[M] DER SPIEGEL; Fotos: Yana Sidash / DER SPIEGEL; Lena Giovanazzi / DER SPIEGEL; Marlena Waldthausen; Matilde Viegas / DER SPIEGEL

Life after Flight Ukrainian Refugees in Germany, One Year Later

Just over a year ago, Vladimir Putin sent his army into Ukraine, forcing millions of Ukrainians into flight. Hundreds of thousands ended up in Germany. We checked in with some of them to find out how they have adjusted to their new lives.

Not long ago, the economist Marcel Fratzscher described the integration of Ukrainian refugees in Germany as an "extraordinary and impressive success story." Germany, Fratzscher says, has learned from mistakes made in the past and given the refugees a real opportunity to integrate, in contrast to how the country dealt with the wave of refugees that arrived in 2015 and 2016. The loss of these people may be extremely painful for Ukraine, the economist says, "but they are extremely beneficial to Germany, also from an economic perspective." That's one side of the story. But how do the refugees themselves see their situation?


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 7/2023 (February 10th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Around 17.5 million Ukrainians have left their country since the beginning of the war, with more than a million of them ending up in Germany. Some 80 percent of the adults are women. Just a few weeks after the beginning of the war, DER SPIEGEL spoke with some of them and collected their stories. Now, close to a year after they fled their home country, we reestablished contact with a number of these women to find out how they are faring, how they see their futures and what has changed for them now that it has become clear that the war won’t be ending anytime soon.

Numbers from a recent survey carried out by the German Institute for Economic Research show that 17 percent of the refugees are gainfully employed, half of them have attended language courses and a quarter are interested in remaining in Germany for the long term. In more than 90 percent of families in Germany with school-age children, at least one child is attending school. Close to 60 percent of children not yet old enough to attend school have found a spot in a daycare institution. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed live in private apartments and homes, with just 9 percent living in community shelters.

Lena with Maxim and Anya

Lena with Maxim and Anya

Foto: Lena Giovanazzi / DER SPIEGEL

Lena, 44, lives with her son and daughter in Berlin and has been lucky despite their ordeal.

It has been 10 months since Lena had to leave her homeland together with her daughter and son. They had been living a decent life in their Kyiv apartment until February 24, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine. Since then, her daughter Anya has celebrated her fifth birthday in Germany and her son Maxim his 18th. She herself has turned 44 in the intervening months. She has been living apart from her husband for the last 10 months, with men of military age in the country not granted permission to leave in case they are needed for the war effort.

"When we left last March, I told my husband that we would see each other again by May 1 at the latest," Lena recalls in a house in Brandenburg where they are now living. She thought their absence would be temporary, an emergency measure to keep the children safe. Now, though, she is beginning to think that she’d like to stay in Germany. She believes that a return to Ukraine "is unrealistic, even in the long term." She has no concrete plans, but hopes that her husband will be able to join them at some point "after we have defeated Russia."

She doesn’t speak of a Ukrainian victory as a mere possibility or dream of hers. Rather, she views it as a certainty. Just that she’s not sure when that time will ultimately come.

Despite their misfortune, the family has been lucky. Their first host (the family of DER SPIEGEL editor Guido Mingels) put them up for several weeks and arranged for a daycare spot for Lena’s young daughter. Later, German aid workers found a house for her where the family could live together with another Ukrainian family of two – an affordable, more permanent solution.

The experience of Lena’s family demonstrates the importance of the many volunteer helpers in Germany when it comes to helping refugees find success.

Now, a neighbor takes her daughter to daycare every morning when Lena attends her German course. A welcome initiative in the town they now live in has arranged for trauma therapy for the young girl. Financial aid from administrative district arrives reliably every month, as does federal money paid out to families in Germany. Volunteers join Lena for her appointments with various agencies and for her doctor visits, others have donated furniture and clothing – and have become friends. "We are extremely grateful," Lena says. Every few minutes during the conversation, she expresses her gratitude for something or another, or simply for everything.

An energetic, sincere woman, Lena speaks decent English, mixing in a bit of German now and then, but when questions go beyond her daily life, she turns to a translation app on her mobile phone to help out. "We want to be good," it says on the screen after she finishes a long sentence in Ukrainian. It can’t be correct, so she tries again. "We want to be useful for Germany and for ourselves." She says she wants to learn the language, earn money and pay taxes. She wants to be part of society and to give back as soon as she is able.

