This spring was supposed to be my nephew’s last semester of high school in Kyiv. With a goal to major in computer sciences, he was studying for college entrance tests. He now is looking into schools in Amsterdam that he could attend. A kind stranger took my nephew in when he fled from home. When he turned 9, he had to flee Donetsk, his hometown. In 2014, Russian-backed separatists launched a war against the Donbas.
My nephew was number 1.7million PereselentsyInternally displaced people, also known as internally displaced persons. They fled Crimea, Donbas, and sought refuge in other areas of Ukraine. Their lives have been changed forever by war. Now they are facing the unknown.
As a Russian-American immigrant, I know what it’s like to leave everything and start from nothing. In the 90s my family chose to go to America. I wasn’t a refugee. I didn’t have to tape my windows in case of a blast or hide in a bomb shelter before finding a way to escape. And I certainly didn’t have to do that twice by the time I was 17.
For many Pereselentsy, restarting their life within their own country hadn’t been easy. People in Ukraine, and in Russia for that matter, aren’t as mobile as Americans. They don’t typically go to college across the country or get jobs in another city far from where they grew up. Four generations of my family lived within walking distance from each other in Donetsk. This way of living is gone.
The younger generation fled the area eight years ago when the separatist war broke out. Mikhail, Anna, and I were both in our late 30s. It took several years for them to find a good life in Kyiv. Anna needed to move between jobs, apartment, schools and cities in order to find stability. Mikhail, on the other hand, had many rocky starts and finally rebuilt his business. Last year, he announced that he and his wife were getting married. The condo he bought was in a new, luxurious gated community on the south side of Kyiv. He and his wife moved in in time for October’s birth.
He now weighs the risks of leaving the Kyiv Condo against the possibility of his baby and wife being taken to another country. He has decided to remain in the country because he feels that this war is different.
“In Donetsk, I felt the situation was hopeless, that nothing could be done,” he says. “Now, I feel like we’re on the brink of a huge historic moment and most of the world is behind us.”
My cousin Mikhail’s family hides out in the utility room of a new apartment building in Kyiv where they had bought a condo in 2021
Most of Mikhail’s friends and colleagues from Donetsk had also fled and resettled in other parts of Ukraine. Andrey was the founder of Donetsk’s biggest consulting business. He considers himself to be a “pioneer”. PereselenetsThis was a surprising step forward. He managed to relocate his company to Kyiv with the help of 150 staff and made it one the largest consulting companies in Ukraine. He says that there’s no place to relocate the company to this time. Their clients are all Ukrainian and their auditors and lawyers can’t work abroad.
“In 2014, I was lucky because I started working the first day after moving to Kyiv. It was easier for me than for my wife, who is a notary and didn’t want to restart her practice since we thought the conflict would end quickly and we’d return to Donetsk. This time, it’s harder because we both don’t work. We try to fill our day with small acts of kindness and that helps keep us distracted.”
Yelena (a friend of Mikhail), fled Donetsk along with her 5-year old son, as soon as she heard the blast outside Donetsk in spring 2014. She was invited to Izyum by someone, which is a small village north of Donetsk. There, they assisted her in finding an apartment and a job at the local school. Eight years later, it was in that school’s basement that Yelena and her now 13-year-old son were hiding with 200 other people when it was bombed and the building collapsed on top of them. Everyone managed to escape safely. Yelena fled Izyum that day. She is currently in Frankfurt, where she stays at a hotel providing free accommodation and food to refugees.
“I really hope to see my future in Ukraine,” she says. “I would love to return to Donetsk as soon as it’s flying a Ukrainian flag.”
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