Many Ukrainian refugees have decided to return home, despite ongoing risks to their safety and practical struggles like electricity blackouts and internet outages.
Listen To This Story
KYIV, Ukraine — Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has caused the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The exact numbers are unclear, but UN agencies estimate that at least 6 and up to 8 million Ukrainians have fled the bombs and bullets. The vast majority of them are women and children, as men between the ages of 18-60 have mostly been banned from leaving the country. Now, millions have of those refugees have returned to face an uncertain future. Three of them talked with me about why they left and the mix of happiness and uncertainty they face on returning.
Marta in Kyiv
“My mom was begging me to wear this ugly sweater she unburied in the old grandpa’s wardrobe. … Another ugly thing she made me wear was the bitter taste of embarrassment and guilt, and it will not save me when my heart gets frozen.”
These are lines Marta, a 29-year-old from Kyiv, shared with me. They are part of a poem she wrote about the guilt and grief of leaving her home. She refers to her time in Poland, where she fled from the war in Ukraine, as the “worst ever in my life.” She didn’t want to give her last name, as she says she still feels a strong sense of guilt about her decision to leave.
Marta left Ukraine when the war began and relocated to Warsaw. At that time, the Russians were attacking from five different directions, and the entire country was under assault. Marta expected to feel relief at escaping the chaos. Instead, however, she was overwhelmed with shame. “I felt horrible mentally; the feeling of guilt would never leave me all that time,” Marta said. “I wanted to punish myself for not being in Ukraine. There was always a feeling, regardless of being safe, that I am not where I am supposed to be.”
It was not that she felt unwelcome in Poland. Unlike refugees from conflict zones such as Afghanistan or Syria, Ukrainians have reported general acceptance and warm receptions from their hosts. Their fears are usually not for their immediate survival. That’s especially true in Poland, where the languages and cultures are very similar, and the Polish government has invested heavily in social programs and housing initiatives to help support refugees.
However, many, like Marta, report a deep sense of unease, even shame, about being safe abroad while people in their homes are suffering.
Angelina in Kharkiv
Angelina Zhdanko, 27, watched her peaceful and happy life disappear overnight when the Russians bombed Kharkiv in February 2022. In the first days of the full-scale invasion, there were gun battles in the streets as Russian soldiers briefly managed to fight their way inside the city. They placed their artillery in occupied villages just a few miles north of Kharkiv and constantly shelled residential areas.
So in early March, along with hundreds of thousands of other Ukrainians, Angelina fled the city. First she went to Poland, but then she moved through Europe, to various countries including Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
Angelina returned to Ukraine in September of last year. The country had won a series of major battles, and its largest eastern cities were becoming gradually safer. Her decision to return to Kharkiv was based on a calculation of the risk to her personal safety and her ability to live something close to a normal life. “I was eagerly waiting for everything to end each month,” she said, “so I could go back home.”
Unlike Marta, Angelina does not regret leaving, saying her travels gave her a new perspective on the importance of her homeland. “I cannot put into words how overjoyed I am to be here, to reunite with my family who had been here the whole time, and to hear the Ukrainian language everywhere.”
In May of this year, when I interviewed Angelina in a trendy cafe in Kharkiv, it was a flourishing city again. A series of skillful Ukrainian counteroffensives had pushed the Russians well out of artillery range, dealing them one of their most humiliating defeats. Parks and cafes were full, and the sounds of bombs and shells had been replaced with the creaking of cranes and other heavy machinery, busy rebuilding the city.
Angelina said she is delighted to be home. However, she knows she may not be able to stay if conditions deteriorate again. She said she doesn’t want a life where she is always forced to stay in a bomb shelter or is unable to work effectively. This past winter, after Russian strikes against infrastructure damaged the power network in Kharkiv and other major cities in October, she left Ukraine again. She returned again in March, but as an online worker she relies on steady electricity and internet connection.
Victoria in Odesa
The last time I spoke to Victoria Lember, 30, in early June, was the day after a Russian missile had slammed into a McDonald’s in the center of Odesa, and she was second guessing her decision to return home. “I don’t feel safe anymore, once again,” she said.
If Kharkiv is confidently rebuilding, Odesa seems in a state of suspended animation. Victoria’s home city has suffered less from the military side of the war than Kyiv or Kharkiv. Its gorgeous boulevards and grand architecture, including the Potemkin Steps and its neo–Baroque 19th century opera house, are still intact. But they are much emptier than before the war, and the city’s reputation as a cosmopolitan hub has suffered. So, too, has Odesa’s once-vibrant shipping industry, which has been decimated by the downturn in trade and the disruption caused by Russia’s naval aggression in the Black Sea.
Like many Ukrainians, Victoria lost work during the war, and it was this that first took her away from home. She left Odesa in May 2022, but within three months she was back. When she returned, however, she had a hard time adjusting to Ukraine’s “new normal.” And once autumn and winter set in, with the constant blackouts and long, cold nights, her mental and physical health deteriorated. “I felt exhausted and needed to emotionally recharge,” Victoria said.
So in September, Victoria left again, this time for Canada, and this time, she did not plan to return. In December, however, her father passed away, and she decided to come home once more. “I just knew that I had to support my mother,” she said.
Victoria is uneasy, however, about facing the rest of the year in Ukraine. “If the autumn and winter are going to be the same as last year,” she told me. “I am not sure I can face it.”
An Uncertain Future
Neither Victoria nor Angelina is sure that her future lies in Ukraine. Marta, however, is determined to stay this time, no matter what. “I am not scared anymore,” she said. She has come to trust that the country’s armed forces can keep her and the rest of the country safe.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that as many as 5 million people, well over half of those who originally left, have returned to Ukraine. Yet those who have remained abroad are some of the best educated and skilled, raising worries from international experts about a long-lasting “brain drain.”
Ukraine will face a challenging future regardless of the ultimate result of the war, and convincing its most talented people to return will be one of the country’s key challenges.
Marta, however, is ready for whatever comes next. “I am just walking into a new year of my life, hoping the war is over soon,” Marta said. “I’m with my people — what more do I need?”