Maxim, her son, has also set his sights on staying in Germany. He is currently doing an internship at a car repair shop in Berlin, thinking he might want to become an automobile mechatronic. Or maybe an IT expert, or sound engineer. He’s not really sure yet. He got his internship through a man named Christoph Böhmer, who Maxim met through a few happy coincidences. Böhmer paid for 18-year-old Maxim to take a course at a private language school and also arranged for him to take swimming lessons with other Ukrainian refugees. "A lot of strong, proud young men are coming who don’t want to admit that they are unable to swim," says Böhmer.

That is the manner in which he helps out: pragmatic, demanding and direct. Böhmer, 56, was the CEO of a company with several thousand employees until not long ago and now co-directs an investment fund. On the side, he and his partner run what is essentially a private refugee aid operation, with a particular focus on young men who are on their own. He and his partner sometimes even take refugees into their home, with three men from Afghanistan currently living with them. Their own children – together they have six in their patchwork family – have all already moved out. Over the years, Böhmer has become the official guardian to 15 underage refugees and the foster parent to three. He has been able to find work for over 100 young refugees.

The experience of Lena’s family demonstrates the importance of the many volunteer helpers in Germany when it comes to helping refugees find success. State and local governments are unable to do it on their own.

Lena and her children speak with her husband every day, discussing normal daily things like the weather, shopping and news from the war. Sometimes, they are even able to laugh, despite everything. Lena says that she is "extremely happy that my compatriots haven’t lost their sense of humor." Recently, when a Russian rocket struck the power grid, she read a commentary from Kyiv via Telegram. "If there is no light and no heating, there’s nothing left for us to do than produce new young Ukrainians."

Margo Shubnikova with Martin

Margo Shubnikova with Martin

Foto: privat

Margo Shubnikova, 32, musician, gave birth shortly after fleeing Ukraine and lives outside of Stuttgart.

"A lot has happened. My son Martin is now nine months old. He was born just a few weeks after I fled to Germany. The war tore me out of my old life and my son has given me a new one. Unfortunately, I have separated from my husband, who fled Ukraine with me. Once my son is no longer breastfeeding, I want to find a job. I am unable to speak to my family in Ukraine about the war. My mother lives in Melitopol, in Russian-occupied territory."

Olga Gdulia in Turka, Ukraine

Olga Gdulia in Turka, Ukraine

Foto: Yana Sidash / DER SPIEGEL

Olga Gdulia, filmmaker, 32, was unable to find her footing in Germany and has returned to Ukraine.

Olga Gdulia arrived in Berlin on March 10. She fled across the destroyed bridge in Irpin, the suburb of Kyiv, with her two cats and one bag. The images of that bridge traveled the world, and Gdulia saw herself in some of the coverage, "with uncombed hair." At that moment, she thought she wouldn’t be returning to Ukraine for a long time, if at all, and she didn’t know if she would ever see her parents again. "But on May 20, I was back in Ukraine." Why? "Because I was unable to find a job in Germany and didn’t have a place to stay."

Initially, Gdulia and her cats were put up by a friend of hers in Berlin. But after an argument, they could no longer stand being under the same roof. "I had 24 hours to move out,” Gdulia says, "but I was so exhausted." The proposition of living off of 300 euros per month, far less then she used to make, was also of concern for her. She initially thought that she would be able to turn up some kind of work. It took her two months to get through all of the red tape necessary to obtain a legal residency permit, and she used that time to do everything she could to find a job, but was unsuccessful. She also tried to emigrate to Canada, but she didn’t have enough money.

"The Russians bomb everything in the Kyiv region to kill as many people as possible."

"Now, I’m living in Turka, a small town not far from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. I’m back home," she says during a Skype conversation. Friends from the film industry, who had joined a local aid organization called Myloserdia, which means "mercifulness" in Ukrainian, offered her a position on their team. Now, Gdulia is working as the manager of a program arranging for warm meals for Ukrainian refugees from other parts of the country – together with the people she used to make films with.

She says she felt a sense of relief when she returned to Ukraine, in part because she was so tired from all the attempts to start a new life. Gdulia spoke of her upcoming train trip to Irpin to visit her parents. It’s a trip she has already made a number of times – and her apartment there is still standing, though she is aware that it isn’t safe. "The Russians bomb everything in the Kyiv region to kill as many people as possible," she says.

Nobody can know when the war might end, Gdulia says, but the most important question, she believes, is how it will end . She says that if there is no regime change in Russia and if democratic reforms aren’t introduced, then there will be a new war 10 or 20 years down the line. She hopes that the Russian Federation ceases to exist after the war, with five or 10 new republics taking its place, similar to what happened following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only then, Gdulia believes, "will there no longer be war between Ukraine and some form of Russia."

She believes the decade after the war will be a difficult one and that reconstruction will take far longer than the war itself.

