Refugees from Ukraine face their first Christmas abroad

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

maryna prilutska

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

That is, if electricity to Prylutska’s hometown is restored after a series of Russian attacks.

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

“I’m dying to go home,” he told CNBC via zoom from his 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 very grateful to everyone who has helped us along the way. But no, there’s no place like home,” said the 34-year-old.

Prylutska is what she calls an “accidental refugee.”

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

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

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

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

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

maryna prilutska

At the time, Russian troops were only 50 miles (80 kilometers) from their hometown, a small town of 16,000 in central Ukraine, and their options were limited.

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

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

Ukrainian refugees close to 8 million

Prylutska is one of more than 7.8 million Ukrainians — about a fifth of the population — who have fled the country for Europe since the Russian invasion.

Some 2.8 million have entered Russia, including through Moscow’s forced removal program, while the vast majority have moved west, mainly 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 the Donbas war in Russia and Ukraine in 2014, she has been working with refugee women at Bereginya, the Mariupol Women’s Association. Now, she finds herself among them.

I work with refugees and still do my job, but now I am also a refugee.

katerina shukh

Vice President, Bereginya – Mariupol Women’s Association

“Now I am also a refugee. I work with refugees and still do my job, but now I am also a refugee,” said Shukh, who left the port city days after the Russian invasion and is now supporting the refugees. in Warsaw, Poland.

Shukh said it’s that job that is helping her “survive this situation.”

In addition to offering psychological support and art therapy to women and children housed in temporary housing, part of Shukh’s role is to provide information to help refugees navigate the myriad resettlement plans 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.

katerina shukh

In Poland, for example, Ukrainian refugees have a legal right to stay for 18 months, with the possibility of applying for a three-year temporary residence permit. Economic aid, for its part, is available to families and certain vulnerable groups.

Still, rapidly drying up housing and employment options are causing some Ukrainians to consider returning home, Shukh said. He recalled a mother who recently brought her five-year-old daughter to her windowless house in an occupied part of Ukraine because she couldn’t find work.

“Maybe 20% have already returned (to Ukraine),” Shukh said of the refugees he works with. “But most of them have nowhere to go back.”

Countries review their support for refugees

Others are still moving to other parts of the continent. But hastily designed resettlement programs mean some countries are now under pressure.

In the UK, for example, the government launched a House Sponsorship Scheme for Ukraine weeks after 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.

So far the scheme has housed 108,000 people, while a further 42,600 have come to Britain to stay with relatives. But 10 months later, and with no end to the war in sight, some wonder how long the deal will last.

“Now I don’t make plans,” said Yuliia Matalinets, 32, a freight surveyor from Odessa, who has been living with a host couple in Bristol, England, since June. “I understand that it doesn’t make sense. 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 problems faced by Ukrainian immigrants and host families.

kate brown

CEO, Restart Communities and Refugees

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

Kate Brown, chief executive of Reset Communities and Refugees, which helps resettle refugees in the UK, said the number of Britons offering their homes to migrants has fallen over time. As of December 6, the charity had 227 potential hosts registered in its database, but 3,948 active Ukrainian cases, which may represent one or more people, looking for homes.

“There is an urgent need to find practical solutions to the problems facing Ukrainian migrants and host families, so that more people feel empowered to host. Wherever possible, hosting arrangements can be expanded, and where that is not possible, Ukrainian immigrants will be supported to move into long-term accommodation,” Brown said.

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

julia matalinets

The UK government reviewed its plan last week and announced £150m 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 good news for some hosts, who say the UK tandem crises have affected their ability to support their guests.

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

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

“I hope the war really ends soon and I have a chance to go home,” he said.

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

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