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Ukrainians holding firm as war enters third year

23 February 20240 comments

Ukrainian Australians and Ukrainians who have arrived here since the Russian invasion say they remain confident and resilient as the war in their homeland enters its third year.

But with the fall of the city of Avdiivka and US financial and military support for Ukraine blocked in congress, Ukrainians in Australia and the local diaspora report an increasing sense of uncertainty about the future.

Co-chair of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations Stefan Romaniw says his community remains resilient in the face of setbacks.

“I was in Ukraine in November. People are obviously resilient and they keeping on going with the fight. But there is a slight sense of depression and uncertainty creeping in as the war has gone on,” Mr Romaniw said.

“From a government point of view, they are saying give us the weapons and we’ll continue the fight.

“And ordinary people are getting on with their lives because they have to. But there’s no real safe place in Ukraine.

“The Russians have been firing thousands of missiles and drones, more than they have in the past. And they are attacking civilians and civilian property,” he said.

Mr Romaniw said that locally, the Ukrainian community remained galvanised in support of their homeland.

“In the local community we are continuing to support the people who have come here, with the help of organisations like AMES Australia. Our focus has now turned a pathway to permanency for people,” he said.

“There are two principles at work here; ‘stability’, in that people need this for mental health reasons and to just get on with their lives.

“The other principle is ‘dignity’, which is about seeing themselves as people and professionals who want to get their qualifications recognised and be able to work.

“The other focus we’ve had is on children. There are many kids who are now at high school and will soon do their VCE.

“We also have secondary school students who want to go to university. What happens with them? Fortunately, we have seen refugee scholarships provided by the Australian Catholic University and RMIT. But we would like more clarity around this.”

Mr Romaniw said the biggest issue facing Ukrainian arrivals was uncertainty about the future.

“Basically, people want to know what the future holds. Next year, the three-year visas that they have been given expire. Obviously no one is going to be sent back while the war is on.

“But we have 4,500 people of 786 visas and more on 886 bridging visas. We want some surety about what will happen next,” he said.

Mr Romaniw said the arrival of Ukrainian refugees has seen a resurgence in local community activity.

“There are more people active in the community, more people attending our youth camps. So, that has been a bonus from what is obviously a terrible situation.

“We are trying to make the recently arrived Ukrainians feel at home but obviously they are anxious about the future,” he said.

Around 11,000 Ukrainians have found refuge in Australia, 70 per cent of them women and children.

Melbourne Ukrainian community leader Maru Jarockyj says the conflict Gaza has drained attention and support from Ukraine’s struggle.

“As soon as the conflict in Gaza started, the eyes of the world switched from Ukraine to Israel and Gaza,” Ms Jarochyj said.

“At the same moment the war in Ukraine intensified. We saw the Russians receive weapons from North Korea and Iran and then the assault on Avdiivka,” she said.

But Ms Jarockyj said morale among Ukrainians at home and in exile was holding up.

“Morale in Ukraine remains high. The troops are still highly galvanised and mobilised. People are not giving up,” she said.

But she said the delay of US military and financial support was a cause of apprehension.

“There is a resignation that if support from the US and elsewhere is reduced, Ukraine will just have to fight event harder,” Ms Jarockyj said.

She said that Ukrainians who had arrived in Australia were faring well.

“People who have from the Ukraine have thankfully found their niche. There is currently a big push on education in our community in terms of people learning English and learning how to navigate life in Australia.

“And employment wise, we are seeing more and more placements; and doors are starting opening to people with professional qualifications.”

Ms Jarockyj said there were also efforts to keep Ukrainian children connected with their culture.  

“The Ukrainian kids who have arrived are enrolled in Australian schools but many are also connecting online with the Ukrainian education system. They are learning about Ukrainian literature and history and the Cyrillic alphabet.”

She said many newly arrived Ukrainians were also volunteering.

“We have a contingent of volunteers supporting the Association of Ukrainian Australians.”

Ms Jarockyj said uncertainty about the future was weighing on her community.

“Uncertainty about aid from the US, especially if Donald Trump returns as US president, is one issue. We also have several elections coming up in Europe,” she said.

“But there is optimism in the countries like Germany are becoming more assertive in supporting Ukraine.       

