Fleeing your homeland is a process of pure survival. Things like work/life balance, self-development, and improving your posture go right out the window when the only goal is to make it to safety. Each refugee experience is different and the severity of the trauma varies, but even for the people who didn’t fear for their lives while living in bomb-shelters, the initial baseline experience is still truly terrible. It consists of:
- Watching Russia destroy your country.
- Obsessively contacting friends and family to see if they are ok.
- Wondering if your government is going to collapse.
- Seeing videos and pictures of extreme violence towards your people.
- Hoping that your home won’t be destroyed.
- Likely losing your job.
- Uncontrollably reading the news.
- Difficulty focusing on anything but the war.
- Saying goodbye to your city, your community, your home, and everything you have built up throughout your life.
This is just the experience of someone who made it out early on. It doesn’t account for the people who buried family members, dealt with extreme malnourishment, became numb to the sound of sirens, and have seen their cities leveled to the ground.
One of my friends made it out of Chernihiv after two weeks of air-raids. She made a grueling week-long trek from northeast Ukraine to Poland, which consisted of various life or death decisions. Every minute on the road she was scared for her life, and told me that she couldn’t feel safe until she finally crossed the border. She then told me, “I know I am safe and all of that is over, but in my head it will never be over. It will be with me forever.” For people like her the list I wrote above is just the tip of the iceberg, and they’ll be dealing with PTSD for the rest of their lives.
My wife and I are incredibly grateful that we avoided some of the most traumatic experiences. It creates a little bit of survivors guilt, but I try to remind her that just because others are going through some of the worst things imaginable, it doesn’t make our trauma any less significant. Even though we left 10 days before the war, we are still going through immense struggles, the likes of which I never imagined that I’d ever have to deal with.
One of those struggles comes after making it to safety. After the hasty experience of getting out of Ukraine, whether from the hottest spots in the far-east or from walking distance to Slovakian border, everyone is faced with the same pertinent problem: Finding accommodation. Not only are refugees moving to new country where they likely don’t know the language and probably don’t have any contacts, but they desperately need to find long-term housing as soon as possible. It’s incredible that Airbnb is providing free temporary-housing, but there’s a massive difference between finding shelter for a few days and finally being able to take a deep breath after finding long-term accommodation. This war could go on for well over a year, so the need for something semi-permanent is at the forefront of every refugee’s psyche. It’s easier for some than others, but for most refugees this provides yet another layer of stress that is only added on to the plethora of pressure and trauma-inducing experiences like the ones I listed above.
European governments to their credit are heeding the call. Czechia is providing one to three-month emergency housing while they figure out what to do long-term. Polish families and emergency facilities are doing their best to house the 2.5 million Ukrainians who have arrived in the past five weeks. Germany is offering up to 300,000 private homes for refugees in Ukraine. Just pick a European country, type in “European country Ukrainian refugee housing,” and you’ll find the immense amount of programs that are being offered. While a wider range of long-term solutions are still needed for many Ukrainian refugees, the fact that the current options are more than just week to week provide a sliver of stability.
But then what?
After you finally have the chance to rest, calm down, and stop worrying about where to go next, you’re just sort of left to your own devices. Some people who were working online or with international companies still have something to do, but most people left their jobs along with their homes. Just last week I was talking with a woman who had also left Ukraine, and she poetically summed up this prolonged apathy-inducing struggle that feels so at odds with the adrenaline-filled terror of fleeing one’s home: “The most important thing is to figure out where you’re going to live. But once you know where, you have to ask yourself, ‘For what?’ And in some respects, that question is a lot harder to answer.”
No one knows when the war is going to end, so any sort of concrete long-term plan is unimaginable unless you have already made the decision to leave Ukraine for good. If you are like many Ukrainians and haven’t made that decision then you’re in an indefinite limbo, and if you don’t know English or the national language in your new country it’s going to be incredibly difficult to find work. The host-government is probably providing ample assistance for you to get by, but after a while, simply getting by isn’t enough to get by on.
People crave purpose and direction, but after finding shelter and finally being able to calm down a bit, many refugees find that are no clear guidelines on where to go or what to do next. The future is murky, it might be impossible to find work, and depression/anxiety makes it hard concentrate on courses, self-development, or fulfilling hobbies. Even as someone who is still working part-time, I find myself asking the same question that many Ukrainians like are asking themselves right now.
Donate to Project Hope: https://www.projecthope.org/crisis-in-ukraine-how-to-help/03/2022/
Donate to Razom for Ukraine: https://razomforukraine.org/donate/
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