Oral history: The never-ending vacation—Intro and Part I
Written by: Sharmishtha Rawat. Edited by: Clary Estes
How do you prepare for a vacation you are not sure you could return from? One that could turn into the need to seek asylum?
As Katya and her family were preparing for their vacation to Cyprus on February 19, the possibility of a war breaking out was an unwelcome yet constant companion. "We knew prior to leaving that the Russian army was gathering close to our borders. We didn’t know what to expect since, at that time, nothing was happening inside the country" says Katya. "We figured that we had this trip planned for February 19, so we might as well go and we would just pack for a potentially longer trip. We got our backpacks, laptops, documents, a couple of T-shirts, etc. and we went on our vacation. The original plan was to go back to Ukraine on February 22. But while we were in Cyprus, we heard all of these conversations and saw the news, and it was very unclear whether or not something was going to happen. We decided to stay for another week in Cyprus just to be safe."
And then the invasion started on February 24.
"We clearly realized we are not going back at that point."
While her city of Dnipro has largely been spared in the war, staying put is safer. "We've decided to stay in Cyprus given the situation. I’m with my husband, my daughter, and we brought over my mother to join us."
For the time being, Katya just feels lucky that she and her husband, both of whom work in the IT industry, can continue doing their jobs remotely for now. Although even that is not certain. As she explains, “At this point (we spoke to Katya in late March) we are still unsure whether or not we're going to be able to keep our jobs or if we'll have to look for other jobs, or if we could even go home soon.”
Katya and her family are faced with more questions than answers while grieving the loss of their previous life. As Katya explains “We’re reading the news and we don’t know what’s going to happen with the war. We don’t know if it will get better or not. We don’t know what we're going to have to do in a month, or in two months, or in a year. At the same time, we are contending with the fact that our whole life, everything we were building, is gone. We’re not sure where we are at this point.”
In this series we will delve more deeply into Katya’s story and discuss:
— Part I: Settling in Cyprus
— Part II: Education Under Siege
— Part III: Dnipro and the Grassroots Work of Wartime
Part I: Settling in Cyprus
Katya and her family have decided to stay in Cyprus for now. Cyprus has an estimated 8000 Ukrainians within its borders, which includes both those, who like Katya and her family, entered the country for a variety of reasons before the Russian aggression started, as well as those who were displaced afterward.
In an effort to provide assistance, Cyprus has implemented a temporary protection program for all Ukrainian refugees. This program will allow Ukrainians, amongst other things, a residential permit for a minimum of one year (with maximum of three years), the right to work, housing benefits, access to medical care, and access to educational facilities. As the Cyprian Minister of Interior, Mr. Nicos Nouris, was quoted saying in a government press release, “Absolutely no Ukrainian who is in Cyprus today, who needs help, shall wait. Whether they need housing, food, or any other assistance, this will be exceptionally provided,”
As a member of the European Union (EU), Cyprus is complying with the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) when aiding those fleeing the Ukraine-Russia war into its borders. This directive was first adopted by the EU in 2001 after the decade-long conflict(s) in former Yugoslavia when many people in Europe were displaced. The TPD provides “immediate and temporary protection in the event of a mass influx, or imminent mass influx, of displaced persons from non-EU countries who are unable to return to their country of origin.” Essentially, it works by bypassing the national asylum system of the EU member states when it is believed that they may be unable to efficiently process and assist asylum seekers in a timely manner due to their large numbers.
The massive exodus of Ukrainians into EU territory triggered by the war proved to be the sort of crisis for which TPD was established. After all, not since World War II has the EU received such an unprecedented number of people seeking protection. And so, in order to effectively and rapidly offer assistance and rights to those displaced by the Ukraine-Russia war, TPD was unanimously activated for the first time since its inception on March 4th, 2022.
However, it must also be noted that the current refugee crisis is not the first witnessed by Europe since the inception of the TPD. The activation of this directive for the current crisis, and not for asylum seekers from countries like Libya, Afghanistan, or Syria, and the reported cases of favorable treatment of white Ukrainians over people of color and other nationalities also fleeing Ukraine, has been criticized as exemplifying European double standards wherein not all refugees are equal.
Besides Cyprus, other neighboring EU nations such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia have also opened their borders to an estimated 4.4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country (The total number of Refugees fleeing Ukraine are around 5.1 million, as of April 23rd, including those who crossed the border into the Russian Federation and Belarus). This number also includes third-country nationals living in Ukraine who were forced to leave as well.
Poland has received the maximum number of refugees with their number reaching around 2.8 million. On the other hand, the Republic of Moldova, while not an EU member, has also welcomed the largest share of Ukraine refugees per capita, with their numbers around 400,000. According to a recent report by the OECD, the cost of hosting the refugees would be a minimum of 0.25 % of the EU's GDP within the first year. Countries sheltering/welcoming/receiving/taking in most of the refugees will incur the burden more. Poland and Moldova have already expressed the need for assistance in dealing with the refugees. Talks regarding fairly sharing the burden of receiving and assisting refugees between the EU nation-states will soon be underway.
For the time being Katya and her family can find safety from the war in Cyprus. As she explains “At the moment, my family and I feel safe. We’re stable. Both my husband and I still have our jobs, so we can still provide for the family. We can pay our rent here. We can donate money. We can also save some money, just in case we need to move out of Cyprus. So from this perspective, we’re not in survival mode.” Yet, the future is riddled with uncertainties. How long could they stay in Cyprus? Will they still have their jobs in the future and be able to support their family? Would they be able to go back to Ukraine? These are just some of the questions that remain unanswered.
The worry over friends and family still in Ukraine is also ever-present. “For the Ukrainians who are stuck in the areas being attacked, they are in a very difficult situation. In Mariupol’, I have friends who can’t get out. They tell me, ‘We're just staying home. We're trying to get some food. We will try to work as long as there is an internet connection.’ It's getting dangerous there. (At the time of this interview Mariupol was still in the early stages of the Russian invasion of the city). People get shot while waiting in line to get bread. I'm pretty worried about my friends that are still there. They're trying to stay positive as much as they can and keep working.”
The saying “Home is where the heart is” rings very true when Katya speaks of her loved ones, “The most important thing to me is people. I can make a life in another place if I have to, but I don't have my friends around. I don't have my extended family around. That's hard to deal with and we’re not sure where we are at this point”