Ukraine’s displaced trade one uncertainty for another
May 20, 2015
PUSHCHA VODYTSYA, Ukraine — Nina Rusalkina wants to go home. But it’s a risk the 26-year-old mother of two isn’t willing to take.
She and her husband, Zhenya Kravchenko, fled eastern Ukraine with their son in June, when the war in the country’s east crept too close to home. She was six months pregnant at the time. Now she has a new baby and lives in a former political retreat outside Kiev with some 240 others displaced by the fighting.
It’s safe here, she said, but it’s not home.
“If everything quiets down, we’ll go back,” her husband said. “But for the moment, we’re here.”
In fleeing west, many of Ukraine’s internally displaced people, or IDPs, find they’re trading one kind of insecurity for another. The high cost of living in and around the Ukrainian capital has come as a shock, as has the difficulty of finding a job in a city that’s taken in some 75,000 war refugees, nearly half of them working-age adults, according to the United Nations.
“Many of the people here are older than 50, and for them it’s maybe the hardest time,” said Anna, a 25-year-old mother who asked to go by a pseudonym out of fear for her family’s safety.
Her husband found a decent job in Kiev after the family fled six months ago from Luhansk, the capital of a separatist enclave that was the scene last year of heavy fighting between separatists and Ukrainian soldiers. If it weren’t for that job, she doesn’t know where they’d be.
Some of the other families who came to Kiev from Luhansk had to return to their homes in the breakaway enclave, she said, “because they didn’t find opportunities or they didn’t find a job, and it’s too much to rent a flat here.”
The cost of renting an apartment in Kiev is about four times what it was in Luhansk, and just making enough to get by has been hard, she said. “I want to go home, but right now I feel that it is not safe.”
Anna’s father suffered a near-fatal injury in late April when he stepped on a mine in Luhansk while checking on her empty house. She doesn’t know if the mine was placed there to target her family for fleeing west or just a remnant of the bloody fighting that choked the city last year. Many people in eastern Ukraine view the government in Kiev, which came to power after the ousting last year of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych, as illegitimate.
“We’re trying to make our life here and to get the best for our son,” Anna said. “It’s difficult, but it’s safe.”
A report issued in mid-May by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, found that most of the aid that IDPs receive comes from international and domestic nongovernmental organizations rather than the Ukrainian government. The government, the report found, had “fallen behind” on every benchmark Brookings uses to assess countries’ responses to similar crises.
Nevertheless, because of government propaganda, overly positive news coverage or some combination of the two, some IDPs arrive in Kiev expecting to easily settle into something like a normal life.
“On TV, everything looks beautiful, like everybody’s helping out,” said Iryna Kipina, who escaped Kramatorsk last summer when Ukrainian troops and separatist rebels fought over the city. “But many people don’t want to have IDPs as employees or rent to them.”
Kipina, her husband and two daughters headed to Kiev with little savings. Landlords didn’t want to rent to them because they didn’t know if they could pay, she said. Employers have been reluctant to hire them because they don’t want to invest in training someone who is likely to leave when the fighting in the east subsides.
For now, Kipina and her family live in a single room in a former government sanitarium in Vorzel, west of Kiev. A local school took over the complex last summer and turned it into an IDP center.