Ukrainian refugees find work and kindness as they settle

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Nataliya Hibska brushes her teeth quickly and makes her bed. She rushes to the new job of hers.

From a small hostel room in eastern Warsaw, Hibska, a Ukrainian refugee, is slowly rebuilding her life, which was abruptly upended by Russia’s invasion of her homeland.

European Union member countries such as Poland and Romania, the two neighboring countries that have received the largest number of refugees from Ukraine, have launched programs to help them integrate.

The former director of a private educational center in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, Hibska, 47, fled her hometown after a second wave of shelling. When bombs hit a nearby military warehouse and rocked her home, she knew it was time to leave and find shelter for her and her 11-year-old son.

“We were afraid to go out, to let them go out into the yard, we were afraid to let them ride a bike or play soccer. We were so scared that we decided that was enough. It was time to run away,” 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 turned out to be a challenging five-day journey to the safety of Poland.

Three weeks later, and thanks to a combination of help provided by ordinary people in Poland and policies implemented at the national and municipal levels, Hibska and her son begin to feel safe.

They have a simple but cozy home. Her son is enrolled in a local school and she has started a new job as a cook in a Ukrainian food bar set up especially to provide employment for refugees.

The workday starts early with food preparation before the lunch rush.

Hibska and the five other Ukrainian women who work here, all newly arrived refugees, roll out the dough and cut the fillings for the traditional Ukrainian meatballs, pelmeni, which are a staple.

“I used to have five people working for me and I would organize (youth) camps,” he said, reflecting on his past life in Kharkiv. “I am not ashamed of the fact that I am currently working in a kitchen.”

Warsaw city authorities say the job helps refugees integrate but is also filling vacancies in the health and education sector, where special classes are being launched to help newly arrived Ukrainian children.

Of the more than 4 million refugees who have fled Ukraine, more than 2.4 million have crossed into Poland. While many have traveled across Europe, many have stayed in Poland, which offers free temporary accommodation, health care, education, and some social benefits. Some 625,000 refugees have searched for and obtained Polish identification numbers that entitle them to all of this for 18 months.

But living off benefits was not something Nataliya would accept for long.

“The volunteers help us with everything. We can live from Poland, but I don’t see it as a good thing,” he said. “I need to work. You won’t get much without doing anything.”

Her new job helps support her and her son, Roman, and any leftovers 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 hotel owners. The same company launched a Ukrainian food bar specifically to employ refugees.

The place opened 10 days ago and is quickly gaining fame, with customers determined to help Ukrainians while enjoying good food.

“The forms of help are evolving,” said Karolina Samulowska waiting for her request. “In the beginning there was help, snacks, train stations.”

Now, in the bar “on the one hand the products are here and promote the country, on the other hand the money moves, giving meaning to the life of the refugees”.

As a regular stream of customers come for lunch, restaurant manager Dorota Wereszczynska reflects on success.

“We didn’t expect such popularity,” he 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 refugees from Ukraine.

Flavia Boghiu, deputy mayor of the central city of Brasov, says the key to integration is helping people become “as autonomous as possible.”

The city’s refugee centers offer support and information on job offers, childcare and other activities, she told the AP, and local authorities are proud that of the 1,200 refugees who have 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 need to discuss with them to understand their particular situation. If you have a mother with three children, you need to see what you are going to do with the children (while) she is at work,” said Boghiu.

Four generations of Anastasia Yevdokimova’s family fled their homes near the Black Sea. The 21-year-old beauty industry worker arrived in Brasov with her grandmother, her mother and her 3-year-old son. Brasov attracted them with its impressive architecture and access to nature “which helps distract from the circumstances,” Yevdokimova said.

They have already had to seek urgent medical attention for the child and found it prompt and attentive. That reassured them.

Another refugee, Karina Buiukli, 27, a human resources manager in the Black Sea port city of Odessa, and her family were offered free accommodation with a couple from Brasov, but they did not expect the great kindness with which were found.

“Our hosts, the owners of this apartment, are very kind and now we are like friends,” Buiukli said. “They showed us around the town, they invited us to their house, it seems like we’ve known each other for a long time.”


McGrath reported from Brasov, Romania.

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