"I will never get back my old life," says Gdulia. But she is still happy to be in her homeland again. "This is my country. I don’t have to ask anyone for help here like I did in Germany. I can work and take care of my business on my own. I can again stand on my own two feet."

Anzhelika Sorokina

Anzhelika Sorokina

Foto: Marlena Waldthausen

Anzhelika Sorokina, 33, anesthetist, already has a job offer, but isn’t yet allowed to work.

"I have completed my B1 German course, now I’m starting B2. But there are other steps I need to take before I can work as an anesthetist, the field I studied. I have already been offered a job at a hospital near Frankfurt am Main, but I still need a work permit and a couple of other documents. It all takes so long. I think that Germany should make things quicker for refugees who are willing and able to work. I keep hearing that the country needs experts everywhere. That would help everyone."

Dina Dusha in Porto, Portugal

Dina Dusha in Porto, Portugal

Foto: Matilde Viegas / DER SPIEGEL

Dina Dusha, 22, who fled to Germany from Bucha, now looks back at the distant war from Portugal.

A student who survived the atrocities of Bucha, Dina Dusha now receives travel accounts from all over the world. There is the friend who tells her via text message about her internship at the European Parliament in Brussels. And her acquaintance who gets in touch from Morocco after being hired on as a crew member for a cruise ship. And there’s Dusha herself, who says she regularly receives such messages. Dusha is also far away from her home country of Ukraine. She's almost 4,000 kilometers further to the west, in Porto, Portugal.

Dusha is sitting in her room in a shared apartment and smiling into the camera of her laptop, talking about her plans. In late February, she will head to Luxembourg for half a year before continuing on to Mainz, Germany, for the winter semester. She plans on spending her last summer as a student of German language and literature in Palermo on the Italian island of Sicily. It’s almost as if the 22-year-old is looking for her own personal response to the violence Russia has unleashed on her home country: more education, more international understanding, more Europe.

In Porto, from the western edge of the continent, Dusha has a unique perspective on the war. Whereas many of her compatriots face the constant danger of rocket attacks and frequent power outages, she is studying the "Nibelungenlied," the heroic epic poem from the Middle Ages. She is reading Minnesang from the Middle High German period and discussing Parzival. And, thanks to a grant from the European Union, she doesn’t have any money problems. "My parents used to have to provide me with financial support," she says. "Now, I am able to send money back to Ukraine for them. We have agreed that I will regularly set aside some money so I can help them in an emergency."

She seems to be almost ashamed of the situation in which she finds herself. "In Portugal, there are no power outages, no artillery fire," she says. "I am far away from the war, and that is a great fortune."

The family was only able to flee to Kyiv after two weeks, long before Dusha learned of the numerous murders and rapes that the Russians had perpetrated in Bucha.

Dusha experienced and saw for herself what Russian soldiers did in her hometown. She had just returned home from a semester spent abroad in Leipzig when the war broke out. When Putin’s tanks rolled through Bucha, as she would later relate, she and her parents barricaded themselves in the cellar, listening to the military vehicles and counting the rounds fired by rocket launchers and artillery. The family was only able to flee to Kyiv after two weeks, long before Dusha learned of the numerous murders and rapes that the Russians had perpetrated in Bucha.

The student made her own way back to Leipzig, where she became aware of a grant allowing her to study in four different EU countries. "Without the war, I wouldn’t be where I am now." She is likely one of the few Ukrainians for whom the daily violence back home has actually opened up some unexpected new opportunities.

So, does this war bring more than just suffering? As cynical as it sounds, does it actually create new possibilities for young people like her? Dusha hesitates, her face scrunching up. You could maybe say that, she says, if you really wanted. "But I would have been happy to forgo this opportunity. It’s not worth all that."

She speaks with her parents regularly, but no longer every day. Her parents are doing well, she says. Her father takes care of the power generators – necessary because of the frequent power outages – for an internet provider, and he sometimes sends her extensive text messages full of technical details ("I hardly understand any of it, but I don’t tell him that"), and her mother tells her a lot about reconstruction efforts in Bucha. There’s only one thing they don’t talk about: those weeks during which the Russians rampaged through their hometown. "We want to put that behind us," says Dusha. "Plus, there is much more to me than that experience, just as there is much more to Ukraine than just this war."

What will she do if the war is still going next winter when she finishes her studies? "I hope that Ukraine and Europe will grow much closer," Dusha says. "Personally, I am thinking mostly about Germany." She says she might try to get a job in Germany. She says she frequently thinks back to her time in Leipzig – waiting for the bus. "Sometimes, I get annoyed when the bus is a couple minutes late," she says, "but then I have to laugh at how German I’ve become."

