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Ukraine war

'My heart remains in Ukraine': The refugee women longing to return

KRAKOW, Poland -- In late January, we met about 10 Ukrainians with teaching experience who were learning intermediate Polish in the center of the country's southern city of Krakow.

"I want to get a job in education and rent an apartment," said Iryna Hudz, 35, who specializes in the education of children with disabilities. She fled the Ukrainian capital Kyiv at the end of February 2022 with her four children, aged between 8 and 12. They first lived with a host, before moving to more basic accommodation, which is free of charge, but has shared toilets, showers and kitchens, and is further away from the school.

Her voice trembled when talking about members of her family who are still in Ukraine. Her father joined the military at age 59, making him the oldest in his unit. When asked where he was, she said, "Bakhmut," and choked up. The city has become the most fierce battleground in the Russian offensive in the eastern Donetsk oblast, or region, of Ukraine.

At the start of the invasion, the administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a general mobilization order, banning adult men from leaving the country in principle. As a result, the majority of refugees from the country are women, children and the elderly. They have been separated from their husbands and fathers for a prolonged time.

Polish authorities provide free accommodation for refugees from the conflict and support in finding legal employment. However, at a facility Nikkei visited in Krakow, up to 80 people slept in one large room, making it difficult for them to lead calm daily lives.

With no end to the invasion in sight, Ukrainian female refugees are seeking economic independence, but it does not come easily.

"Every day is so difficult," said 48-year-old Oksana Dzhalilov with tears in her eyes. She lives in private accommodation with her son and works eight to 12 hours a day washing dishes in an unheated workplace. She makes the minimum hourly wage and said she cannot "live very well" outside of the accommodation provided.

The Polish and Ukrainian languages come from the same Slavic roots, but are not so close that they are mutually intelligible. It is difficult to get a high-paying job that requires skill and expertise, even with conversational Polish.

Before the invasion, it was estimated that about 2 million Ukrainians were working and living in Poland. They were valuable in taking the place of Polish workers that had left for Western Europe after Poland joined the European Union, but many of these men returned home to Ukraine to volunteer for the military or for other reasons.

In the past year, the food company U Jedrusia has hired about 70 refugee women in its factories. "Poland's manufacturing industry would not be possible without Ukrainians and other foreign workers," said one of its human resources managers.

An October survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 25% of adult Ukrainian refugees in Poland were employed by businesses and other organizations. Piotr Arak, director of the Polish Institute of Economics, estimates that 50% to 60% are working in some form, including working remotely for their workplaces back in Ukraine, but it is unclear whether they are earning enough to support their families.

Ryszard Czarnecki, a member of the European Parliament from Poland's ruling, anti-immigrant Law and Justice party, asserts that "Ukrainian refugees are different in nature from Middle Eastern and African migrants who come to Europe in search of welfare," adding that the Polish economy will also benefit from their presence.

However, the circumstances of refugees in wartime are different from those of migrant workers in peacetime. The degree to which they can put down roots in Poland is also an issue, as many wish to return home.

Tetiana, 36, a public health nurse who left her husband in Kharkiv in the north of Ukraine and fled with her 11-year-old son, does not work but continues to volunteer at the facility where she stayed temporarily. "My heart remains in Ukraine," she said. "I don't feel like building a life here."

"Poland's response is still at the refugee assistance stage and does not envision long-term 'integration,'" said Dominik Wach of the Centre of Migration Research in Warsaw. "If they stay longer, problems may arise in terms of language, education, and so on."

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