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A story of a Ukrainian woman refugee

Being a woman refugee means being always cautious about your safety and security[1]

I have so many plans for today!

Today, I have to meet my team to discuss the launch of the new product. You know, in addition to my main occupation, research and activism, I run a small local travel agency, and, despite all the challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been performing very well in the last two years.

Today, I have to visit the eye specialist as I have been undergoing a treatment she prescribed, and it is time to check whether there are some changes and progress (and I hope there are as I am very impatient!). You know, I hate wearing glasses, and I am looking forward to the moment when she allows me to wear my contact lenses again.

Today, I have a long-awaited dinner with my friend in one of the new fancy places she has chosen. You know, life has become so busy recently that it is a real challenge to find some time to meet old friends, and it is such a pity.

But ‘today’ has never come because today is 24 February 2022.

In fact, ‘today’ I was woken up by my mother calling on me with the words: ‘Liliia, the war has started. We need to go to Sveta’s [my cousin’s] house [there is a basement in her house, while there is no in ours]’.

My name is Liliia, and  I was 28 when I was forced to leave my home, my city, my country, my father, my relatives, my friends, my colleagues, my job, and many other things which I referred to as ‘my’. It happened in 24 hours. Early in the morning on 24 February 2022, I was awakened by my mother; actually, I was awakened by the war knocking at our doors. Chaos and panic, airplanes flying above our heads, numerous bombings and missile attacks, crazy traffic jams and people trying to save their lives and escape the city which was once considered to be one of the safest places in the county, lack of understanding of where to go and what to do next, exhaustion. These are the words I would use to describe that day. Already on 25 February 2022, together with my mother and my grandmother, I crossed the Ukrainian border having an empty car and an empty soul.

Ukrainian women of different ages, social, family, and marital statuses, professions, and occupations that were forced to seek protection abroad after 24 February 2022.

There were three of us – three women representing different generations, different life experiences, and different ideas on how life should look and how one should behave. But, in fact, there were much more of us – Ukrainian women of different ages, social, family, and marital statuses, professions, and occupations that were forced to seek protection abroad after 24 February 2022. According to the UNHCR, as of 11 October 2022, more than 7 million refugees from Ukraine were recorded across Europe; out of them, more than 4 million people registered for Temporary Protection or similar national protection schemes in Europe. Even though it is quite difficult to get disaggregated data, figures show that most of those displaced within and leaving Ukraine are women and children (around 90 percent). Among the latter, 70% of people left the country accompanied by other persons (mainly immediate family):

  • 18% travelled with infants (0-4 years old)
  • 53% travelled with children (5-17 years old)
  • 21% travelled with older persons (60+ years old)
  • 23% with at least one person with other specific needs

I have been working in the area of women’s rights protection and promotion since 2015. Thus, I knew a bit about some challenges which women refugees face. But having theoretical knowledge and living that experience is something different. When reflecting on my refuge-related experience, the first thing that comes to my mind is the constant feeling of anxiety. Being a woman refugee means always being cautious about your safety and security: physical, economic, and emotional.

Physical safety and security challenges

While studying the issue of women refugees, one may find a lot of information about the violence and discrimination they can experience in different stages of their journey, either in their country of origin, while they flee to find a shelter, or in the place where they find refuge. According to the UNHCR, one in five refugee or displaced women in humanitarian situations suffer sexual violence. They are the target of rape, human trafficking, and sexual abuse. Often, the victims of these crimes are women who do not speak any language except their mother tongue, have little experience traveling abroad, and do not have friends or connections who can support them with some piece of advice on what to do and where to get assistance.

While fleeing the war in Ukraine, many people left all their belongings back home, and in many cases, people lost everything they had. Respectively, they were forced to look for some free-of-charge accommodation and food and trust in the decency of those offering help. As mentioned before, I left my home on 24 February 2022, and already on 25 February 2022, together with my mother and my grandmother, I was abroad. Unfortunately, as we refused to believe the threat of full-scale war for a long time and trusted in diplomacy and international law too much, we were not ready for the evacuation and left in a rush, having almost nothing with us. In fact, when we were crossing the border, the border guard was very surprised when she saw three women and no luggage at all.

