Ukrainian migrant workers find it hard to adjust to the environment they find back home, so most go abroad again
Ukrainians work abroad for a variety of reasons ranging from poverty and unemployment to the desire to buy a house, pay for their children’s education or accumulate starting capital for a business. They often become hostage to their dreams. Investing in houses and apartments where they will hardly ever live or degrees for their children who cannot get a job later, they continually run out of money and have to earn more and more. After they return home to Ukraine, not all of them succeed in reviving their social connections or using the skills and experience gained abroad. As a result, many migrants who go abroad for a year or two eventually stay there for decades.
DREAMING OF HOME
Halyna Ursuliak left the US for a month-long stay in her native village of Drachyntsi in Chernivtsi Oblast. She orders windows and oversees the laying of tiles and plastering of the façade. Once she spends all her money, she will return to the US. Halyna is building a huge house with an adjoining garage.
“I want to live at home,” Halyna justifies her investment. “Even those who own a business in the US say they will work for a little while more and go back home. And when they see how people struggle to survive in Ukraine, they escape to the US again. It helps just to think that they have a home in Ukraine. Whenever people here call me American, I feel insulted. Not an inch of me feels American. We’ll return after we finish the house but we still need a lot of money.” It was the dream of home ownership that encouraged Halyna and her husband to go to the US and stay there for 11 years. “We couldn’t live with our parents, so we rented an apartment in Chernivtsi,” she explains. “I used to work at the local outdoor market. I was always cold and still wasn’t earning enough money, so we decided to go to the US to earn money for the house.” Their 18-month-old son Stanislav stayed with his grandparents in Ukraine. The next time his mother saw him, he was six years old. Americans do not understand how she could have left her child at home: “I really had a hard time there, but my husband told me that we would work for a year or two more and return home. That’s how five, seven and ten years passed. The migrants’ greatest fear is what to do after returning to Ukraine. They get used to having a stable income abroad.”
INVESTMENT IN EXPERIENCE
Oksana Prokopets’ parents who are still working in the US helped her open a store in the village of Drachyntsi where she works as a saleswoman. “I don’t want to go to the US again,” says Oksana who worked as a housekeeper in a small town in New Jersey. “I have my own house here, and everything else.”
Yaroslav Rudnytsky worked at a diary farm in Denmark for two years and in Sweden for one year. Now, he applies his Danish and Swedish expertise in Vydumka, a village in Zhytomyr Oblast. He started off renting land for five years and later purchased it. He used to grow carrots and potatoes on his 21 hectares but could not survive on the income, so he switched to forage crops. There is a cattle barn in the middle of the field and Yaroslav sells cheese, sour cream and milk. His dream is to deliver diary products to urban residential districts as they do in the US.
“I will stay at home for as long as I can,” he says. “I want to have my own hamlet here, a house, solar batteries, a pond and land, so that my children or another farmer could continue my cause after I die. Developing this business takes a lot of effort. In other countries, you can get advice on any matter. In Ukraine, you have to do everything on your own.”
Many former migrant workers take a risk and open their own business at home with the money they earned abroad. Oleksandr was among the first Ukrainian software developers who left for the West in pursuit of better income. After working at a London IT company for over five years, he returned to Kyiv in 2009 and opened his company. “I gained new experience abroad, both as a software developer, and a manager, so I decided I could use it to start a software development company at home,” he explains. USD 100,000 earned in the UK was enough to grow Oleksandr’s business into a company with an annual turnover of USD 50mn. However, he is now packing to go to London again, along with his business. Three months ago, a gang of “cool guys” visited Oleksandr. They said they were sent by “you know who” and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: Oleksandr would transfer 80% of his business to “you know who” and leave 20% and managerial functions for himself.
Oleksandr turned down the offer and the problems the “civilized raiders” promised to create for him. Tax inspectors recently confiscated all his hardware.
Pavlo spent years growing strawberries in the UK. Three years ago, he returned to Vinnytsia Oblast to apply his expertise. He rented several hectares of land to grow strawberries and expected his first big harvest this summer. In May, several tractors drove over his fields. Pavlo is sure that this was done at the behest of a local official whom he refused to bribe for extending the lease on his land. The official said he would lease it to another farmer if Pavlo did not pay him. Still, Pavlo is determined to fight: he hopes that the authorities in his village will change after the election.
Labour migrants who return to Ukraine often encounter unemployment or miserable income – yet again – therefore they risk coming home only when they grow old. “My wife and I worked in Russia for 13 years,” Mykola Artemenko from Smila, Cherkasy Oblast. “The poverty of the 1990s forced us to go abroad. We had to send our children to college and support our parents. We lived one life with no rights, just duties, there, and another life during our brief vacations at home. Whenever we visited our parents, all our friends told us never to go back to Ukraine because life was so hard here. But life in Russia was hard, too—just psychologically. We were nobody in Russia and Ukraine did not need us.”
After a while, the couple returned to Ukraine. The years they worked abroad were not counted toward their pension contribution period, yet they managed to get pensions eventually. “Everything changes,” Mykola’s wife, Olha, recollects. “We had barely seen our children and our parents had grown old while Ukraine’s economy had hardly improved. It was difficult for us to switch to a tiny pension after having a stable decent income. Despite a degree and many years of experience as engineer, I couldn’t find a job in my town after years of working aboard. The local employment centre offered difficult physical work with a miserable salary.”
Mykola failed to find a job, too, because of age restrictions and high unemployment. He says he would go abroad again, like he did 13 years ago, if he had to: “I don’t regret going there. We paid our children’s tuition, took care of our parents and repaired our house. But almost all men my age have died here, they drank a lot. I’m still alive and I don’t drink.”
Oleksiy returned to his hometown Rivne from Portugal in 2008, right before the crisis. He invested his earnings in a house he built and got a job at the RivneAzot nitrogen plant. His salary was much lower than in Portugal but he could still live on it. After Dmytro Firtash bought the plant, everything changed, Oleksiy claims. Now, the managers do not treat employees as people. The plant has turned into a ghetto: employees are searched and scolded. Any attempts to resist lead to firing. Once, employees got food poisoning at the local canteen. One of them demanded an investigation. The next day, she had no job. In the years Oleksiy spent in Europe, he got used to being treated decently as an employee and an individual, so he did not put up with the attitude in Ukraine. Now, he is packing again. His former employer in Porto will hire him back.
Labour migrants returning home from abroad will not necessarily have an opportunity to use the skills they learned at home, invest their earnings and start a successful life. Often, this is because of obstacles created by officials and the state. As a result, those who have Western expertise crucial for Ukraine cannot use it in practice. Just as before, they find themselves unneeded. Thus, it is no surprise that more and more Ukrainian children are joining their parents abroad.
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration