Ucrania: Accounts of activists of the USL on forced migration

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, activists of the Independent Union “Zakhist Pratsi” are part of the resistance. Unfortunately, we have had to mourn the death of our miner colleague from the region of Volyn, Alexander Agafonov. At the same time, there are also comrades of the Ukrainian Socialist League (USL) that fight on the front and others who were forced to abandon their homes and go into exile in different countries. We share here some of their life stories.

By Oleg Vernyk

The invasion that began on February 24, 2022, forced millions of citizens to seek salvation outside of Ukraine. Regardless of their wishes, many young people, together with their parents, ended up in exile. Several comrades, activists of the USL, also ended up outside the country. They each have their own personal story, their own resolution problems, their accomplishments and failures. It is very hard to summarize these personal stories, draw general conclusions and identify common tendencies. This article does not intend to do that. Here we will present personal notes, thoughts and opinions of our comrades. They ended up in completely different countries in Europe and America. They have found themselves in a totally unknown environment and they are facing life issues new to them.  

The capitalist system is rigid everywhere, and for emigrants it often shows its inhumanity in the most flagrant way. At the same time, our comrades notice that common people in the countries they ended up in, as a general rule, are very friendly with Ukrainian refugees and they try to show their sincere solidarity with those who were forced to abandon their country, saving their lives…

Vladimir (Odessa)

Vladimir has one of the most difficult situations. He ended up in Slovakia. He did not even had time to have a small interview. “I do not even have time to write because I do not have the strength, I work all the time.” He leaves for work in the morning and comes back to sleep at night. He had to get a job as a worker at a company of agricultural production of wine. It is a tough and exhausting manual job, with a salary of 900 euros per month that is not enough. The incentive is that he was provided free accommodation. Vladimir notes that common Slovakians are very friendly with Ukrainian refugees. When the work of this material was about to be completed, Vladimir was forced to leave his job and he is now looking for a new one. Still he does not get discouraged. We wish that he finds a new job and survives this new and difficult situation for him.

Mykhailo (Mariupol)

It is hard to talk about the inhabitants of Mariupol, which was literally ravaged for many months by the Russian invaders. Very few residents of the city managed to escape the hell. Mykhailo is lucky. He and his family miraculously escaped from the besieged city and ended up in Switzerland. In this country that is so expensive to live in, social aids for Ukrainian refugees are relatively small. Mykhailo has to work as a teacher of several languages for Ukrainian refugees and Swiss youngsters, and at the same time manage to study in a local university. Mykhailo writes that now it is quite difficult for many Ukrainians to adapt in Switzerland, precisely because of the language barrier. And many are neither satisfied with the laws and bureaucratic delays. However, according to Mykhailo, employment is pretty easy and salaries in Switzerland are quite solid. It is also very easy to register as “single trader”. Switzerland’s local population is relatively neutral in regards to the situation of the forced emigrants, although sometimes the attitude towards Ukrainians is also bad. Mikhailo had to hear a German-speaking Swiss call him untermensch (subhuman). He has also heard phrases from teachers from his educational institution: “You must forget the Ukrainian Language,” “Ukraine is Asia” and “the Ukrainian language generally frightens a little, French is more beautiful.” Apartments or social housings are provided to Ukrainian refugees, but there is a huge bureaucracy with documents and you have to travel great distances from the place of residence to work and to the location of the bureaucratic institutions on which migrants mostly depend.

Petro (Kyiv)

Petro represents a certain exception to the general situation. He ended up in France long before the beginning of the Russian attack. Also he has practically adapted already to the life of the young regular French and lives in part at the expense of his parents, who are also in France. While he studies in university, Petro also receives a subsidy on an economic base of poverty of 250 euros per month. Yet this is not enough and in the summer he has to earn extra money from time to time as an Uber messenger. The job of Petro’s parents is unstable and their earnings are not enough for him and his family. In France, emigrants and people without title of residence are not hired by most formal jobs because the employer requires documentation. So you have to work as a laborer in tough “dirty jobs”, where the payment of the salaries may be delayed or not be paid. There are many cases like this.

Petro writes: “Due to the instability and the generally difficult arrangement, here in France there are very big problems and it is imperative to have friends or family already settled. So that relatives or acquaintances in the beginning could host the people that arrived and lend them money from time to time. After all, migrants and refugees usually do not have salaries, but many debts. French banks do not grant loans without proof of permanent residence. Thus, you have to live in rented apartments. I say this as someone who came here before the invasion. Now it seems easier for Ukrainians to settle, because during the first months of their stay in France they grant some aids to the refugees, but unfortunately everything ends very quickly.”

Petro also points out that living conditions are far from being the best for common migrants, especially in Paris. You have to rent housing in the most impoverished areas of the city—for example, in the northwest of Saint-Dennis—or in the outskirts of the east of the Parisian suburbs, the so-called ghetto. Rooms are very small, the price of a two-room apartment can reach 1,100 euros per month. Yet the majority of Ukrainian migrants previously tried to go to Paris, because there is more work and it is easier to find it.

