Ukrainian refugees find jobs, kindness, settling
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Nataliya Hibska quickly brushes her teeth and makes the bed. She rushes to her new job.
From a small hotel room east of Warsaw, Hibska, a Ukrainian refugee, slowly rebuilds her life, which was abruptly disrupted by the Russian invasion of her homeland.
European Union member countries such as Poland and Romania – the two neighboring countries that have taken in the most refugees from Ukraine – have launched programs to help them integrate.
The 47-year-old former director of a private education center in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, Hibska fled her hometown after a second wave of shelling. When bombs hit a nearby military warehouse, rocking her home, she knew it was time to leave and seek refuge for her and her 11-year-old son.
“We were afraid to go out, to let them out in the yard, we were afraid to let them ride bikes or play football. We were so scared and we decided enough was enough. It was time to flee,” she said, describing the decision she and many of her neighbors were forced to make.
With only a few basic belongings, they embarked on what became a difficult five-day journey to the safety of Poland.
Three weeks later, and thanks to a combination of help from ordinary people in Poland and policies put in place at the national and municipal level, Hibska and her son are beginning to feel safe.
They have a simple but welcoming house. Her son is enrolled in a local school and she has started a new job as a cook at a Ukrainian food bar set up specifically to provide jobs for refugees.
The working day starts early with the preparation of food before the lunch rush.
Hibska and the five other Ukrainian women who work here, all recently arrived refugees, roll out the dough and chop the toppings for the traditional Ukrainian dumplings, pelmeni, which are a staple.
“Before, I had five people working for me and I organized (youth) camps,” she said, reflecting on her past life in Kharkiv. “I’m not bothered by the fact that I currently work in a kitchen.”
Warsaw city authorities say the work helps refugees integrate, but also fills vacancies in the health and education sector, where special classes are opened to help newly arrived Ukrainian children .
Of the more than 4 million refugees who fled Ukraine, more than 2.4 million crossed into Poland. While many traveled across Europe, many stayed in Poland, which offers free temporary housing, medical care, education and some social benefits. Some 625,000 refugees applied for and obtained Polish identification numbers entitling them to all of this for 18 months.
But living on benefits was not something Nataliya would accept for too long.
“Volunteers help us with everything. We can live off Poland, but I don’t see that as a good thing,” she said. “I need to work. You won’t get much for doing nothing.
Her new job helps her support herself and her son, Roman, and anything she hopes to send to her parents and husband, who still live in Kharkiv.
His good fortune in Poland was due to a free hostel run by a family of developers and hoteliers. The same company started a Ukrainian food bar specifically to provide jobs for refugees.
The place opened 10 days ago and is quickly gaining notoriety, with customers eager to help Ukrainians while enjoying a good meal.
“The forms of aid are changing,” says Karolina Samulowska while waiting for her order. “At first there was help, sandwiches, stations.”
From now on, at the bar “on the one hand the products are there and promote the country, on the other hand the money circulates, giving meaning to the lives of the refugees”.
As a steady stream of customers come for lunch, restaurant manager Dorota Wereszczynska reflects on the success.
“We didn’t expect such popularity,” she said. “Our motto is” You buy. You eat. You help.”
Further south on the map of Europe, Romania has taken in more than 600,000 Ukrainian refugees.
Flavia Boghiu, deputy mayor of the central city of Brasov, says the key to integration is helping people to be “as self-sufficient as possible”.
The city’s refugee centers offer support and information about job openings, kindergartens and other activities, she told the AP, and local authorities proudly boast that on 1,200 refugees arrived in the city, more than 75% want to stay.
The hiring process is “much slower than normal because most of them don’t have papers with them. … You also have to talk to them to understand their particular situation. If you have a mother with three kids, you have to see what you’re going to do with the kids (while) she’s at work,” Boghiu said.
Four generations of Anastasia Yevdokimova’s family fled their homes near the Black Sea. The 21-year-old beauty industry worker came to Brasov with her grandmother, mother and 3-year-old son. Brasov lured them with its impressive architecture and access to nature “which helps to distract from circumstances”, Yevdokimova said.
They have already had to seek emergency medical care for the child and found it prompt and attentive. This reassured them.
Another refugee, Karina Buiukli, 27, a human resources manager for the Black Sea port city of Odessa, and her family were offered free accommodation with a couple in Brasov, but did not expect the great kindness they encountered.
“Our hosts, the owners of this apartment, are so kind and now we are like friends,” Buiukli said. “They showed us the city, they asked us to go to their house, it seems like we’ve known each other for a long time.”
McGrath reported from Brasov, Romania.
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