KYIV—Tamila Bushna, twenty-seven years old, spent the first two weeks after Russia invaded last February running to the basement shelter in her apartment building in Kramatorsk, a small city in eastern Ukraine. As the shelling intensified and the clinic where she worked closed its doors, Bushna, a call-center manager, and her husband, an IT specialist, considered their options. They had never been outside Ukraine. They had no friends or relatives abroad. They thought about Lviv and Ternopil, cities in western Ukraine then still relatively untouched by the fighting. But even those seemed too far and too foreign. They got in their car and drove with no particular destination in mind.
Following the invasion, I spent several months in Poland listening to the stories of Ukrainian refugees who fled to Europe. What about those who stayed behind, who were displaced from their homes and decided to stay in Ukraine? What might their choices mean for Ukraine’s future? “We didn’t want to go any further than necessary,” Bushna later explained to me. “We thought every day about going home.”
After nine hours on the road, she used her cell phone to search for somewhere to sleep. The couple found a room in a private house in a nearby village, and the next day the owner helped them to rent a place of their own: a small house with a garden and outdoor plumbing. But the fighting in Kramatorsk only worsened, and in June, Bushna discovered she was pregnant. That’s when she thought of calling the manager of the clinic where she used to work, a national chain with branches in western Ukraine. Within a week, the couple were in Kyiv, hunting for an apartment as Bushna started a new job nearly 450 miles from home.
Bushna and her husband are what migration experts call “internally displaced persons” or IDPs—two of an estimated 5.9 million internal migrants uprooted in the last ten months by the fighting in Ukraine. Ukrainian IDPs vary widely. According to the United Nation’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than half of IDPs—57 percent—are women, often with small children in tow. Four in ten report that they or someone traveling with them is over sixty years old. Many are white-collar professionals with savings and skills. Others, particularly the elderly, have nothing to fall back on. Every sizeable Ukrainian city is struggling to accommodate them. International organizations, local governments, churches, businesses, and an ad hoc army of volunteers have mobilized nationwide to try to help.
This isn’t new for Ukraine. The territory between Russia and Europe has been a battlefield for centuries, and every conflict—between Viking princes and Mongol hordes, eighteenth-century Russians and Poles, the Russian and Hapsburg empires, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany—has uprooted the local population. Both world wars forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes. Russia’s 2014 invasion displaced 1.3 million people. But today’s huge tide poses extraordinary challenges, both in the short and longer term.
How does a country where the settled population has shrunk to something like 30 million accommodate nearly six million people who are itinerant or homeless? And how will postwar Ukraine resettle and reintegrate them along with four or five million refugees returning from abroad?
I met Oleksandr, a sixty-six-year-old retired engineer who declined to give his last name, in a dingy government office in Obolon, a high-rise district on the north side of Kyiv with a disproportionate number of IDPs. Originally from Zaporizhzhia, home to the giant nuclear plant occupied by Russian forces since early March, Oleksandr had spent three months in western Ukraine, a twelve-hour drive from home. He later returned to Zaporizhzhia, then left again when the fighting intensified.
Like an estimated one-third of IDPs, he was living rent-free with relatives and making do with help from nonprofit groups plus a monthly stipend, roughly $55 USD, provided by the Ukrainian government. Children and the disabled are entitled to $80 a month, and although aid from some organizations has now wound down, in the first months of the war several international agencies also made cash payments. Oleksandr’s monthly allotment was late—hence his visit to the district office—but otherwise he seemed to be doing relatively well. “We’ll endure as long as we have to,” he told me. “There’s no other way.”
Tamara Vishniak, a fifty-eight-year-old former health care worker from Borodyanka, was having a tougher time. Some thirty-five miles northwest of the capital, Borodyanka came under heavy bombardment in the battle for Kyiv, and much of the town was severely damaged or destroyed. Vishniak was in a shelter on the morning her apartment was gutted, but she went into shell shock and left the city in a daze, walking ten miles to a nearby village. By the time I met her, she was living just a few blocks away from her original apartment in what Ukrainian authorities call a “modular town”—a cluster of prefabricated containers donated by the Polish government.
Fewer than 10 percent of displaced Ukrainians live in collective shelters, but they are among the most vulnerable. The Polish modular towns vary widely, depending on the local officials who manage them. I visited four—in Lviv, Bucha, Borodyanka, and Irpin, also northwest of Kyiv. Borodyanka was a glowing exemplar of what can be done to make life better for IDPs.
