A Year of War

Ukrainian refugees struggle to adapt to a new economic reality

Stephen Beard Feb 14, 2023
Heard on:
Ukrainian refugees stand in line to attend a job fair in Brooklyn on Feb. 1. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images
A Year of War

Ukrainian refugees struggle to adapt to a new economic reality

Stephen Beard Feb 14, 2023
Heard on:
Ukrainian refugees stand in line to attend a job fair in Brooklyn on Feb. 1. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Apart from the continuing death and destruction it has caused, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has also unleashed the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. More than 8 million Ukrainians have fled the country and have been scattered across Europe and North America. 

For the displaced individuals and families, it has been a vast human tragedy but also a massive economic dislocation: Most of the refugees have to strive hard to make ends meet.  

Take 38-year-old Tetiana Stetsina, who fled the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa with her terrified 10-year-old son two days after the invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. She is now living as a refugee in the United Kingdom and cannot help but dwell on the economic upheaval in her life.

“I try to be positive, but of course what happened still hurts. You have your life. And then, one second later, you don’t have anything that you had before,” Stetsina said.

She had been running a corset-making business but closed the company when the war began, fearing the worst. She loaded her car with a few possessions — including a sewing machine, a steam iron and some rolls of dressmaking material — and headed for the border with Moldova.

Today, she is safely ensconced in a small rented house near the English city of Oxford, and she is reviving her business.

Tetiana Stetsina is in a cardigan and blue jeans and sitting on a white sofa. She holds a white, handmade corset.
Tetiana Stetsina with one of her corsets. (Mimisse Beard/Marketplace)

“It was a very successful business. We couldn’t keep up with demand. I think very soon it will be the same again,” she said.  

Brave words. She is still only doing about 10% of her pre-war trade, but with financial help from a small  British refugee charity called Opora, which translates to “support” in Ukrainian, Stetsina has reemployed her eight workers in Odesa and is selling her products online to customers in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ukraine. She believes that by April, she may be able to take a salary from the business. Until then, she is refusing to touch a penny of the welfare benefit that is on offer in the U.K.

“The U.K. government did a lot for us. English people are the best people. I use my savings to support me and my son,” she said. “I don’t need more help.”

That self-reliance and work ethic has been evident elsewhere. In Poland, which is hosting the lion’s share of Ukrainian refugees at around 1.5 million, there has been great success assimilating Ukrainians into the local labor force, according to Pawel Kaczmarczyk, professor of economics at the University of Warsaw and director of the university’s Center of Migration Research.

“The data looks quite impressive,” he said. “Those people who arrived since the war started, around 60% of them are already active in the Polish labor market. Also, in the last year, we had a record-breaking number of Ukrainian companies being set up in Poland” — more than 10,000.  

Kaczmarczyk points out the contrast with the situation in Germany, which has taken in just over a million Ukrainian refugees and has integrated far fewer than 60% into the workforce.

“It seems that, in the case of Germany, this share is much, much lower — below 20%, around 17% or so,” he said.

Kaczmarczyk suggested a couple of possible explanations. Poland already had a very large Ukrainian expatriate population, which could make life a bit easier for the refugees. Language could also be a key factor; Ukrainian is much closer to the Polish language than it is to German. 

In the U.K., mastery of the language has certainly been an important factor in helping refugee Yana Smaglo find her feet.  

Yana Smaglo stands in front of a storefront display window with a mannequin to her side. She is wearing blackpants, with a denim shorts accessory and white shirt. The mannequin behind her, facing out, wears a neon jacket with one poofy pink sleeve. Behinder Smaglo is a light up sign that says "Nenya."
Yana Smaglo at her pop-up shop. “I don’t want to spend another eight years building up businesses to find they disappear overnight again.” (Courtesy Nenya)

“I can speak English. Not really good,“ she laughed. “But I can express myself, at least.”  

Smaglo, 30, fled Ukraine as soon as the war started, leaving behind some profitable fashion businesses. She arrived in the U.K. with virtually nothing last March; today, she has a couple of pop-up shops and a website selling Ukrainian womenswear.

Her business, called Nenya, is making a profit. But she concedes that many of her fellow Ukrainian refugees — of which there are more than 150,000 in the U.K. — have struggled because their English isn’t good enough or because their qualifications are not recognized.

“If you’re a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer in Ukraine, you can’t work as a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor here,” she said. “Such people have a hard life here. They can’t have the same level of life they had before.”  

She said that 90% of the Ukrainian refugees she’s met in the U.K. want to go home after the war. But as a young, unattached entrepreneur who has already lost one set of businesses in Ukraine, Smaglo does not share that aspiration.  

“We haven’t any guarantee that even after the war, they’re not going to do it again. The Russians invade again,” she said. “We’re really unlucky with the neighbor, really. I don’t want to spend another eight years building up businesses to find they disappear overnight again.”

Mo Hornik of the MAD — or Make a Difference — Foundation, which has been helping Ukrainian refugees find asylum abroad, sympathizes with Yana Smaglo’s reluctance to consider going home.

Mo Hornik sits at a table pointing at paper work with a Ukrainian refugee family — a mother, a young adult daughter and an infant.
Mo Hornik, right, of the MAD Foundation, helping Ukrainian refugees resettle. (Courtesy MAD Foundation)

“Even if the war were to stop tomorrow, the infrastructure, the job opportunities, the life people can have — particularly in the eastern regions — may not be that great,” she said. “It’s going to be years and years and years before they can be rebuilt and made a safe and welcoming environment to bring your family up in.”

Much depends on the length of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. The longer it goes on, the more damage it does, the more that Ukrainian refugees will acclimatize to their new surroundings — and perhaps feel they’re better off in exile.

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