Now Ukrainian refugees have begun to scatter in different cities of France where there are hosting centers. Petro points out that common French people in general are friendly and treat Ukrainians with sympathy. However, sometimes, there are pro-Russians who label all Ukrainians as Nazis, which is very unpleasant.

“The French bourgeois government treats Ukrainian migrants and refugees as a good labor resource, considers them ‘reliable agricultural workers’ compared to workers of other nationalities. I must say that the police checks the documents of Ukrainians and European migrants with little frequency. The possibility of being ‘checked’ by the police is significantly higher for a person with black skin or Middle Eastern features.”

“The French State grants residence permits to Ukrainian migrants with great effort and delay. There is a lot of bureaucracy here, because you need to collect a lot of documents and live in the countryside for five years. In addition, you need at least another year to go through all the circles of bureaucratic hell to finally get the right to permanent residence. Well, until that time you are absolutely powerless in France and subject to the most ruthless exploitation.”

Petro writes: “I feel that here I am isolated from my proletariat and that I am not in my own environment. Although at the university level I will always find like-minded people among the students and the local intelligentsia, so far I have no connection with the proletarians in France. I am thinking of starting to work actively in the socialist workers’ movement already in Ukraine, where I will return after finishing my university studies in France.”

Nikita, Balakleya (Kharkiv region)

It is very difficult for me to add anything to the story of comrade Nikita. I want to offer his story directly from first hand. “Moving turned out to be a big problem, from the outside it may look like a change of scenery and an opportunity to visit another country, but in reality everything is much more tragic… Imagine that you are forced against your will to leave your home, your friends, your hobbies and your studies. You are forced to travel abroad, with the problem of not knowing the language, the lack of cash reserves and an elementary fear of the unknown.”

“Of course, I did not want to leave, we postponed the move as long as possible, until the very end. For three months I lived under occupation by the Russians on the front line, but constant battles and artillery fire made it impossible to continue there. The behavior of the occupying troops and the total absence of any work forced me to move. The last straw for us was the moment when a very drunk DPR (pro-Russian) pointed a machine gun at my father and, in a drunken delirium, started asking for vodka…. Finally, everything went well, but fear and an unpleasant bitter taste remained… Our choice fell on the Baltic countries, as many people here still speak Russian. This is a vestige of the Soviet occupation, but it helped us a lot to settle in.”

“At first we were paid small subsidies and given housing at the expense of the State, for the first four months and we had to look for work. On the downside, I can point out that a highly skilled workforce here turned into a second-class proletariat, due to lack of language skills or boycott of Ukrainian certifications by local authorities and employers. I personally saw how former engineers, clerks, chief mechanics became assemblers, locksmiths and cashiers, who, moreover, were treated much worse than similar Lithuanian specialists. This was reflected in the level of income, less respect from management and fewer prospects for career advancement.”

“In addition, a big drawback is the difference in mindset. For many Ukrainian refugees, the ‘European way of life’ just doesn’t work. There are differences in behavior, the culture of thinking in matters of ethics and morality: it is very difficult to get used to all this when you have lived all your life in Ukraine.”

“The local population, in fact, has very diverse political views. Some support Ukraine in the fight against Russian occupation, others remain latent ‘rashists’ (supporters of Russian imperialism) who feel a lot of nostalgia for the times of the ‘Soviet past’. But both are dissatisfied with the social payments allocated by Lithuania to help Ukrainian refugees, which in itself is a complete absurdity. After all, even our family paid so many taxes to the Lithuanian budget last year that they completely cover all the costs of social payments to Ukrainian refugees.”

“The Lithuanian government has taken a position of unconditional military support for Ukraine, and we, Ukrainian refugees, are pleased to realize this. But, on the other hand, this decision was driven more by the local bureaucracy’s fear of the Russian aggressor than by a deep sympathy for the Ukrainian people in the struggle for their self-determination. At least that’s how I see the situation…”

Ivan (Kyiv)

Our colleague Ivan managed to go to study at the University of Canada in a very difficult situation. It is difficult to adapt to the other half of the world. Ivan points to the “insensitivity of the university bureaucracy”. There is also disorder in transportation, the bus comes by infrequently and sometimes it is very difficult to figure out the route. “I sit in my dorm room in front of the computer, I go to the university to take classes, and sometimes I go out into town.” Ivan also points out that Canada is considered relatively a “social country” and has a number of social programs, “But they cover only a small part of the population. You often have to see disadvantaged people on the streets, despite all the wealth of the country and the relative development of social assistance. Injustices of all kinds are felt particularly acutely against Canada’s indigenous peoples.”

Yegor (Kyiv)

He joined our organization, the USL, section of the International Socialist League (ISL). Literally a few days before the war he went to Poland and then was able to transport his parents to Warsaw. Yegor knows several languages and was able to get a job as a teacher in an English language school. In Warsaw he gladly responded to help translate ISL meetings from Spanish into Ukrainian.

Different stories… Different destinations… Our comrades have very different situations…. However, they are all burning with the desire to return to Ukraine after the war and continue the socialist struggle in their homeland. Now they face the most difficult test of their lives. But none of them broke down. No one abandoned their socialist ideals. Courage and success, together we will win!