At some point, Dusha is convinced, Ukraine will need young people like her. And then, she says, she will return home.

Ludmila Kirilenko

Ludmila Kirilenko

Foto: Marlena Waldthausen

Ludmila Kirilenko, 41, lives with her son and her sister in Neuruppin north of Berlin and works as an interpreter.

"Peace? You can’t live with a neighbor like Russia. My son would be drafted into the army if we ever went back. I see our future in Germany. My son can do more for his country if he gets a good education here than if he were sent to the front now. I am also more useful for Ukraine from here. I earn money from my work and send some of it back home, including donations for the Ukrainian army."

Kateryna Naidonova

Kateryna Naidonova

Foto: Mary Turner / DER SPIEGEL

Kateryna Naidonova was 15 when she fled Ukraine. She asks herself if it is OK to be happy as long as bombs are falling on her home country.

Something happened to Kateryna Naidonova in the last 11 months. She says that she’s changed, a difficult to describe feeling. As if she’s aged more than just the year that has passed. "Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow," she says. "I’m grateful for everything. For every moment."

Naidonova is now 16. But her youth ended on February 24, 2022. She says she had to seek shelter from the rockets that day, and since then, has been reading news that is difficult to digest.

Just recently, she learned that a dead child, just one-and-a-half years old, was pulled from the rubble of a residential building in her hometown. The regional governor said that a Russian rocket had struck the building. When Kateryna read about it, she burst into tears, she says. "War is raging in my country. How can I be happy?" It sounds more as though she won’t allow herself to be happy.

"War is raging in my country. How can I be happy?"

Kateryna is a child of war, but she is no longer a child. "Ever since I left my country, I have frequently been told that I seem older than 16."

And yet, she’s a teenager. She likes the song "Du" from the German singer Cro, and she likes dogs because they are friendly and kind to people. Her favorite color is blue. Her friends call her Katya.

Kateryna speaks calmly and restrained during the video interview, only rarely smiling. Her answers are often brief.

She fled from Kryvyi Rih, a city in southern Ukraine, to Dargow, a town in the northern German state of Schleswig Holstein. "Nice people," she says of the Germans, "friendly," she adds in German. She began going to school in Dargow, thinking she would stay in Germany, and says that she found chemistry and physics to be challenging. The bus to the nearest city ran every two hours – and not at all on the weekends.

In the hostel where she was staying, she met Ilia and Sofia, both refugees about her age. She would go swimming in a nearby lake with Sofia and sing songs around the campfire with Ilia. Kateryna even uploaded a video of them singing to Instagram. She had a nice time in Dargow, she says. The war robbed her of her youth, but that northern German town gave some of it back to her. It was difficult, she says, to leave her newfound friends.

But leave she did, moving with her mother Yuliia onward to England to join a family friend. He had room in his home in a town near Manchester, and a dog named Charly.

Kateryna gathered information about colleges in her vicinity and got a visa. She left for England mostly because of the language, she says, English being much easier than German for her, and she is now attending a college to prepare for university. No more physics, no more chemistry. "The main thing is getting a degree," she says. "I’ll have to study a lot." She has three seminars per day, and then has to do homework after that.

And in her free time? "On the weekends, I have time to go for walks."

Sometimes, she feels lonely. "The rain really makes me sad" she says, adding that it rains too much for her in England. But she likes the clean air. In Kryvyi Rih, the puddles would sometimes turn red after rain because of the local iron mine.

Kateryna knows what it means to leave people and places behind. Her father Valeriy is still in Ukraine, waiting for the letter telling him he must head to the front. It could arrive any day. She calls him when he has enough electricity to charge his phone.

The war is constantly on her mind, with her as she goes about her daily life. But sometimes, she's able to escape. Playing bingo with friends from the college. Running on the treadmill in the fitness studio. Taking walks with Charly, a cocker spaniel with a brown head and white-spotted fur. Sometimes, she says, Charly sits on the couch and gazes out the window, waiting for the bus that brings Kateryna back from college. When she gets home, he jumps around in excitement.

Oksana Klymonchuk

Oksana Klymonchuk

Foto: privat

Oksana Klymonchuk, 40, who first fled to Germany and then went back to Ukraine to fight in the war.

"I joined a military unit near Kyiv. It’s my job to go into the bombed villages to find out what people need and how to help them. The temperature is below zero and I wear all three of my sweaters layered on top of each other to stave off the cold. I never know when the next bomb might explode. Death is everywhere. You don’t know who will be the next, a friend, your family? I’m afraid, but I’m not panicked. I chose this life, but I miss Germany, particularly the lakes and the nature."

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