While everyone has their own reasons for returning, patterns emerge in their stories. For the women, many with young children, they say that finding work and lodging abroad has been impossible. After sleeping in train stations or refugee centers with hundreds of strangers for weeks, many decide that staying in the European Union long-term is unfeasible even if it may be safer. “We are not rich. We must have work and an affordable place to live,” one woman traveling back to Ukraine told me. Ukrainian authorities estimate that about 50,000 people a day are returning to their homes, despite continued shelling and warnings from local officials in cities like Kyiv urging people not to return home.
For the men, they say they have a duty to return to fight. Many had been working in the EU in factories or as long-haul drivers. As workers from the poorest country in Europe, many Ukrainian workers took whatever jobs that were offered to them, often considered undesirable by local workers. For many, this made the decision to return to Ukraine a simple one.
On the train to Lviv, Sasha, a 31-year-old factory worker who asked not to use his last name for security reasons, told me that the decision to return to Ukraine was the only choice that made any sense to him. “Ukraine is my only real home,” he said. “I must defend it with my life.”
Since 2015 Sasha had been working abroad in factories before settling in a Hungarian town close to the Austrian border two and a half years ago. At a manufacturing plant, he helped make parts for items ranging from dishwashers to cars. The work was hard and poorly paid, but he had few options. He was from Mariupol, an eastern port city that has been on the front lines of the war with Russia since 2014. The war made finding work impossible, so he went to Hungary. Like thousands of other young people, he left Ukraine. After Russia invaded on February 24, he lost contact with his family and has been unable to reach them since March 2. He and a friend from Mariupol who also worked in the same Hungarian factory headed for Przemyśl, and then onto Ukraine. After a six-day journey, he said he arrived in Donbas on Ukraine’s eastern front lines and was greeted with a salute.
Sasha is just one of tens of thousands of men that headed back to Ukraine. On March 5, Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov announced that over 66,000 men had returned. Since then, many more, perhaps as many as half a million, have gone back to fight. While nearly all are motivated by sense of patriotism and duty, many leave little behind when they choose to return to Ukraine.
For Ukrainians like Sasha that left in the wake of the first Russian invasion in 2014, life abroad has been an opportunity for survival. Since 2014, Ukrainian refugees have faced exploitative wages and conditions as they filled labor gaps across Europe. In Poland, which has taken in nearly 3 million refugees from Ukraine since the war began, animosity toward Ukrainians had surged prior to the war. According to one survey by Poland’s human rights ombudsman, in 2016 and 2017 there were an estimated 44,000 hate crimes against Ukrainians in the Małopolska region in southern Poland.
Artur Takhvatulin, a 30-year-old carpenter who had been working in Vienna, traveled home to Kyiv in mid-March. He said his whole family was still there, along with his girlfriend and everyone else who was important to him. “It was shit work,” he said of his job in Vienna. He did not regret that he was leaving the safety of Austria behind him. Upon arriving in Kyiv, he said, he was turned away from working with the territorial defense only because they had enough men to fight but not enough supplies or weapons to keep everyone occupied. He still wanted to make himself useful, and so he joined efforts to distribute food and supplies to others in need.
But for every person deciding to go back, there are many more that have decided to stay abroad. According to the statistical office of the European Union, at the end of 2020, 1.35 million Ukrainians were legally authorized to stay in the EU. The number of Ukrainians without valid residence permits is thought to have been even higher, with some sources in 2019 citing 2 million Ukrainians estimated in Poland alone.
Since 2016, Oleksii Novoseltsev, a 27-year-old IT worker, has lived in Krakow with his wife, who moved for her university studies in 2013. They both have well-paying jobs, and live in a modern building not far from central Krakow with their 3-month-old daughter Olivia and their golden retriever Kevin, named after the Home Alone protagonist. They are both from a town just 30 kilometers from Crimea. Russian troops shelled and occupied their town in the earliest days of the invasion. They soon began hearing reports that Russian troops were shooting civilians. When Novoseltsev could not reach his family for three days, he seriously considered going back to fight.
“It is really difficult because I really want to go home, and I really want to defend our country. But at the same time, I have a wife, and I have a daughter,” he said. “If I go, I will not be able to return to Poland until the war is over. Or I may die there. Who can help my family if I am gone?”
When Novoseltsev was finally able to reach his family, he told his mother that he would return. His mother immediately called his wife and begged her to convince him not to come back. Novoseltsev ultimately decided to stay in Krakow and help refugees coming to Poland, but could not shake the feelings of guilt and helplessness. “A lot of young men go back because they don’t have a family to look after, and they are dying,” he said. “This decision and this situation eats you up from the inside.”
Novoseltsev believes that he made the right decision by staying. He has since heard that the Ukrainian Army is not lacking volunteer soldiers. He now feels he can help more with the life he has built in Krakow. Especially if his family is eventually able to escape, he feels he can welcome them to safety in Poland.
Despite everything, both Takhvatulin and Sasha hope to go abroad again. Even if Ukraine wins the war, they hope for a future that a war-torn country simply cannot provide. “Of course, I have dreams. I still want to find my love, have children, and open my own little steak house,” Sasha said. But these dreams felt far away even before the war. Now, he said, it only makes sense to be home.