It was the very first moment when I encountered that uncomfortable feeling of being ‘unsafe and unsecured’: we had to ask for assistance and stay with people we did not know.

In the beginning, thinking that ‘it will end soon: today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow’, we rented apartments abroad (as many other Ukrainians did). Besides, we believed that we were privileged to have a car and some money while there might be Ukrainians who had nothing, respectively, there were people ‘who needed assistance more’. However, days were passing, the situation was getting worse, and the understanding that we were running out of resources was approaching. That was the moment to take the decision to ask for help and to look for some free-of-charge accommodation. And it was the very first moment when I encountered that uncomfortable feeling of being ‘unsafe and unsecured’: we had to ask for assistance and stay with people we did not know.

During the first months after 24 February 2022, many platforms and individual initiatives offering to host Ukrainian refugees appeared, which was amazing, and I feel sincere gratitude to all the people who were ready to put their shoulders on the table to support Ukrainians. But back then, there was no system in place to guarantee the safety and security of such experiences. People could easily register on those platforms or publish their individual initiative in some chat or group on social media. There were advertisements where people offered assistance and a place to stay only for young women without children or other relatives. I do believe that such offers were sincere and aimed only to do well, albeit nobody could guarantee that there were no threats of rape, human trafficking, and sexual abuse in such cases.

Together with my mother and my grandmother, we were hosted by five families in different cities and countries, and we will always be grateful for their kindness and support. At the same time, I feel that we were very lucky. On the one hand, I speak English, and I was checking the offers quite carefully; on the other hand, we were a family of three people, and I believe there were fewer threats to us in this regard. But some women are less privileged: they do not speak English or any other foreign language and cannot communicate with foreigners making themselves and their needs clear and understanding the other side properly; they have no one to share this experience with, and they have to cope with all the challenges on their own. Do they feel safe and secure when accepting the offer to stay with people they do not know? And do they feel safe and secure walking around the unknown city where from every corner they hear the language they do not understand and they see the people they do not know?

Economic and financial challenges

Having a job or a source of income helps women refugees overcome the challenges of displacement, protect themselves and improve their well-being. Thus, the issue of economic and financial safety and security comes up for the refugees right after arriving in the new country while trying to settle down. It is closely related to physical safety and security as, having no income and money to support themselves and their families, people might end up being exploited in different ways (sexually, as unpaid domestic workers, etc.). 

As a consequence of family separation forced by the war, a large proportion of Ukrainian women refugees became single caregivers for their families.

According to the UNHCR, 77% of Ukrainian refugees have completed technical, vocational or university studies; most have a professional/occupational background in services-related sectors: in essential services (particularly education, medical activities, and civil services) as well as in market services (especially wholesale/retail trade). 

As a consequence of family separation forced by the war, a large proportion of Ukrainian women refugees became single caregivers for their families. At the same time, many had a language barrier to accessing the job market and educational opportunities in the host countries. My mother is 50 years old. She speaks Ukrainian and Russian and used to work in a real estate area providing people-to-people services. Before 24 February 2022, she has never visited any European Union country. Respectively, she had to adapt to the new environment very quickly accepting the fact that she had to depend on somebody else and that she was not the breadwinner anymore as she lost her job and could not enter easily the job market in any of the European countries. My grandmother is 72 years old. Likewise, my mother, her language skills are limited to Ukrainian and Russian, and she had never left Ukraine in her entire life. Thus, in the case of our family, out of three adult people who left the country, I was the only one who spoke English and had some international experience. Accordingly, in 24 hours, I became the single breadwinner for the family that from that moment fully deepened on me both financially and in their daily life. But, still, we were privileged as I could provide for my family. 

Concurrently, there were many Ukrainian families that had no one to step in, and many women fled Ukraine with infants, children, or people who had specific needs, so in addition to all the integration challenges, they also had the burden of their parental or care responsibilities. Thereafter, as identified by the ‘Lives on Hold: Profiles and Intentions of Refugees from Ukraine #1’ report, there were cases when people returned to Ukraine because they had run out of savings and were unable to find financial security, accordingly, the main urgent need reported by refugees was cash.

Besides, Women’s World Banking research shows that Ukrainian women refugees are not financially resilient. Their lack of trust in the accessibility of their money in the countries where they were traveling led them to withdraw funds in full and travel with large sums of cash – the fear of being without money constrained their choices to cash, which turned to be problematic later on. For instance, traveling with cash can be a threat to refugees’ personal security. Moreover, sometimes it is difficult to exchange hryvnia for euros because of banking sector concerns about hryvnia instability.

Thus, starting everything from scratch, learning new languages, and acquiring new skills in accordance with the requirements of the host country’s job market, accompanied by the necessity to take care of the wellbeing and daily life of their family members and dependents, being the single caregivers and breadwinners responsible for the financial and economic security of the family became the framework in which many Ukrainian women refugees found themselves after fleeing the war. Herewith, the majority of them were quite established in Ukraine before the Russian full-scale invasion, which made it even more difficult for them to adapt to the new reality (there are a limited number of white-collar jobs in European host countries).

Emotional challenges

When fleeing the war, people already have some psychological trauma and struggle with numerous emotional challenges and mental issues such as anxiety, fear, despair, and depression. Usually, the sounds of air alarm signals (sirens), explosions, shooting, and shouting follow you wherever you go for a long period after you leave the war zone. In the case of Ukrainian women refugees, not only we had to flee the war, saving our lives and the lives of our beloved people (children, parents, or other relatives), we had to accept the fact that we were to leave some of our male-relatives in a country where the full-scale war was going on and there was little we could do to help them. 

According to the regulation that came into force on 25 February 2022, men were forbidden to leave Ukraine. Following that, 82% of Ukrainian refugees had to separate from at least one or more immediate family members who stayed behind. I was separated from my father: he stayed in Ukraine, while, together with my mother and my grandmother, I left the country.

Sometimes, you have to make tough decisions. The moment I said ‘goodbye’ to my father was the moment I had to accept the fact that I might not see him again. And I have to undergo the very same moment of acceptance every day when saying ‘goodbye’ to him over the phone [Kyiv has been under a massive Russian attack in October 2022 again]. Just imagine that feeling of talking to your beloved person and accepting the fact that it might be your last conversation.

At the same time, I often hear how foreigners admire the strength of Ukrainian people. Usually, they say how courageous and resistant Ukrainians are, especially women. But the truth is that we did not choose to be strong, we did not choose to be courageous, and we did not choose to be refugees, war volunteers, or soldiers. It was not our choice – it was the situation we found ourselves in, and we accepted it as there was no other choice for us.

However, there are moments when we do feel weak, and we need people to accept that fact and allow us to be weak. When you are representing the nation of freedom fighters, you are not allowed to show any signs of weakness, especially if you are in a relatively safe place far away from the missile attacks and kamikaze drones, are you? First and foremost, it’s you who forbids yourself to be weak. The pressure of the necessity to be strong all the time adds a lot to the already existing psychological trauma which you try to hide somewhere deep inside your soul not to let down your nation and the expectations put on you. But can it last forever?

All Ukrainians have psychological trauma caused by the war.

Addressing these emotional challenges is quite an issue for Ukrainian women refugees. Unfortunately, the culture of taking care of physiological health is not developed in Ukraine very well, and people still have some stereotypes related to it. Even when there is a possibility to attend a session with a professional phycologist in refugee centers, we are hesitant about whether to do it or not. So, not many people use this opportunity and ask for phycological support while, in practice, all Ukrainians have psychological trauma caused by the war.

Some months ago, while checking the news, I came across one of the reportage on Ukrainian women and children posted on the BBC News YouTube channel. At the end of the video, the journalist mentioned the phrase which always comes to my mind when I am asked to describe the experience of Ukrainian women refugees and with using which I would like to conclude this blog: “Those who have left are safe, but their burden is no lighter. And those cities will stand again, but the task of rebuilding yourself new is harder”. 

[1] This blog is based on a personal story of a young woman who had to flee her home country because of the war and her reflections on this experience  

Liliia Antoniuk
PhD Researcher
Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

The views and opinions expressed in the blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the National Council of Women of Finland.

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