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The Displaced

Ukrainians struggle to start over

Nataliya Menshykova never imagined fleeing her home would help fulfill a dream: running her own theater.

Once an actress and theater director in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, she re-entered the theater in Lviv six months after arriving there in April 2014, intent on doing what she knows best. Eventually, she collaborated with a war veteran to establish a theater troupe consisting of other internally displaced Ukrainians.

“Theater is a form of therapy, I want to help others. It’s better than giving to yourself.”

Theater, she says, is about people. “People need the theater. There’s a war in the country, yet the children grow older. They need … some kind of example. They need to understand there are people in the country they could take after.”

Ms. Menshykova is one of the 10,000 people who have migrated to the city of Lviv in western Ukraine from Crimea and the villages and cities in Ukraine’s two easternmost regions, where a nearly three-year war has raged with Russian-backed separatists. Overall, about 1.7 million people have been displaced to other parts of Ukraine — the largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II.

In Lviv, most of the internally displaced persons, or I.D.P.s, have arrived with few belongings. Some are now adjusting to the fact they might not be able to move back to their homes for another five years, if ever.

“Frustration is very high. There’s no clear end in sight. That’s what I hear over and over again,” says Barbara Manzi, head of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kiev.

Displaced people, she says, need help to “move on with their lives.”

Moving on, however, is fraught with challenges. Some of the displaced need counseling as they or family members suffer from posttraumatic stress disorders. Many face unemployment or underemployment, and require legal assistance to restore identity and financial documents.

Fitting in also is a struggle.

“They speak Russian,” says Maksym Bondarenko of Caritas Ukraine, the charity of the Catholic churches in Ukraine headquartered in Lviv. This alarms the local people, he continues, as it reminds them of the Soviet Union’s annexation of the region from Poland in the wake of World War II. “The I.D.P.s are thus associated with being pro-Russians.”

A mother of two sons, Ms. Menshykova, 42, can attest to feeling as an outcast at times.

“An elderly lady asked me why I came to Lviv,” she recounts, suggesting she should have remained in Crimea because “the Russians pay higher wages and eventually pensions.”

Indeed, the Ukrainian government has made life more difficult for refugees in February 2016, when it suspended social payments to some 600,000 displaced people, many of them pensioners and usually the primary breadwinner of their families.

Ms. Menshykova’s theater, called Domus (Latin for “home”) is partly aimed at making people feel welcome.

“We have plays for adults and children,” she says. “I want everyone to feel at home here.”

In many ways, her story is that of so many displaced Ukrainians who are still struggling to fit in far from home. Yet, they are finding both help and hope through church institutions doing exactly what Nataliya Menshykova tries to do with her theater: help people feel at home.

For Nataliya Menshykova, the 682-mile journey to Lviv began in April 2014, a month after Russia annexed Crimea.

“I love freedom,” she says, explaining why she fled.

“I didn’t need to be ‘saved’ by someone,” she adds, referring to a narrative used to justify Russian annexation. “My children are Ukrainian and so am I.”

She packed two suitcases and a computer and took her two sons, now 23 and 14, to the only institution she trusted: the hospital where her younger son had been treated for a chronic heart disease.

Two weeks after she arrived, Caritas gave her “immediate relief,” she says, paying her rent and supplying her family with food. Caritas also raised over $1,000 to hire a French surgeon to fly in and conduct a complicated, life-saving heart procedure for her son. Ms. Menshykova had met Maksym Bondarenko of Caritas at a roundtable discussion for Crimean refugees together with local social policy officials.

Through a variety of programs, with mostly Western funding — through partners such as CNEWA — Caritas has provided assistance to nearly 300,000 people since April 2014, when the armed uprising in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine began. Last year, over $16 million was raised for outreach programs, which include acceptance and rehabilitation efforts.

Displaced people who chose to relocate to Lviv and other western regions tend to have more “pro-Ukrainian or pro-European views,” says Mr. Bondarenko of those impacted by the war in the east.

“Those who choose western Ukraine … weren’t afraid to come here,” he says, alluding to the stereotypes of the region as home to “rabid nationalists.”

Ms. Menshykova acknowledges that adjusting to life in Lviv was not easy. For six months she washed office floors. The average Ukrainian only earns about $200 a month, partly the result of the country’s economy shrinking by more than 15 percent since 2013. In that same period, Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, has lost more than two-thirds of its value relative to the U.S. dollar, and domestic prices have doubled.

Churches have tried to help. Greek Catholic churches have for more than a year ended their liturgies with prayers for people who are suffering because of the war — especially the displaced — as a way to raise awareness of their plight.

Caritas hopes to harness the influence of churches to further promote human welfare, especially in western Ukraine.

The Rev. Serhiy Kulbaka, a Greek Catholic priest, reaches out to war veterans and displaced families suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

The jovial Father Kulbaka, 45, lives in a monastery in Lviv while serving a parish from a wooden church on the north end of the city. But his journey to this point has been long and arduous — a journey of abduction, captivity and suffering that nearly cost him his life.

He was the first priest to be taken captive in the Donbas war. A group calling itself the Russian Orthodox Army abducted him on 4 July 2014, when he was on his way to his small Greek Catholic parish in Donetsk.

He feared for the safety of his parishioners left behind, and for his own life. A diabetic, he spent 12 days in solitary confinement, often blindfolded.