The modules are the same everywhere. The rooms are just a few yards wide, made mostly of plastic, with immovable plastic bunk beds and shelving. But Borodyanka deputy mayor Konstantin Moroz lived in his city’s village for two months after it opened to determine residents’ needs. Unlike some other modular towns—launched with great fanfare this summer, then all but forgotten as the year wore on—the Borodyanka cluster has three large industrial generators, so there is always light and heat. The communal kitchens are well-equipped and cheery; everything is clean. Residents who volunteer for chores, cleaning, or making camouflage nets, are paid a small wage. There’s children’s art on every wall—hearts, flowers, and butterflies produced in art therapy “master classes.”
Still, even in this model town, Tamara Vishniak couldn’t shake her sense of grief and foreboding. “Nothing helps with the anxiety,” she said. “Every loud noise scares me. I can’t forget what I saw.”
Greek Catholic priest Father Andrii Platosh, who manages a modular town in Lviv, says migrants go through three phases. At first, they can think of nothing but immediate needs—of surviving, at any cost. Then, once they feel relatively safe, they start to relive their trauma, “opening up,” Father Andrii and other helpers called it. “That’s when they start crying,” he explained, “and it’s a good sign.” In the third and final phase, they begin to look ahead. According to the IOM, more than two-thirds of Ukrainian internal migrants expect to be displaced for another six months at least. But as they gain strength, they may search for jobs or move out of a shelter.
No one knows exactly what share of IDPs are employed. The last time the IOM asked the question in a July 2022 survey, only about 30 percent of those who had been in the labor force before the war said they were currently working. “Many employers are hesitant to hire them,” the district administrator of Obolon, Kyrylo Fesyk, explained. “And many migrants are hesitant to look for work—they’re still hoping to go home as soon as possible.”
Those who do find jobs say there is no better therapy. “I felt like a beggar,” forty-five-year-old ophthalmologist Svitlana Muzalova, originally from Severodonetsk, now living in Lviv, remembered, “relying on strangers for food and clothes and even hygienic supplies. Now that I’m back at work, I can take care of myself.”
But even that isn’t always the case. Yulia Korobeinik, a skilled pastry chef also originally from Severodonetsk, has found work in a bakery in a Kyiv suburb. Yet she, her husband, and their two cats are still living in Bucha’s filthy, unheated modular town. “My salary’s just not enough,” Korobeinik explained. “We can’t afford to rent our own place, let alone save enough money to buy something.” According to the IOM, nearly half of the IDPs surveyed in July were renting their own apartments. But by December, four in ten said that they had exhausted their savings.
There are many challenges ahead for funders and policymakers. “IDPs come from many places and many walks of life,” Obolon administrator Fesyk explains. “Some have already gone home, even to places like Kharkiv and Kherson. But other destroyed cities may never be rebuilt, and many people will have no place to return to.”
Beyond rebuilding cities, there’s a long list of needs, from psychological counseling to training for new jobs in new cities. Even as the war rages, there is much that can be done. It starts with listening to the migrants, as administrators of the better modular towns do, and encouraging them to take their lives into their own hands, by finding a job, getting to know local people, or taking small, everyday steps—like tidying up the shelter or baking a cake—that remind them that they still have agency. Also essential: more accountability for the local officials overseeing projects funded from Kyiv and abroad.
The IDPs I met in Ukraine varied widely in their hopes for the future. “There was nothing good in Mariupol by the time we left,” said thirty-two-year-old Anna Moskakenko, mother of a one-year-old daughter. “And things have only gotten worse. It won’t be a place to raise a child.” Others, even from ravaged cities, could hardly wait to go home. “As soon as I hear that Mariupol is in Ukrainian hands, I’ll hit the highway,” seventy-three-year-old Mykola Lapiko declared. “I’ll be on the road in three hours.”
Still others—and perhaps they bear the heaviest burden—cannot see what lies ahead. “There’s nothing but ifs,” Natalya Raksha, a fifty-one-year-old doctor from Bakhmut, told me. “If the war will be over soon; if Bakhmut withstands the assault; if our apartment is not completely destroyed; if the city rebuilds.” Yet even those with the least to hope for spoke stoically about their prospects. “We have no expectations,” said seventy-eight-year-old Mykola Knutaref, a retiree living with his wife in a single room in the Irpin modular camp. “We’ll be last in the queue for a new apartment. Who knows how long we’ll have to live here. But we can adapt to any circumstances. We’re Ukrainian.”
Tamar Jacoby is the president of Opportunity America and a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the former deputy editor of the New York Times op-ed page and her latest book is Displaced: The Ukrainian Refugee Experience.
Image: A mother and her child are feeling violence, Bucha, Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, March 4, 2022. (Oleksandr Ratushniak/UNDP Ukraine)
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