Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

Strangers in their own land: Displaced Ukrainians face uncertain future

In Kharkiv, frustration builds between locals and 140,000 displaced eastern Ukrainians

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Natalia Kuprina left the rebel-held city of Donetsk on May 27, the day after the first attack by separatists on the city’s modern airport left dozens dead and the mother of two trembling with fear about what might lie ahead.

She grabbed her 1-year-old, her teenage daughter and a few belongings and convinced a driver to take them north about 180 miles to Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine. When she arrived, she reached out to a network of others who had fled the fighting that was engulfing swaths of Ukraine. They helped her find space at Romashka, a rundown former Soviet Pioneer children’s camp on the outskirts of the city.

The conditions were rudimentary at best, but the 100 or so families already there were welcoming. Kuprina claimed a spot with her children in a dilapidated, wooden cabin at the camp. Built on a small hill in a rolling forested landscape popular with cross-country skiers and walkers, the camp had a relaxed atmosphere.

Romashka resident Natalia Kuprina, who fled Donetsk in May with her baby and teenage daughter.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

But there was no running water, no electricity and only an outhouse for toilets. The camp had never been winterized, and there were holes in some of the cabins’ roofs. Everyone just made the best of it because no one believed they would be there for more than a few weeks, Kuprina said.

That was nine months ago, and she and her family are still living at Romashka. They are trying to accept that they may need to begin calling Kharkiv home, she said. “It’s looking like we’re not going back to Donetsk anytime soon,” she said. “Even if we could, what would we go home to? There is nothing left of our street.”

Kuprina is one of more than 1 million registered internally displaced people, or IDPs, who have been uprooted by the violent conflict in Ukraine’s east. In the 10 months since the first wave of IDPs started flowing out of the rebel-held territories, the number of displaced in Ukraine has risen to the most in Europe since the Balkan wars.

The largest group, about 140,000, have fled to Kharkiv, a mostly Russian-speaking region that borders Russia to the north and the Donestk region to the south. Other cities like Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk and Zaphorizha have also received tens of thousands of IDPs. Another 600,000 people have fled the country, many to Russia. There are thousands more people displaced in Ukraine who haven't registered.

The number of IDPs is beginning to weigh heavily on Ukraine’s struggling economy. Near default when the military conflict began in April between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels, Ukraine’s economy has been weakened by the costs of the war. Each registered IDP who is able to work receives 440 Ukrainian hryvnia (about $15) a month in aid for two months.

International aid organizations and Ukrainian volunteer groups say the number of IDPs continues to grow, despite a Feb. 15 attempt at yet another cease-fire, which was agreed to by both sides but hasn’t halted the fighting that has destroyed vast areas of the country’s former industrial heartland.

Kharkiv Station on Karl Marx Street near downtown is a welcome center for IDPs and recent evacuees from the east. On a cold February morning, several dozen people stood in a line that snaked around a block as they waited for help and advice on where to find food, shelter and work. The center is run by a group of local volunteers, many of whom are IDPs themselves.

Inside the center, dozens more waited to speak to a consultant who could explain how to get registered with the Ministry of Social Policy, where and when they can receive humanitarian food and clothing packets, and the logistics of registering their children in the Kharkiv school system.

The thousands of IDPs are beginning to test the patience of war-weary Ukrainians, who faced high unemployment and inflation before the crisis began. With thousands of IDPs looking for jobs and housing, vacancies are scarce.

Some find temporary jobs in construction, grocery stores or day cares through postings at the IDP center or online listings. The pay isn’t much, but it helps many get back on their feet, said Olga Kianovskaya, 26, who evacuated the Luhansk region in May, settled in Kharkiv and now volunteers at the station’s job search center.

“It’s harder for the older generations because they aren’t as willing to let go of what they’ve left behind,” she said. “For my generation, we have more of a positive attitude to our prospects.”

Discrimination against IDPs is increasingly becoming a problem among the frustrated Kharkiv locals, she said. Everyone in Ukraine is feeling the economic crunch, as the Ukrainian hryvnia has lost 50 percent of its value and inflation continues to rise.

Online postings for rental apartments often add a clause at the end of the property description reading “refugees need not apply.”

Irina Protsenko, left, and Natalia Kuprina search online for updates about their neighborhood in Donetsk.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

“Every real estate agent tells me no one will rent to me because I’m a refugee,” Kuprina said. Agents and property owners are afraid that IDPs won’t be able to pay rent, and Ukraine’s legal system will not protect landlords who need to evict them, she said.

So for now, she and her children are stuck at Romashka. The conditions of the camp have improved significantly since she arrived; a Polish charity has sponsored rebuilding and winterizing the camp buildings. Her 82-year-old father-in-law and her husband, who is often gone for days on construction jobs but earns a good salary, have joined them. The five of them share two small rooms and use a communal shower down the hall.

Volunteers and other IDPs prepare and serve two hot meals a day for the residents in a common dining room with long tables. There's a good Internet connection on a few shared computers, which are often occupied by kids playing video games.

The population there has grown to about 250, ranging in age from infants to late 80s. Children can take buses to their new schools, where they go to class with locals. When school lets out in the afternoon, their mothers walk up a snow-packed tree-lined dirt road to the main highway to meet their children as they get off the bus.

Then there’s dinner and homework and bathing the little ones before the men return from construction jobs or whatever other short-term work they can find.

“Basically, you can live here. The services are good, and everyone helps one another,” Kuprina said. “But it’s not home. And we all just want to go home at some point.”

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