Life on Board a Dutch Ship Housing Ukrainian Refugees

Julia Martyshkina never imagined that she would find her way under the water. She didn’t expect to find herself in the sea after she fled Ukraine during war. Her heart raced when she heard the blasts from February 24th. All she knew was she had to grab Danilo (8 years old) and run.

She was unable to concentrate and packed very little. To avoid traffic jams and tortuous travel times on the main route to Poland, she just packed her baby on a bus. “We could see in the distance all the signs of the bombing,” says Julia, a 35-year-old baker and cake decorator from Vinnytsia. In an effort to maintain her calm child, she raised her voice and informed Danilo they were on a very special trip.

“We are going to see Dad,” she reassured him.

Dad— 36-year-old Vladimir, who is separated from Julia —was at that moment in the Netherlands, nearing the end of a stint of building work. A few days after his departure, he was due to go home to Vinnytsia (a small town located 250km southwest from Kyiv). Instead, he raced to Poland in search of his son. The whole family was then brought back to the Netherlands by him three days later.

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Which is how Julia, Vladimir, and Danilo found themselves living in the hull of the M.L.V Castor, a restored Cold War-era Dutch gunboat docked in the center of Rotterdam’s gleaming harbor. Dutch authorities are trying to provide housing for more than 50,000 Ukrainians in the country’s acute housing crisis. The Castor was repurposed to accommodate 23 Ukrainians. Monasteries, holiday camps, private homes, army barracks and cruise liners—municipalities across the country have come up with their own unique solutions.

This response is mirrored across Europe and shows the logistical difficulties ahead of the largest refugee flow since the Second World War.

Over 5.5 million Ukrainians have fled Ukraine over the past months. Most of these people are now in Europe. Around 3,000,000 people traveled to Poland and 825,000 to Romania. More than half of a million live in Hungary. The E.U. activated its Temporary Protection Directive for the first time. E.U. has activated Temporary Protection Directive. It means that Ukrainians arriving at an E.U. All citizens of Ukraine have the right to travel, live, work and attend school in any E.U. country. country.

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While the number of people moving forward is uncertain as there are always new movements, they are still increasing. Germany currently has 390,000 Ukrainians. Nearly 134,000 Ukrainians are currently living in Spain. Nearly 48,000 Ukrainians registered so far in The Netherlands. The Netherlands is home to 17 million people.

Julia was transferred to the M.L.V Castor by Rotterdam on March 16th. She had previously stayed for several weeks in the cramped space where Vladimir was doing his building work. The couple split up, but they worked together in the best interest of their child. Julia recalls the first time she saw the 150-foot gunboat. It was restored to its 1947 specs, which included three mounted cannons. “Is it really possible to live here?” she thought as she crossed gangplank.

The family’s cabin is in the hull, below the water level. The only portholes are a ladder that leads up to the deck, which is about 16 feet higher than the water level. “The first night I could not sleep because the water was slamming on the walls,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘I am in the water! I am under the water!’”

The ship’s owner, Mario van Parijs, says there was a similar reaction from many of the 23 people—mostly women and children—who were assigned to his ship by the Rotterdam municipality. It is a puzzlement to him. He grew up on his parents’ commercial shipping vessel; living on the water is no big deal in a country with 280 miles of coastline, 3,700 miles of inland waterways, and one third of the land below sea level.

“The Ukrainian people never realized that it is also possible to live on a boat,” says the jovial Dutchman. “One family actually left in the middle of the night. They got seasick.”

An ex-marine engineer loves to recount the history of M.L.V Castor. As the Dutch prepared for any possible Russian hostilities, it was built shortly after the Second World War. “One of its goals was an evacuation ship for the government and the Royal Family, in case the Russians started throwing atomic bombs,” he explains.

The M.L.V Castor is now a museum boat, party boat and floating hotel. As one of the few sailable vessels from its era, it appeared in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 movie Dunkirk.

As the Rotterdam municipality prepared for Ukrainians arriving, it was clear that innovative housing solutions were needed. The Netherlands, like many other European countries, is currently facing a housing crisis. Nearly a million homes will be needed in 2030. It is estimated that 35,000 people are currently displaced from countries other than the Netherlands. Many of them live in terrible conditions, often in tents.

“The first option was to book a lot of hotel rooms,” Rotterdam’s Vice Mayor, Vincent Karremans, tells TIME. “We also started transforming offices that were empty. Then we started bringing them from the hotels to the river cruise ships.”

Three months of rental for Ukrainians is the M.L.V Castor, one of four riverboats that the municipality has hired. The municipality even convinced a cruise liner that one of their vessels could be sailed to port. 1,400 Ukrainians have now moved aboard.

Karremans says the city’s past makes it open to those fleeing war: “Only three buildings survived the bombardment in the Second World War. It’s part of our culture and heritage. We feel the fate of the Ukrainian people.”

Julia is grateful for the welcome she has received from people in Rotterdam, evidence of which is everywhere on the boat: the Officers’ Mess is littered with donated toys; tubs of toiletries brought by neighbors fill the shelves of the three bathrooms. Julia was looking for employment when the opportunities flooded in. She now has three jobs, including waitressing, bartending and karaoke.

The municipality funds the catering aboard the Castor, and every day there is a communal breakfast and dinner, served up by Van Parijs’s wife Eelke as Ukrainian mothers dodge in and out of the galley to make meals for fussy children.

Julia is at the forefront of all this. A radiant woman with warm smile and a glowing personality, she is warm and bubbly. She seems happy and at home on the boat, affectionately chiding the ship’s dog Butz, a heavyset brown Labrador who navigates the steep stairwells with considerable more ease than the Ukrainian children do.

Julia, however, isn’t at home and isn’t happy. There are thoughts of war behind the smiling face. “When I was in Poland, I saw the planes in the sky, and I thought the bombs were coming,” she says. “When I saw the birds flying above, I could not see that they were just birds.”

She is amazed that so many people are out and about having fun when she walks into bars or cafes to work.

Ira Koval is a Ukrainian woman who volunteers for the Ukrainians In The Netherlands Foundation. This foundation existed prior to the war and has mobilized its resources to assist new arrivals.

“Life here is like a movie which is being played to you but it is not real,” she says. “It is great weather, everything is blooming, it’s beautiful, you see people having drinks on the terraces, and you just escaped from bombings. It’s an extremely difficult situation.”

The trauma of this tragedy is something that European nations will have to face in order for them to host Ukrainians. It is also a problem of education for millions who cannot speak the language of their country of refuge.

Housing is the immediate requirement. Julia and her entire family have to leave M.L.V Castor by June 16. No one knows yet where the family will end up. Although there are no plans beyond temporary ones, the Ukrainians can’t live aboard boats for longer than three months. The strain on the thousands of Europeans who housed Ukrainians at their homes is starting to show. Karremans admits they are looking for solutions but acknowledges they still haven’t found the right ones.

The next step of integrating Ukrainian refugees into the European Union may prove to be most challenging politically. This is because it presents tensions between existing problems and current needs in host countries. It is the balance between providing housing for Ukrainians and refugees who have waited years to be able to live in stable housing. Similar housing problems are facing Germany. Spain’s government has to justify helping Ukrainians find jobs when only 12% are employed. E.U. If they want to stop a backlash or surge in nationalist sentiment, nations will need to find ways to deal with these complex issues.

And while some Ukrainians are going home as the landscape of war becomes more clear, Julia cannot envisage a safe return: “Even if the war ends, the economic situation will be bad, there will be mines in the ground. Every day I will be so worried about my child.”

She can’t return to her home country right now. Her last dream took her back to a gray and desolated place. She was overcome by an unanticipated emotion when she woke up from her strange situation beneath the waves. “I opened my eyes, I was on a ship, and I was very happy.”

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