Strangers in the Homeland

Strangers in the Homeland

LVIV, Ukraine — Every morning, "Oleg from Donetsk" — as he introduces himself on the phone — turns on the TV and flicks through the channels nervously, taking in the news from eastern Ukraine. Now and then, the middle-aged man pauses to take in the view from the guesthouse window, which looks onto an imposing 17th-century church. "I’ve never been to Lviv during the summer, only at Christmas," he says in Russian.  "It’s rather nice here."

In Lviv, on Ukraine’s western edge, near the border with Poland, displaced people from the Donbass region in the east and the southern peninsula of Crimea seem to be around every corner. They are staying in hotels and private apartments and in tourist chalets and sanatoria in the nearby Carpathian Mountains. Some have quickly made their mark on the local landscape: In a courtyard just off Lviv’s main square, a restaurant founded by a family of Crimean Tatars who arrived recently from Feodosia, on the Black Sea coast, is busy serving up traditional Crimean meat dishes, dumplings, and baklava.

"During over 20 years of independence, we didn’t imagine that we would suddenly have new neighbors who speak Russian and don’t understand the Galician dialect," a TV presenter in Lviv said, introducing a report on the refugees. In Lviv, which has a reputation as a stronghold of Ukrainian national identity, the arrival of Russian-speaking skhidnyaky (from skhid, Ukrainian for "east") is having social repercussions disproportionate to the actual number of people arriving. With men from western Ukraine fighting and dying in the east in the battle against Russian-backed separatist rebels, some locals resent their presence. At the same time, some activists working with refugees in Lviv argue that the recent arrivals are helping to dismantle Ukrainians’ stereotypes about each other.

The conflict in the east has pushed the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine to 117,000, according to estimates by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). On Aug. 18, a convoy carrying refugees was hit by rocket fire near the eastern city of Luhansk, killing 17.

From the way they are discussed on television and social media, it would seem that Lviv is flooded with IDPs. But with around 1,800 people having arrived from the Donbass region and another 2,000 from Crimea, Lviv is far behind Kharkiv (which is now home to an additional 28,000 IDPs from the east) and Kiev (which has taken in roughly 10,000), though it stands out from other regions in Ukraine’s west. It is also the only region where there are more refugees from Crimea than the east. According to Lviv’s local authorities, around a third of the IDPs from the east are men of working age — and therefore potential soldiers.

Lviv isn’t an obvious place for Russian-speakers to call home, even temporarily. Decades of Soviet (and now Russian) propaganda have presented western Ukraine as a hotbed of fascism, inhabited by "Banderites," a reference to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist leader from World War II.

"We don’t want to be Russians; we want to be Ukrainians," Kerim, a Crimean Tatar who had just arrived from Simferopol, told me in March. Politics aside, most IDPs are just seeking safety from a conflict that has already killed over 2,086 people, according to estimates by the U.N. human rights office that it admits are "very conservative." 

"We don’t make money from people’s misfortune" is a line often heard in western Ukraine in relation to the newcomers. For the most part, the conflict’s IDPs have been greeted with incredible generosity, receiving lodging (often for free) and other assistance from the local authorities, NGOs, and ordinary people. Evidence of that is everywhere: A young couple in Lviv hosted a family of five Crimean Tatars in their living room. A friend of mine abroad on a scholarship has strangers from the east staying in his vacant flat for free.

As Ukraine lacks a central registration system for its IDPs, arrangements are often ad hoc. In Lviv, the Civic Sector of Maidan, an alliance of civil society organizations that started coordinating efforts during the protests last winter, took on the task of finding housing for displaced people. It developed a network of apartments in Lviv during the protests in Kiev, using them to shelter wounded protesters, including some from the east who were unable to go home for fear of political persecution.

But despite Lviv’s hospitality, not all locals are enthusiastic about their new neighbors. Their reaction to people from the Donbass is cool compared with the warm welcome the earlier wave of refugees from Crimea — including many Crimean Tatars — received when they started to arrive in March.

With a war raging in Ukraine’s east, male refugees are the focus of this suspicion. "Why are so many men being mobilized from western Ukraine while ‘poor’ refugees from the east are drinking beer in the Carpathian Mountains?" Volodymyr Parasyuk, a self-defense fighter from the Lviv region who rose to prominence during the protests in Kiev, wrote mockingly on his Facebook page. This attitude isn’t universal, but it’s one that has found a vocal outlet on social media.

Some hotels in Lviv, which have been hosting IDPs for free, are now refusing to let men in. In Sambir, a small town some 45 miles southeast of Lviv, residents even blocked the local draft office to protest the fact that male refugees in the area weren’t being sent to fight in the east.

The Lviv police have taken notice. "When big men who could defend their land arrive, they will face questions," the head of the Lviv police force told a radio station recently. There’s an ongoing debate in western Ukraine about whether male IDPs should be sent to fight in the government’s "anti-terrorist operation" in the east, like other Ukrainian men.

Some have volunteered for the army themselves. In western Ukraine, a few dozen IDPs from the east and Crimea joined a Carpathian battalion of the National Guard. But they remain a minority overall. 

Occasionally, locals’ coolness to their new neighbors extends to women who, along with children, make up the majority of refugees from the east. The men often stay to watch over their homes. Whether they are fighting — and on which side of the conflict — is anybody’s guess.

In Lviv, Nataliya, the young wife of a Ukrainian officer fighting in the Donbass, told me that she resents "separatists’ wives" taking advantage of their generosity. "But no one from Lviv would ever insult those people," she added quickly, at once proud and embittered by her city’s hospitality.

This resentment is dangerous, insists Oleg Koliasa, who has been coordinating refugee action in Lviv at the Civic Sector of Maidan. There are nationalist forces in western Ukraine that are eager to spread hostility toward people from the east, he warns.

Koliasa has been trying to combat the stereotypes people from eastern and western Ukraine have about each other. People from Ukraine’s west, which was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was not incorporated into the Soviet Union until 1945, tend to look down on people from the Donbass. But things have changed dramatically for the better over the past year, he adds. The protests on Kiev’s Independence Square brought together both Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers, and Russian is now increasingly heard on the streets of Lviv.

"If Lviv takes more people from the east, it’s good for the future of Ukraine," Koliasa concludes optimistically. It’s a view that many locals would agree with, but too often it is drowned out by negative voices, which have been more vocal.

With the new school year around the corner and winter approaching fast, Lviv’s regional authorities have called the situation with IDPs "more or less stable." Local activists are less convinced; they have been taking in people since March and have exhausted most of their resources. "Our officials think more about PR than actual solutions," says Koliasa.

Meanwhile, Lviv’s new inhabitants have been getting on with their lives. By mid-July, 17 babies had been born into IDP families across the region, with a few dozen more on their way. On Sept. 1, 118 children from the east or Crimea will start school or preschool in Lviv, where the school year will begin in the shadow of the fighting in the Donbass.

The first lesson’s theme will be "Ukraine: A United Country." Children will learn about the country’s integrity and the importance of a sense of belonging to Ukraine (while respecting the traditions of Ukrainians and other nationalities living in the country). This crash course in Ukrainian patriotism aims to "prevent the troubles that we have today," Lviv’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, told the local media. "We need to work for the future."

Meanwhile, growing numbers of easterners will rub shoulders with their western compatriots in the streets, trams, and cafes of Lviv, in what could be the start of a long life together.