“They asked me what would happen if I stop taking my medicine,” he recalls. “I said I would die, so they confiscated my drugs. They started only feeding me white bread, which causes blood sugar spikes.”

Father Kulbaka says he endured mock executions for three consecutive days during the ordeal.

At one point, a gun was fired next to his ear while he was praying the Lord’s Prayer. He could feel the heat from the smoking barrel. He fainted.

“Their goal was to humiliate, break and frighten me,” he explains.

His captors finally released him on 16 July 2014. He says he was consumed by two emotions: hate and fear.

“Had I been given an automatic rifle and my captors stood before me,” he says soberly, “I would’ve shot them all.”

Taken to a Kiev hospital to recuperate, he was in a diabetic coma with a dangerously high blood sugar level.

For three days neither his blood pressure nor sugar level would normalize.

He then meditated upon his priesthood. At first he couldn’t find the strength to even pray, let alone “love or bless” someone. He realized his emotions were eating away at him.

“It was a different form of imprisonment,” he says. “So I forced myself to pray.”

“It finally worked on the third day. … It was a miracle in a sense. My health started to vastly improve. When I reached this feeling of deliverance, of being in total serenity, my blood pressure and sugar level normalized.”

After recovering at a monastery for three weeks, he traveled to Lviv. Last year, he suffered a stroke, which further debilitated him. Now, having regained much of his strength, he serves a new flock, focusing on displaced families.

“I now harbor no negative emotions towards my captors — I would embrace them if I saw them. I pity them because I understand that their state of being wasn’t normal. I absolutely forgave them. God freed me from all this so I want to give back,” Father Kulbaka explains.

“What lies ahead, I don’t know. Where will I grow old if I don’t go back [to Donetsk]? Where’s my parish, where’s my place? This uncertainty is terrifying,” he says.

The protracted conflict has posed particular challenges to priests. Caritas Ukraine vice president, the Rev. Andriy Nahirnyak, says his aim is to serve every person, regardless of their attitude or social standing, and to “ensure our help isn’t interpreted as proselytizing.”

As the war has lengthened, Caritas has adjusted its services’ timeframes.

“Our assistance is more systemic now, geared toward more long-term efforts,” says the priest, who also heads the Greek Catholic Church’s social services department. “This war will be with us for many years to come in the form of posttraumatic stress disorder. People are fatigued, including priests. The official position of the church is to be open, help and meet to face to face.”

Although Caritas already has a rehabilitation program employing psychologists, it also wants to involve teachers — often the best positioned to work with displaced children and parents experiencing stress from displacement or witnessing violence.

Some of the displaced, such as the Didos family from Yenakieve in the Donetsk region, have chosen not to register as internally displaced. After shelling destroyed their neighborhood, Yevheniya, 30, and Andriy Didos, 31, fled to Lviv in August 2014. As with Nataliya Menshykova, they knew the city because one of their three children had received treatment there for a cleft palate.

They also chose it for being open and sharing the “same values as we,” Mrs. Didos says. She occasionally attends Greek Catholic liturgies with new friends, despite her family’s Orthodox faith.

“It’s not just about Easter Sunday, it’s about communion, family and God,” she adds.

Still, they have faced discrimination. A former biology teacher, Mrs. Didos says realtors would often either refuse to rent to her family, or offer living space at above-market rates.

“They think people from Donbas are brazen, and would inquire why my husband wasn’t fighting in the east,” she explains.

Caritas has helped the family enroll one of their children in a day care center, has provided money for medicine and has offered counseling to help them adjust.

A trained electrician, Mr. Didos now drives a taxi in Lviv.

They live in a temporary shelter at a Jesuit Refugee Service house and have only three months left.

About two-thirds of the displaced will remain so for the next five years, says Maksym Bondarenko of Caritas. Heorhiy Tuka, Ukraine’s deputy minister of Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced People, provided similar estimates. And as the war stretches on, some may never return home.

“The more people from the countryside get to urban areas, the less inclined they are to go back. Things change. It’s a matter of hope,” the U.N.’s Ms. Manzi says.

Thus, what the displaced now face is a recalibration of self-identification, according to Caritas rehabilitation expert and sociologist Oksana Ivankova-Stetsyuk.

This entails choosing a life strategy, she explains. “If, before, many hoped to return home soon, today they’re undergoing an existential crisis,” she says. “People now are realizing their displacement isn’t temporary, but is an indefinite displacement and they have to live here.”

According to U.N. data, in 2016 many of the approximately 200,000 displaced people who did return home did so because they could not afford living in government-controlled areas. For many, their savings had dried up and they could not find sustainable livelihoods. Some went back because fighting had subsided.

Theater director Ms. Menshykova has no plans to return to Crimea.

She says she’s attained everything she ever wanted in Lviv. Her wishes have become more modest after having co-founded her theater.

“The wonderful gift I have now, I received from God and my mother,” she says. “I know how to love, and to love in general: nature, train stations at night, music, animals, dumplings, my country and even people. Dreams come true, but you have to carefully formulate them.”

Mark Raczkiewycz is the Kiev correspondent for the New Jersey-based The Ukrainian Weekly. He is the former editor at large of the Kyiv Post in Ukraine, and his work has appeared in the The Financial Times, Bloomberg News, The Irish Times and Jane’s Intelligence.

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