defend my son with my body if a bomb hit,” said Prylutska, who had read a similar story of another Ukrainian mother. “We Ukrainians are willing to do whatever it takes to defend our children.”

Within days, she and her children were being driven overland to Germany, where they are currently living in their contact’s house with four other Ukrainian women and their six children.

Ukrainian refugees near 8 million

Prylutska is one of more than 7.8 million Ukrainians — around one-fifth of the population — who have fled the country for Europe since Russia’s invasion.

Some 2.8 million have entered Russia, including via Moscow’s forced transfer program, while the vast majority have relocated West, primarily to neighboring Poland, which has taken in 1.5 million refugees.

That includes 27-year-old trauma therapist, Kateryna Shukh. For the past seven years, since the start of Russia and Ukraine’s 2014 Donbas war, she has been working with female refugees at Bereginya — Mariupol Women’s Association. Now, she finds herself one among them.

I work with refugees, and I continue to do my work, but I am now a refugee, too.

Kateryna Shukh

vice president, Bereginya – Mariupol Women’s Association

“I’m a refugee now, too. I work with refugees, and I continue to do my work, but I am now a refugee, too,” said Shukh, who left the port city days after Russia’s invasion and is now supporting refugees in Warsaw, Poland.

Shukh said it is that work that is helping her to “survive this situation.”

Aside from offering psychological support and art therapy to the women and children hosted in temporary housing, part of Shukh’s role is to provide information to help refugees navigate the myriad resettlement schemes of host countries.

Kateryna Shukh, center, says she has found solace in supporting other Ukrainian refugees by hosting art therapy sessions from her new home in Warsaw, Poland.

Kateryna Shukh

In Poland, for example, Ukrainian refugees have the legal right to remain for 18 months, with the possibility of applying for a three-year temporary residence permit. Financial grants, meanwhile, are available for families and certain vulnerable groups.

Still, rapidly depleting housing and employment options are causing some Ukrainians to consider returning home, Shukh said. She recalled one mother who recently took her five-year-old daughter back to their windowless home in an occupied part of Ukraine because she was unable to find work.

“Maybe 20% have gone back (to Ukraine) already,” Shukh said of the refugees she works with. “But most of them don’t have anywhere to go back to.”

Countries review their refugee support

Others are still relocating elsewhere across the continent. But hastily designed resettlement programs mean that some countries are now coming under pressure.

In the UK, for example, the government launched a Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme weeks into the invasion, offering a “thank you” payment of £350 per month to households willing to commit to hosting one or more refugees for at least six months.

The scheme has so far housed 108,000 people, while a further 42,600 have arrived in Britain to stay with relatives. But 10 months on, and with no end to the war in sight, some are wondering how long the arrangement might last.

“Now I don’t make plans,” said 32-year-old Yuliia Matalinets, a cargo surveyor from Odessa, who has been living with a host couple in Bristol, England since June. “I understand there is no point. I don’t know what will be tomorrow, in a week, in a month.”

There is an urgent need to find practical solutions to the issues facing Ukrainian migrants and host families.

Kate Brown

CEO, Reset Communities and Refugees

The situation is further complicated by the fact that many Ukrainians have settled into relatively well-off, middle-class areas, from which it can be difficult to relocate to affordable housing.

Kate Brown, CEO of Reset Communities and Refugees, which helps rehouse refugees in the UK, said that the number of Britons offering up their homes to migrants has dropped over time. As of Dec. 6, the charity had 227 potential hosts registered on its database, but 3,948 active Ukrainian cases — which can represent one or more individuals — looking for homes.

“There is an urgent need to find practical solutions to the issues facing Ukrainian migrants and host families, so that more people feel able to host. Where possible, hosting arrangements can be extended, and where that isn’t possible, Ukrainian migrants are supported to move on into longer-term accommodation,” said Brown.

Yuliia Matalinets, right, a cargo surveyor from Odessa, photographed with her host, left, in Bristol, England.

Julia Matalinets

The UK government revised its scheme last week, announcing £150 million in additional funding for local authorities to help Ukrainian guests move into their own homes. Hosts who extend their support beyond the first year of sponsorship will also receive increased “thank you” payments of £500 under the new measures.

That’s welcome news to some hosts, who say tandem crises in the UK have weighed on their ability to support their guests.

“It has become more challenging as time has gone on, especially with the cost-of-living and energy bills going up,” said a couple from Nottinghamshire, who have been sharing their home with a mother and her son for nine months, and who asked to remain anonymous.

Still, for many arrivals like Matalinets — thankful as she is for her hosts, whom she describes as similar to her parents — the sooner she can get home to her boyfriend and her family, the better.

“I hope that the war really ends soon, and I have an opportunity to go home,” she said.

Prylutska, who is now hoping to return to Ukraine with her children in the spring, agreed: “I do want to go back, and I really hope that this will all be over soon and our country will be free again.”

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