“We expect the war will be drawn out but Ukraine will win in the end because there is just no other alternative,” Ms Jarockyj said.    

Ukrainian refugee Yevheniia Cherkasova, who fled her home city of Kharkiv in 2022 as Russian tanks attempted to encircle the city says “people n Ukrainian are fighting hard and trying to stay positive”.

“There is a sense of fatigue creeping in,” she said.

“People I speak to are doing fine mostly in terms of trauma and life. But we are talking about a relative definition of safety,” Yevheniia said.

“Ukrainians are positive and resilient people but recently I have detected a sense of sadness and a vulnerability.

“People are as good as they can be, but the war is dragging on. There’s a growing feeling that everything depends on the US. Ukrainians are fighting hard but it seems there is never enough weapons,” she said.

After two years of full scale war in Ukraine with ongoing massive destruction from shelling and missile attacks, the future for millions who have been displaced remains in the balance.

Humanitarian conditions remain dire inside Ukraine, where around 40 per cent of the population are in need of humanitarian protection and support, the UN refugee agency UNHCR reports.

Many have been displacement multiple times as this week also marks ten years since the war in Eastern Ukraine began.

UNHCR says there are currently about 6.5 million refugees from Ukraine who have sought refuge in other countries, while about 3.7 million people remain forcibly displaced inside the country.

According to preliminary findings from a recent study by UNHCR, most Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced people surveyed (65 and 72 per cent respectively) want to return home one day.

However, the proportion has declined, with more expressing uncertainty as the war continues.

UNHCR’s study, titled ‘Lives on Hold: Intentions and perspectives of refugees, refugee returnees and internally displaced peoples from Ukraine’, is based on interviews with almost 10,000 Ukrainian refugee, internally displaced and returnee households inside and outside the country.

Those displaced who were surveyed cited the prevailing insecurity in Ukraine as the main factor preventing their return, while other concerns included a lack of economic opportunities and housing.

The report says a key priority for UNHCR is to repair houses in Ukraine so that people can remain in their homes.

More than 27,500 homes have been repaired to date. However, amongst refugee returnees interviewed in Ukraine, more than half – 55 percent –reported that there were fewer job opportunities than they thought there would be.

A significant proportion of Ukrainian refugees surveyed – 59 per cent – indicated that they might be compelled to return home even if this is not their preferred choice due to the ongoing war, if they continue to face challenges in host countries, mainly related to work opportunities and legal status.

Previous reports showed that refugees with specific needs and vulnerabilities, including older people and those with disabilities, are also considering returning, primarily due to a perceived lack of other remaining options.

The report says the Ukraine refugee crisis is characterised by a large instance of family separation – with many male family members remaining in Ukraine.

This creates challenges for those forced to flee the country and those left behind, without family support and the report says that family reunification was a main driver for refugees who have returned home permanently.

More refugees are now undertaking short-term visits to Ukraine – some 50 per cent compared to 39 per cent last year – mainly to visit family members, but also to check on property.

The UNHCR has urged host States to keep flexible approaches to refugees’ short-term visits to Ukraine, and that refugees’ legal status and associated rights in a host country are not affected by visits lasting less than three months.

“The protection and needs of refugees must be ensured until they can voluntarily and sustainably return home, in safety and dignity,” the agency said.

“As long as the war continues, refugees, internally displaced and war-affected people who have remained in frontline areas require urgent support. While the resilience of people remains strong and recovery efforts are well underway in many areas, this must continue to be supported or the protection and resilience of the Ukrainians will be jeopardized,” it said.

UNHCR is appealing for $US993.3 million – $US599 million for inside Ukraine and the remainder to support refugees in host countries.

It says its work in Ukraine is currently only 13 per cent funded. Unless timely funding is received, it may be forced to cut essential activities in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries.

“The people of Ukraine, living daily with the impacts of this war, must not be forgotten. We have seen a massive outpouring of solidarity with and support for Ukraine and this much-needed support cannot stop now,” the UN’s humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said recently.

Read the full UNHCR report: Lives on Hold: Intentions and perspectives of refugees, refugee returnees and internally displaced peoples from Ukraine