ESCAPE FROM UKRAINE

By Vincent Lyn

Here with Ustyna in New York City

An ongoing refugee crisis began in Europe in late February 2022 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than 7.4 million refugees have since left Ukraine, while an estimated 8 million people have been displaced within the country by May 3rd. Approximately one-quarter of the country’s total population had left their homes in Ukraine by March 20th. 90% of Ukrainian refugees are women and children. By March 24th more than half of all children in Ukraine had left their homes, of whom a quarter had left the country. The invasion caused Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II and its aftermath, is the first of its kind in Europe since the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, and is the largest refugee crisis of the 21st century, with the highest refugee flight rate globally.

The vast majority of refugees directly entered neighboring nations to the west of Ukraine. Poland has received 3.9 million refugees from Ukraine. Other countries neighboring Ukraine that have received refugees are Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and Slovakia. Some refugees then moved further west to other European countries and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere. However, observers note that most are likely to stay in Poland and other countries in Central Europe because “tight labor markets, affordable cities and a pre-existing diaspora have made those countries more appealing alternatives for Ukrainians, who find options slimmer in Europe’s west.”

European Union (E.U) countries bordering Ukraine have allowed entry to all Ukrainian refugees, and the E.U has invoked the Temporary Protection Directive which grants Ukrainians the right to stay, work, and study in any European Union member state for an initial period of one year. Some non-European and Romani people have reported ethnic discrimination at the border.

Before the invasion, the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the war in the Donbas, both of which are aspects of the Russo-Ukrainian War, had already resulted in at least two million refugees and internally displaced persons since 2014. They have been referred to as Europe’s forgotten refugees by some media, due to their cool reception in the European Union, comparatively low asylum claim success rate and media neglect.

More than a million of the pre-2022 refugees, mainly from Donbas, had gone to Russia between 2014 and 2016, while the number of people displaced within Ukraine had grown to 1.6 million people by early March 2016.

There are millions of personal stories of Ukrainians citizens having fled their homeland. Here is one such story: I recently met a Ukrainian citizen Ustyna 31 years-old and her seven year-old son Lavrin.

Ustyna, a clinical psychologist, grew up in Lviv, a city of nearly one million residents and the largest city in Western Ukraine. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, Ustyna was woken up by her buzzing cell phone with two calls one from a client and the other from her mother both in the capital city of Kyiv. As the bombings began, citizens all over Ukraine started panicking and like so many families Ustyna took her son to the countryside. Everyone was glued to the news, many in disbelief and in shock. After two days they both went back to Lviv. At the same time there was a mass exodus from Kyiv heading west towards Lviv, a journey by car that normally would take 7 hours grudgingly took now18 hours.

Ustyna and some friends arranged a shelter from an abandoned office building, posting on Instagram a safe haven for any incoming refugees from Eastern Ukraine. Four additional university students arrived from Kyiv to help out and immediately women and children started arriving. On day one it was 4, then 15, then 40 to the point that they were overwhelmed. Ustyna’s best friend, Anne, convinced her it was time to take her son and get out of Ukraine before it was too late, especially after hearing families in bomb shelters. It was no place she wanted her son to be stuck in and have to experience any pain and suffering caused by the bombardments. Being a clinical psychologist she knows all full well the trauma it will cause a young child.

And, with that the decision to leave their home, their family, their happy lives, what was safe now upended and thrown into complete disarray. On March 4th the perilous journey began for Ustyna and Lavrin. They left Lviv, crossed the border into Slovakia and luckily met a family who were driving to Vienna, where Ustyna had some friends and so she and her son spent one week there. Afterwards, they left Vienna and headed to Tenerife, Canary Islands and stayed for three weeks with friends.

Ustyna had been granted a U.S. visa as her father Ostap, a well known artist, was scheduled to have an exhibition gallery opening. The exhibition reception had been scheduled for June 1st 2022 at Saphira & Ventura Art Design Architecture, 4 West 43rd Street, New York, lasting from June 1st — June 13th. Ostap was granted dispensation to leave Ukraine for 30 days because under the present national law during wartime in Ukraine requires all able bodied men between the ages of 18–60 to remain and do their duty.

Ustyna’s son did not have a U.S. visa so they left Tenerife and headed back to Vienna and waited three weeks while the U.S. Embassy issued Lavrin a visa. Immediately after, they moved to Italy, a small town near Venice for one week eventually settling in Como, Italy for three more weeks with a family who were hosting Ukrainian refugees. On May 27th, they flew from Milan to New York and are presently staying with my friends in Manhattan who have an AirBnB. Ustyna and Lavrin were going to stay another 6 weeks in NYC but she changed her mind and will head back to Italy on June 22nd. She feels more comfortable and culturally connected to Italy and it’s obviously much closer to Ukraine. Fortunately, Ustyna has been able to keep many of her clients and conduct therapy sessions remotely. In a perfect world Ustyna and Lavrin want to return to Ukraine but she will not until the war ends. No doubt she feels certain Ukraine will win. Let’s hope and pray for a quick and decisive victory!

As Ustyna told me, “Her and Lavrin are the lucky ones, compared to many of my friends and family who either didn’t make it out in time and had to remain, and are struggling with rapidly deteriorating conditions surviving each day hoping and praying they make it through the next day.”

Vincent Lyn

CEO at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Editor-in-Chief at Wall Street News Agency

Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts

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Vincent Lyn

Vincent Lyn

CEO-We Can Save Children. Director Creative Development-African Views Organization, ECOSOC at United Nations. International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)